Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

Why has Rural Poverty in Afghanistan Got Worse? New AAN paper on post-2001 agricultural policy

Adam Pain 7 min

A new AAN paper seeks to understand why agricultural policy since 2001 has failed to increase production, lift rural Afghans out of poverty or secure their food supply. It finds the answers in the stories agricultural development planners tell themselves about how to ‘modernise’ agriculture, even as they ignore evidence from the field. AAN guest author Adam Pain (*) traces how planners have kept doggedly focussing on production, supply and markets, even as people in rural Afghanistan and research on markets and labour relations tell a different story, of lack of work and households locked into debt relations. Here, Adam Pain introduces his paper, “Growing Out of Poverty? Questioning agricultural policy in Afghanistan” which outlines what has not worked in the last two decades, and what might.

Casual labour in Badakhshan. Cash work, rather than income from agriculture, is key for many families in rural areas, but work is scarce. (Adam Pain 2011)Casual labour in Badakhshan. Cash work, rather than income from agriculture, is key for many families in rural areas, but work is scarce. (Adam Pain 2011)

The Helmand scheme . . . came under American supervision in 1946 and continued until the departure of the last reclamation expert in 1979, outlasting all the theories and rationales on which it was based. It was lavishly funded by U.S foreign aid, multilateral loans, and the Afghan government, and it was the opposite of piecemeal. It was an “integrated” development scheme, with education, industry, agriculture, medicine, and marketing under a single controlling authority. Nation building did not fail in Afghanistan for want of money, time, or imagination. In the Helmand Valley, the engines and dreams of modernization had run their full course, spooling out across the desert until they hit limits of physics, culture, and history. – Nick Cullather (1)

Rural development, of which agricultural development is an important part, is a genuinely uncertain activity. One of the ways that both policy makers, bureaucrats and practitioners deal with that uncertainty is to create stories or accounts that simplify that reality so that they can be clear about what they must do. In the 1950s it was all about river basin development. Now it is about liberal market development. The ‘will to improve’ (2) is enormous, the desire to claim success overwhelming and policy and practice proceeds often almost in defiance of what is happening on the ground.

So it has been in Afghanistan. I remember back in 2001 how quick policy makers from the international and bilateral agencies with little attention to the past were to formulate the solutions they thought were needed to respond to how they saw the problems and needs of Afghanistan. Of course the solutions were largely framed in terms of what were seen to be the deficiencies and ‘lacks’ of Afghanistan. It was not difficult to construct a policy story whereby Afghanistan’s largely rural economy – at least that is where most people live – would provide the means by which Afghanistan would be economically transformed through market based agriculture and poverty reduced.

The story drew its rationale by an appeal to history, both distant and recent, of how other countries had undergone such transformations in the past. All Afghanistan had to do, the narrative went, was to follow that route – except that it was a very simplified history and account and more of a case of ‘do as we say’ rather ‘than do as we did’ or even ‘as we do’. The policy instruments used in the past by the west, and more recently in particular Asian countries, included a whole range of tariff barriers, investments in public goods, and public support to agriculture. Western countries still protect and subsidise their agriculture. Yet Afghanistan was expected to transform itself in the face of the full winds of free trade and global agricultural markets.

A village in Sar-e Pul that feels left behind, although nationwide, rural poverty rates have risen since 2001 (Adam Pain 2010)

A village in Sar-e Pul that feels left behind, although nationwide, rural poverty rates have risen since 2001 (Adam Pain 2010)

Not surprisingly, it has not worked. Agricultural productivity has not grown, or at least not it has not grown yet. Poverty and food insecurity rates in Afghanistan, however, have grown since 2002. Is it a case of try again, try again better and fail again better? Or is the policy story fundamentally wrong and we need a better one?

My answer to that question is that the policy story is wrong and we do need a better one. This is what this paper is about. It draws on long-term fieldwork in rural Afghanistan and critical engagement as a teacher in theories and evidence of agrarian change, rather than any specific engagement in the agricultural policy-making processes

Attempts to generalise about rural Afghanistan, of course, raise real challenges, given its diversity of cultural and geographical landscapes. It remains largely unknown, statistically: the absence of universal cadastral records, showing the extent, value and ownership of land, for example, reveals the limits of the state’s ability to make ‘legible’, to see and therefore tax, its rural population. Even knowledge of existing villages and their locations is patchy. Superimposed on this is an intervention landscape where multiple agencies and NGOs have meddled in village life, sometimes in contradictory ways, leaving few records and, often, few traces. A funding landscape where donors have favoured some provinces over others, leading to profoundly uneven allocation of resources, has compounded this heterogeneity.

So this paper has drawn its arguments from specific locations in seeking to develop a more general account of Afghanistan’s rural economy over the last 15 years or so. It has used a household panel approach drawing on an overall sample of over 300 households in different locations, a subset of which have been revisited over three rounds of study, held in 2003, 2009-10 and 2014-16. The locations have provided contrasts in terms of reconstruction funding, conflict, changing access to public goods and levels of inequality. In its final round, it included studies of village institutions and the navigation of economic life in key commodity markets.

The evidence from the field is compelling and consistent. Two key aspects are noted here. First are the accounts by informants – farmers from Sar-e Pul, Herat and Kandahar provinces – of the lack of work in agriculture:

First there is no work available in this village especially in winter time. If [a person] finds work at the village level it is not a regular job. They are able to find work for only up five days in a month in winter time. However, in summer time, jobs increase at the village level, but still it is only for two months and the wage is not sufficient. (3)

 [if I were to rank the income for people in the village] I would say working in Iran comes first, then working in construction .. and lastly agricultural income. We don’t have [so much] land in the village that people [can] totally depend on it. (4) 

The money sent… from Iran is the only source of income for the household. The harvest of wheat… is not sufficient for the household itself. From our lands, we get three kharwar [1 kharwar = 560kg] while our annual consumption is six, so we are buying three kharwar every year. (5)

Now the labour market has come down and about 65 per cent of people at the village level are free and they are not able to find work for themselves. About eight years ago, this percentage was about 10 per cent , and these 10 per cent  people were busy in agriculture activities at the village level. The other 90 per cent  of people were busy in work outside of the village. (6)

The second aspect of evidence from the field speaks to the nature of rural poverty: households locked into debt relations, forms of debt bondage and patron-client relationships offering dependent security and not much else.

People have to continue with the jamadar [labour broker] for the next year as well… Therefore, continually, people are working in the brick kilns for the jamadar to cover their loan. (7)

If I do not cook their bread and my son does not graze their cow, they will take that house from us. After that, someone else will come and live here. Because there are a lot of people that want to have such an opportunity. (8) 

Thus, while one can often find in many but not all villages a few farmers with larger landholdings who are more market-oriented, in nearly all villages, most households have little or no land and cannot secure sufficient income either in kind from the harvest or agricultural work to feed their families. They are in a sense a ‘surplus ‘population, who will probably never find work in the rural economy and are deeply constrained in the choices they have. Evidence from the field shows how strongly Afghanistan’s rural economy is governed largely by social rather than market relations. That is likely only to persist under the current conditions of conflict. What the country’s rural population needs is work and the assurance of food security. Yet, this has not been a priority in agricultural policy. Instead it has focused on commodities and markets.

A harvest of melons in Badakhshan (Adam Pain 2011)

A harvest of melons in Badakhshan (Adam Pain 2011)

In sum, the modernisation narrative that has driven agricultural policy-making in Afghanistan needs to change. It cannot just focus on production and supply, but must address much more structural constraints and risk. These aspects are central to the creation and perpetuation of poverty. Markets are not the solution. Indeed, as the evidence shows, they may well amplify the risks. Dreams of agricultural modernisation are just that and like the Helmand scheme before it, are foundering in their encounter with Afghanistan’s rural reality.


Edited by Thomas Ruttig


(*) Adam Pain has worked on Afghanistan’s rural economy since 2001, which he first visited in the last months of the Taleban era. This led to the establishment of the household lpanel inBadakhshan, Faryab, Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Laghman and Sari-i-pul and he led the three rounds of the  livelihood trajectory study between 2003 and 2016. He is a visiting professor at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Uppsala, and co-author of a recent textbook on rural development: A Pain and K Hansen, Rural Development (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).


(1) Nick Cullather, “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State.” Journal of American History 89:2 (2002), pp512–37.

(2) Tania Murray Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007.

(3) Danielle Huot and Adam Pain, Afghanistan livelihood trajectories: life on the margins in Sar-i-Pul Province. SLRC/AREU Working Paper 54, 2017, p11.

(4) Danielle Huot, Adam Pain and Ihsanullah Ghafoori, Afghanistan livelihood trajectories in Afghanistan: evidence from three villages in Herat Province, SLRC/ AREU Working Paper 54, 2016, p21.

(5) Hout, Pain and Ghafoori, see FN 4, p38.

(6) Adam Pain and Danielle Huot,Life in the time of ‘late development: Livelihood Trajectories in Afghanistan 2002-2016, SLRC/AREU, 2017, p23.

(7) Pain/Huot, see FN 6, p27.

(8) Pain/Huot, see FN 6, p26.


Publication date: 27 August 2019

The full report can be downloaded here: Agricultural Policy in Afghanistan




agriculture farmers poverty rural rural development