One remarkable finding of the Asia Foundation’s annual public opinion survey, released on Tuesday, was that Afghans are slightly more “optimistic” than in 2018 and feel that the country is “moving in the right direction.” One significant explanation for this was the prospect of peace.
“A Survey of the Afghan People, Afghanistan in 2019” is several hundred pages long and is based on interviews with nearly 18,000 Afghans conducted between July 11 to August 7, 2019. The report, which provides comparative data from similar surveys beginning in 2004, gauges public opinion across a broad range of topics including governance, security, the economy, women’s rights as well as how Afghans receive their news and whether or not they want to leave the country, and why.
While some results remained fairly similar to those of 2018—such as views on corruption or satisfaction with “justice and dispute resolution”--the number of people who are optimistic that the country is “going in the right direction” increased this year to 36.1% from 32.8 % in 2018.
The report suggests that hopes for continued peace talks have influenced this change:
“In explaining reasons for their optimism, those who say ‘peace /end of war’ increased notably from 16.4% to 26.3% this year,” according to the report, which also said that results for this question between 2017 and 2018 were “effectively unchanged.”
“Despite worries about the veracity of Taliban claims that they would support women’s rights and girls’ education… the talks brought a widespread sense of hope that more than 40 years of continual conﬂict could be resolved,” the report stated.
Other reasons given for the belief that “the country is moving in the right direction” included “improved security” (55.7%, up from 51.8% in 2018), and “reconstruction/rebuilding/infrastructure at 48.6%” (close to last year’s 47.9%).
But despite this uptick in optimism, attributable in part to the prospect of a peace settlement, 58% percent of the population still feels that the country is “moving in the wrong direction,” which echoes a Gallup poll whose results were released mid-September that reported that Afghans expected their “future lives” to be worse than the present:
“On a scale where ‘0’ represents their worst possible life and ‘10’ their best possible life, Afghans gave an average rating of 2.7 in 2018 -- tied for the lowest in any country since Gallup began this survey. Asked to predict where their lives would be in five years on the same scale, Afghans’ average response was 2.3, a new low for any country in any year.”
In the Asia Foundation survey, of those Afghans who said they feel the country is moving in the wrong direction, 74.7% cite “insecurity/crime,” 41.5% say the “economy,” and 31.1% say the “state of governance.“
Other reasons given for pessimism: included: “Lack of infrastructure/services (7.2%), foreign intervention (6.6%), and injustice / human rights concerns (4.6%).”
One curious result was found in the report’s “self-reported happiness” section, where despite difficult circumstances the majority of Afghans answered positively:
“Respondents are asked to report on their own happiness, and despite the low levels of optimism about the direction of the country, the majority of Afghans continue to say they are very or somewhat happy (81.4%, up from 80.7% in 2018). Some 15.4% say they are not very happy, and 3.2% say they are not at all happy.”
The "Perception of Economy" portion of the report revealed the following:
"This year, the survey added a new question for households with school-age children who don’t go to school, asking them why they don’t go to school. The most frequent responses are economic concerns like “they need to work” (12.3% for girls and 37.7% for boys), transportation difficulties (17.3% for girls and 16.4% for boys), and “cannot afford tuition or school supplies” (8.7% for girls and 6.9% for boys)."
While many of the questions asked for opinions about the national state of affairs , others questions focused on local conditions:
“Among those respondents who say that the country is moving in the right direction, the most commonly cited issues when asked what is going well in their local area were infrastructure (47.8% of respondents listed this as one of the two reasons they gave), agricultural development (24.6%), educational opportunities (22.6%), improved security (17.8%), and public services (11.6%). Just 4.7% of those who say the country is moving in the right direction say that nothing is going well in their local area.”
Asking about “problems facing women,” the report claimed that there has been “little variation” in opinion over reasons given for the past seven years. 43.2% cite lack of educational opportunities, 34.1% say lack of rights, 24.1% cite lack of employment opportunities and 18.1 % say violence, followed by 13.7% who say lack of services and 9.6% cite economic concerns.
Generally, “problems facing youth” have not varied significantly over the last four years:
“Respondents were first asked in 2015 to describe the two biggest problems facing youth. Overall, there has been little variation since then, and in 2019, lack of employment opportunities is easily the most cited issue (72.0%, down from 74.7% in 2018), followed by lack of educational opportunities (38.5%, down from 40.3%), personal/mental health issues (18.5%, up from 17.0%), economic concerns (14.5%, down from 15.1%), and violence/insecurity (9.1%, up from 8.9%).”
For the security portion of the report, “Fear for Personal Safety” has increased:
“Fear for personal safety is now at its highest recorded level, with 74.5% of respondents indicating that they fear for their personal safety. This represents an increase of over 3 percentage points since 2018 (71.1%). Fear for personal safety has risen every year since 2012, when it was 48.2%.”
When asked about who was responsible for security locally, the Afghan National Police was named to a greater extent overall than in the past:
"When respondents consider who provides security in the local area, the ANP is most frequently cited, at 58.4%, a 10.5-point decrease from 2018 (68.9%). Respondents in urban areas (79.2%) are more likely to name the ANP than those in rural areas (51.3%). Respondents in Nimroz (91.1%) and Kabul (85.6%) are most likely to name the ANP as the local security provider, while respondents in Sar-e-Pul (30.5%) and Zabul (22.2%) are least likely."
And regarding the Afghan National Army:
“Perceptions of the ANA remain broadly similar to 2018, with a negligible increase in those saying the ANA is getting better (57.5%, as opposed to 56.9% in 2018).”
The survey asked opinions about infrastructure, and in the case of electricity there was only slight improvement:
“The public’s perception of the nation’s electricity supply has improved slightly, with 20.2% of respondents reporting that the situation has gotten better, up from 16.4% in 2018.
Urban respondents (32.7%) are more than twice as likely as rural respondents (15.9%) to report that electricity has gotten better. Around one-third of rural respondents (34.8%) say the situation has gotten worse.”
There are only slight improvements over 2018 in reported access to good food and nutrition, and there is no difference between urban and rural areas.
Regarding the quality of education, the report said:
“In 2019, 23.2% of Afghan respondents report that the quality of school services has improved, while 53.5% think it has stayed the same and 22.7% feel it has worsened. Urban respondents are more likely than rural respondents to report an improvement (28.8% vs. 21.3%)”
Regarding governance, there was an increase in “confidence” with governments at the provincial level:
“…confidence in the provincial government has increased, from 61.3% in 2018 to 64.5% in 2019. By strata, rural respondents (66.7%) express more confidence than urban respondents (58.0%). There are no significant differences by gender, but the perceptions of male respondents have improved compared to last year, with 64.1% of male respondents expressing satisfaction with provincial government in 2019, up from 58.3% in 2018.
The section related to media produced an interesting response to a question about the significance of the press:
"This year, respondents were asked a new question: 'It is likely that to reach a successful peace agreement, all sides would have to make difficult compromises. How important would you say the following things are to protect as part of a peace agreement?' Almost 80% of respondents say freedom of the press is important to protect in any peace agreement, highlighting the value that Afghans place on access to media and information."
The breakdown of answers to this question--what would respondents “protect as part of a peace agreement”—are as follows:
“A majority of 54.7% says protecting the current constitution is very important, followed by a strong central government (53.6%), freedom of speech (46.0%), and freedom of the press (46.4%). Just 17.3% overall say the presence of foreign military forces is important to protect.”
And, amid extensive research on how Afghans receive news, such as TV vs. internet vs. radio vs. mosques...one number put things in perspective:
"Only 17.6% of the Afghan population say they use the internet."