The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the rare hyper events of the century. It plunged our interconnected world into turmoil, uncertainty, and unprecedented risk. It exposed existing vulnerabilities and shortcomings in our systems and normal modes of conduct. It wreaked havoc on lives and livelihoods, particularly for the poor and disadvantaged. It posed an unparalleled challenge to our scientific and technological capabilities, and an existential threat to our medical professionals who have been on the front lines of a war for which we were not prepared.
The pandemic also challenged all of us in positions of leadership around the globe to be better leaders. It forced us to re-think how we lead, to be more effective, more efficient leaders. It forced us to listen better and act quicker.
All of this has been true for Afghanistan.
The virus arrived in Afghanistan at the end of February in Herat province, on the border with Iran. The virus peaked in June with an infection rate of 76%. As of September 23, we had recorded 1,446 deaths from the virus. Today, with the virus on the decline, the infection rate is fluctuating daily between 6% and 25%.
As a government, we moved fast, knowing that our most vulnerable would be hit hardest by the pandemic. Our focus was on those living in poverty—those who would be affected the worst both from the virus and the adverse economic effects of a lockdown.
A little over a month after the virus had reached our borders, I had articulated a way of moving forward in a seven-page document, ‘Responding to the Corona Virus.’ In this document, we forecasted the trajectory of the virus in five phases—acknowledgment, diffusion, adversity, relief and recovery.
But more importantly, right from the beginning, our strategy differentiated between expectations of our citizens, demands of the market and economy, and expectations of the government. We also looked at the most affected segment of society—those living in poverty—and differentiated between the impact of the criss on the structurally poor and the situationally poor.
I will come back to poverty later, but first I want to discuss the leadership challenge and our very simple approach to leadership in times of Corona.
We had to listen to our fellow citizens, understand the problems within their context, and then design and implement programs and measures to respond to those expectations. That was not only a technical challenge, it was also a leadership challenge.
How did we approach this leadership challenge?
The office of the presidency, for any democracy, is a nodal point where a people’s and a nation’s aspirations and frustrations interact and converge. It is a place where people look for fairness, empathy and delivery. The presidency is also a listening post, provided the one holding office learns the art of listening and makes a discipline of systematic and appreciative learning.
This listening post became the locus of data, experiences, and expectations that informed our COVID-19 response.
I have had the privilege of traveling repeatedly to all 34 provinces of Afghanistan during the last 19 years. Since becoming president, I have made 95 trips to the provinces, 7 of them in the recent months during the COVID pandemic. Prior to the outbreak of COVID, I met and talked every month with about 5,000 of my fellow citizens—men and women, young and old, people from all walks of life. It’s not only a matter of listening, but also a matter of recognizing culture and nuance, understanding societal debates and economic problems happening simultaneously around the issue at hand, and also understanding how gender and age color different people’s perspectives.
A great characteristic of us, the Afghan people, is our sense of equality and public interactions. People have often said to me, in one way or another, “We’ve come, we’ve spoken, and we expect results. If you don’t act on what we have told you, we will not come back.” I am fortunate that people keep coming back, not because all of their problems and expectations are fulfilled, but because they see sufficient momentum and because we share a common narrative of hope and accomplishment.
What have the Afghan people expected from their leaders during this particular crisis? They have asked us to turn what we have heard into effective programs that address the roots of their problems and produceresults.
Let me tell you briefly what I heard from the Afghan people over these difficult, challenging months, and how we addressed the problems as a state. Now I come back to poverty.
Poverty is one of the most pervasive and complex problems the Afghan people face today. The COVID-19 pandemic made that even worse for many people.
The most pressing issue facing peopl living in poverty is food insecurity. In February, it looked challenging because country after country was closing its borders and its economies. We were fortunate, however, to secure the full cooperation of our central Asian neighbors to keep the supply chains functioning.
Fortunately, agricultural productivity has been higher than last year, with all products increasing around 5 to 10 % or maintaining the same level. Therefore, rural food security is not as severe a challenge. But COVID brought the threat of food insecurity to urban areas. With the month of Ramadan upon us in May, where common eating is essential to the sense of community, we took the unprecedented step of distributing bread in all of our cities. We followed this with the National Meal Program, where we are providing a package of food to 4.5 million households across the country. This program was to scale, covering 90% of the population of the country.
So, while there has been a modest rise in the price of food here in Afghanistan, we took measures quickly enough to make sure we did not experience any food shortages or large-scale social disturbances.
The Afghan people have now returned to work and the economy is open again, but vulnerability has increased. Our task moving forward is to review, restructure and reorganize all governmental programs to generate sufficient enough growth to compensate for the impact and to make the programs truly focused on reduction of poverty.
Another unique feature of our poverty profile is thereturn of refugees. In the past 19 years, 10 million of us have returned— 4 million in the last 5 years alone. In more stable societies, poverty eradication programs are usually based on assumptions of a stable population, but ours is constantly in flux.
To fund these emergency response programs, we quickly reallocated funds from existing programs. We changed our budgetary procedures and priorities to move money that had been misallocated or was not urgently needed to areas of priority during the pandemic. I am grateful to ADB, EU, IMF, the WB and our bilateral partners for agreeing to restructure their aid portfolios and allocate emergence assistance to our people.
Poverty is a multi-dimensional and historic problem in Afghanistan. It certainly didn’t start with COVID-19, so our policy response must also be multi-faceted and must also look far beyond the pandemic. To respond, we identified the following priorities:
First, we need to reach the poor as directly as possible. The Citizen’s Charter is the vehicle of our national community development programs, including the implementation of the National Meal Program. The Citizen’s Charter program is a network of elected community councils in all 34 provinces, where 50% of council members are women.
We are determined to complete the issuance of electronic IDs to every citizen of the country so we can increase their access to mobile money. The goal is that within a year to 18 months, we will be able to reach the poor directly.
Second, we have to enhance our citizen’s assets. Key to this is increasing the productivity of land, labor and water.
Third, we must align the goals of market building, state building and nation building. The unifying element here is investing in education, particularly girls’ education and the generation that was denied education because of 40 years of conflict. Hence the need for a human capital strategy that is tailored to specific contexts.
Fourth, we must utilize our immense natural wealth, ranging from water, sun, and wind, for generation of renewable energy, and we must tap into the equitable and efficient utilization of our estimated 1 trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth.
Fifth and most importantly, we have to make peace and continue to build peace. We are a country in conflict, losing hundreds of our people every week. Reaching an inclusive peace is the fundamental step in addressing the far-reaching roots of poverty in Afghanistan. The pain inflicted on Afghan society has left scars on each of us as individuals, and on our nation’s collective conscious.
MPI’s utility lies both in providing a solid basis for policy formation and monitoring of policy implementation. We have, therefore, decided that our National Statistics and Information Authority should use and update it regularly.
The task of leadership in today’s world of turmoil and uncertainty is to have the imagination and the commitment to imagine a future of unity where we can all overcome the scars of the conflict and its legacies. Overcoming these will allow us to then devote our energies to overcoming poverty and vulnerability, which only get worse in times of crisis, as exhibited during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have identified the critical ingredients of the future we want—first, citizenship as a notion where men and women are equal members of a polity and society, and second, the political framework of the republic, where leadership is regularly renewed through the will of the public and held accountable for the mandate given to serve them. Together, we the people of the United Nations, can and must deliver on the promise of the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.