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Left behind: the rural youth in Afghanistan’s election

Despite the success of Afghanistan’s transparent, peaceful election, engagement with rural populations remained low. Failure to address the growing disaffection resulting from the urban-rural gap threatens the country's fragile progress. 

Hameed Hakimi
15 April 2014

The Afghan presidential election on 5 April undoubtedly marked a crucial opportunity for Afghanistan to start afresh its journey towards reconciliation and stability. A survey before election day showed that an overwhelming majority of Afghans supported the elections and 75% intended to participate. After speaking to contacts in a number of eastern provinces in the days following the election, it seems that even those unable or too intimidated to vote were supportive of the political process and of the notion of a non-violent transfer of political power.

The actual voter turnout, nearly 60%, indeed reaffirmed Afghans’ commitment to a peaceful political transition from President Karzai to his successor, now more likely than ever to be one of his two former cabinet ministers, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. Afghan women constituted over 35% of the voters. Unsurprisingly, Afghanistan’s younger generation, mainly through their vibrant presence in the urban centres, emerged as a key constituency in the process.

Afghanistan elections poll workers .jpg

Poll workers counting ballots. Pajhwok Afghan News/Demotix; All Rights Reserved.  

However, there is a considerable gap in perceptions of the election day itself between Afghans in rural areas and those living in Kabul and other major cities. Many international news stories referred to the booming, increasingly tech-savvy and ‘connected’ youth population in Afghanistan. But the truth is that, outside of Kabul, life is very different. Of an estimated population of over 31 million, only 8% of Afghans have access to the Internet – less than half the population of Kabul. Even fewer Afghans have access to electricity.

Other parts of the country get inadequate media and policy focus, a reality illustrated by the largely urban-focused reporting of the elections, with the exception of local Afghan journalists who took to the social media by sharing pictures and short clips from many parts of Afghanistan. The urban centric narrative is broadly due to the ‘Kabul bubble’ – the endemic concentration of western journalists, diplomats, policy makers and ‘experts’ who mainly interact with ‘local internationals’; in other words, Afghans who can speak English and are themselves relatively confined to the capital. 

Insecurity has been largely to blame for this in recent years, but even when it has been possible to focus on rural population centres, there is little evidence that media and governments have done so. Presidential candidates have also largely stayed in Kabul. Where they attempted to reach out to the provinces, campaigning took place in provincial capitals at brief meetings amid strict security measures, road closures and major disruption to daily life.

Younger people I spoke to in rural districts, before and after the elections, felt disillusioned and disappointed at the lack of effort to engage them in the election campaign. In one district of the eastern Nangarhar province, people did not know where to cast their vote on election day – despite being lucky enough to have voter registration cards. Previously, many of those who wanted to register to vote were given the option of walking to the district centre (in plain sight of Taliban informants) where a voter registration office briefly opened, but only a handful of district government employees and shopkeepers have ventured to obtain the cards.

Officials always cite a lack of security to explain the absence of facilities in rural areas for Afghans there to participate in the elections. However, many local residents believe there is little interest in ensuring that poor villagers and farmers can participate in the political process; for instance, they say, insecurity in 2009 did not prevent election organisers from setting up voting centres in villages.

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Security checks at a polling station in Kabul. Pajhwok Afghan News/Demotix; All Rights Reserved. 

For rural populations, whose villages are on the frontline of insurgency and military operations, elections are more about resolving the conflict to prevent the country from slipping deeper into further violence than they are about achieving grand milestones in the journey towards fully-fledged democracy. The rural youth do not engage with the Facebook or Twitter pages of presidential candidates; most have never heard of virtual communication, let alone social media platforms.  

They face more immediate concerns: dire economic prospects, a lack of employment opportunities and, according to many rural youngsters, discrimination when trying to find work. One father from Laghman province told me that his son, a bright high school graduate with good grades, has been unable to enter university because the family needed to bribe officials in order to guarantee their young son a place at a government university. (There are only 31 government universities in the country.)

Another young person in a district of Paktia province, a high school graduate, told me that he is unable to enter university due to corruption in the system and lack of support for rural youth to access higher education. This, he told me, leaves him with only one viable employment option – to join the Afghan security forces – which he is unwilling to do.

Afghanistan’s growing population - estimated to reach 50 million in 2030 - will heighten the urban-rural divide even further. This is especially true as the overwhelming rural population is dependent on shrinking agricultural land and water resources. With Pakistan, India and other countries in the region facing similar population pressures in the next two decades, it is likely that conflict over resources and land will become more pressing than insurgency and militancy in the lifetime of the next Afghan government.

The elections could propel a process to build a platform for a prosperous future, but stability can only be ensured if the urban-rural gap is addressed. The biggest source of hope is the passionate eagerness of Afghan youth in rural areas for education and to play a productive part in their country’s future away from violence and economic deprivation. The media can play a constructive role in this – but it is crucial that the political elite, and the next administration, demonstrate their genuine commitment to all Afghans by engaging with the rural youth. This could be one of the most effective ways of challenging militancy and disaffection amongst young people. And it is a task that will require more than a presence on Facebook and Twitter. 

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