There is something strange about opinion polls in Afghanistan. They always seem to have been done in a parallel universe, where things are less bleak and people are more confident that all will be well. Ever since the first poll results were published in 2004 there has been this glaring gap between the relatively upbeat polling results and the general mood in the country.
(I remember having a rather heated discussion with a US diplomat in 2006 over the plausibility of the Asia Foundation poll that had just come out and the high confidence ratings for the police and the judiciary – a result that even the US Embassy official described as “counter-intuitive.”)
So most of us have been rather skeptical about these polls and their methodologies, questioning whether you can gauge opinions of Afghans by sending strangers with a questionnaire to their villages, sometimes even wondering whether the questions were ever asked in the village. But we assumed that maybe if the methodology was implemented consistently, it could still tell us something about trends. And for years the trends in polling results followed the general mood and the broadly supported analysis: declining levels of confidence in government, international intervention and the future in general.
The recent ABC/BBC/ARD opinion poll however shows quite a different picture. I will not repeat the various percentages (the suggestion of precision of which I tend to mistrust anyway) – the results can be foundhere, an interpretation is given here, and a note on the methodology here – but the bottom line is that a significantly larger proportion of respondents, according to the report, felt more optimistic and confident than in any of the past years since 2005. Early media reports were quick to pick up on the suggestion of a tide that may have turned, but that seems rather premature (and I do hope that we can still look forward to a few articles that do more than simply reproduce press releases).
So what does it mean?
I have no information to suggest that ACSOR, the polling organisation that is hired for every single opinion poll in Afghanistan, has been making up or altering results. So for the moment I am assuming that the findings are based on actual and properly conducted interviews. And that for instance 1074 out of 1534 respondents (70%) actually did say something that indicated that they felt things were going in the right direction – as opposed to the 614 out of 1534 (40%) only a year earlier.
So what does it mean?
There is the issue that people tend to have multiple and often not very well-defined opinions, particularly with regard to whether their life is good or bad, or whether things were better or worse in the past. For most people this has not been clear-cut for decades, as every new regime seemed to bring a new and bitter mix of improvement and decline. In conversations people often sway from despair to careful optimism and back again, without being able to settle on either of them if they would be asked. So how do you arrive at an answer that you can note down, and who gets to make the call?
And of course in all interviews answers are influenced by the act of asking and by the assumptions and suspicions respondent holds about the aim of the questions – Afghanistan is not a special case in that regard, but there is a good chance that unfamiliarity with the practice of polling, coupled with a low level of education and a potential sense of suspicion, will inhibit people to speak their mind. (However, the opposite can also be argued; for instance that the suggestion that the interviewer is an educated outsider could prompt respondents to give straight answers, instead of inhibiting them). The bottom line is that we don’t really know how people respond to polling and what the results tell us.
But the question is whether there is something now, something that made 400 more people say that they believed things were going in the right direction than a year ago. If I had to guess, I would guess a few things.
For one, I think the sense of direct crisis has waned, particularly for people who are removed from the main politics. After the fear and in many places violence of the election, after the confusion of the fraud investigations and the uncertainty of how the internationals were going to treat Karzai, after the fear that things may unravel and that civil war may start, there may well be a sense – in particular in the provinces and among those not directly involved in politics – that things have settled down.
And I am really not sure that the polling results really mean that the majority of the people can now buy what they need, although I may be mistaken, or that really they believe that the government or NATO will make everything alright. But you cannot live on your toes indefinitely. So I think that when things settle down, whether for good or for bad, many people respond to them as they have over the last few decades. They go with the flow and hope that it will be alright.
It is this resilience, among others, that has allowed us so much time and it is this resilience that means that we still have time left. As long as we do not sit back and believe that things have already changed for the better. Because they have not, or at least nowhere near enough.
Finally, let me quote a fragment of a chat conversation with a friend in Kabul. She had just connected internet in her house, so I asked her – half-jokingly – about the poll and about being hopeful. She first laughed (lol) and then answered seriously. Her answer reads like a poem.
do you think it is true what the recent poll said, that afghans are more hopeful and optimistic now? that things like this -internet in the home- help people feel more hopeful?
these days believe me there is no hope
after this big problem with the cabinet
and the nomination process
we have already lost the track
and really don’t know who is who
sometimes we blame Karzai and the other time the parliament and then the political parties
the list is getting worse and worse
you might know that these days
the discussion on the provincial election is also hot
and heated and lots of complaints
on the other hand this dry winter has caused a lot of worries to people
there hasn’t been any snow yet
so i don’t know which hope to talk about
i think there will come a time when people even will hate talking about politics
and will do their own business and leaving the floor to the corrupt and bad people
but there is always one hope which will never be lost and that is the God
so i trust he will fix everything, we can just worry but he will do the real thing
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020