Norah Niland, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Afghanistan

30 Mar 2010

Norah Niland, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Afghanistan

KABUL - Transcript of press conference in Kabul with Norah Niland, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Afghanistan.

OHCHR (NORAH NILAND): Today, on behalf of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, I am launching a report on the Human Rights Dimension of Poverty in Afghanistan.

We are all aware that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. One third of its population lives in absolute poverty. Afghanistan I think you also know has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. This means that 25,000 women die each year because of complications associated with giving birth. This is the highest single cause of death in Afghanistan.

Only 23 per cent of Afghans has access to safe drinking water. Only 24 per cent of the population above the age of 15 can read and write, and of course with much lower literacy rates among women and nomadic populations. According to UNICEF, 30 per cent of primary school children are working and are often the sole source of income for their families.

Poverty kills. Poverty actually kills more Afghans than those who die as a direct result of the armed conflict. Poverty deprives two-thirds of the Afghan population from living a decent and dignified life – this includes the inability to enjoy their most basic and fundamental rights, such as getting an education or having access to health services.

But who are the poor in Afghanistan and why are they poor? Statistics tend to hide the root causes of poverty. Statistics also tend to focus our attention to the consequences rather than causes of widespread impoverishment.

As elsewhere in the world, poverty is multi-dimensional and can be traced to different sources and processes. Poverty is neither accidental, nor inevitable; it is both a cause and a consequence of a massive human rights deficit. The deficit includes widespread impunity and inadequate investment in, and attention to, human rights. Patronage, corruption, impunity and over-emphasis on short-term goals rather than targeted long-term development are exacerbating a situation of dire poverty that is the condition of an overwhelming majority of Afghans.

A human rights angle offers a complementary approach to existing poverty reduction strategies. The High Commissioner’s report concludes that sustainable poverty reduction is dependent on efforts that roll back abusive power structures. Vested interests in this country frequently shape the public agenda, whether in relation to the law, policy, or the allocation of resources. The High Commissioner’s report also argues that the poor must be at the centre of decision-making processes that affect their life. The poor need to be empowered to make free and informed choices about their future; they need to be involved, in a meaningful way, in efforts geared to overcoming poverty.

The report calls on the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners to strengthen development policy and to implement strategies that adopt a human rights-based approach to poverty reduction efforts. Such an approach will help ensure that the specific needs and conditions of the poor are addressed and with their full participation. When emphasizing the importance of participation, the basic message is that the poor must become the architects of their own future. There needs to be strong efforts to empower women, nomadic communities, persons with disabilities and those who are among the least able to change the conditions that impoverish them.

As noted in the High Commissioner’s report, more of the development money spent in this country must be geared to achieving the priorities set by the Government of Afghanistan in its fight against poverty. Security objectives must not sideline the urgent need to ramp up poverty reduction efforts. Resources allocation should not be driven by a military agenda, but by the needs and rights of Afghans especially those of course who are the most impoverished.
Poverty reduction should build on existing successful models, such as the National Solidarity Programme, that is designed to capacitate concerned Afghans to make a meaningful contribution to poverty reduction strategies.

In closing, it is worth noting that that the poor desire a future where their human rights are respected. They must have a say in the events and circumstances that shape their life and that of their children. When Afghans have been consulted they have repeatedly identified poverty and unemployment as important factors in the spread of insecurity. Many have acknowledged that the militarized approach is not the answer to the crisis in Afghanistan. Solutions include far greater investment than before in poverty alleviation as well as the fight against impunity. And to conclude, rolling back poverty, means reducing marginalization and a debilitating sense of powerlessness and injustice. Righting this wrong is central to building a foundation for a just and sustainable peace in Afghanistan.


TOLO TV [translated from Dari]: According to reports poverty and unemployment, mainly in the southern provinces, have been the root causes of giving an advantage to the armed opposition to enable them to recruit the younger generation as soldiers. I would like to know if you faced such issues while preparing yor report and what is the percentage of such a category of people who are affected by this?

OHCHR: Our survey did cover some 14 provinces in Afghanistan and less so I am afraid in the south. However, we have drawn on a lot of other sources including, of course the Oxfam study that came out recently on this. As noted in the report, poverty is multi-dimensional. There are lots of different factors that embed, exacerbate and perpetuate poverty. In terms of the relationship between poverty and the young men joining the armed opposition, many commentators have pointed to a direct link. Our study didn’t investigate that but it would indeed appear that there is a relationship between poverty and the injustice which goes with it and a lack of adequate confidence that the state-building project is going to deliver on basic services. So in other words there are multiple factors that promote or facilitate or influence young men joining the armed opposition.

And then one final comment on this if I may. While indeed spreading insecurity is a dominate concern in Afghanistan it is also needs to be borne in mind and this goes back to the first question that human security – in other words safety, wellbeing and access to employment – are equally important considerations for the Afghan people.

ARIANA TV [translated from Dari]: You just mentioned about the human rights dimensions of poverty in Afghanistan. Since we are living in this community and we know our neighbourhoods and conditions people are living in and we know how widespread poverty is in Afghanistan. On the other hand the report shows figures and statistics on what percentage of people are suffering from poverty and that is something which is adding to the misery of the Afghan people. I just want to know what specific programmes the UN has from the assistance that is given to Afghanistan to alleviate poverty in the country?

OHCHR: There are lots of programmes in Afghanistan to address poverty in the country. We as human rights in the UN system don’t do what is normally called development work per se. What our report is about is to try to draw attention to the root causes of poverty that are directly linked to human rights concerns, such as discrimination and the marginalization of women and girls especially and others, the abuse of power and the inability quite often of those who are powerless to be part and parcel of decision-making that affects their lives. While our report is really advocating that all of the agencies and including of course the Government that is concerned about the very high rate of poverty in this country, that it does understand what are the human rights underlying elements of that, so that poverty reduction initiatives have very clear human rights objectives and are designed and driven by human rights values.

BBC PERSIAN TV: How worried are you about the widening gap between the rich and poor in this country?

OHCHR: Very important question. I think all of us have to be worried about the huge proportion of Afghan people who are poor. That indeed is the effect of the last decade or near decade since the Bonn Agreement – there has not really been an adequate impact on their lives. Of course what the report says is that poverty is not accidental but neither is it inevitable. The report also says that poverty is the killer in this country. I think you are all familiar with our work on civilian casualties. It is important to bear in mind that in terms of maternal mortality alone 25,000 women die every year in Afghanistan giving birth. To link back to the first question about the sense of grievance associated with poverty, as in any country, but also here in Afghanistan, where its not new that there is a lot of poverty but when it is parallel and cheek by jowl with a number of individuals and entities which are getting very rich, that of course also adds to a sense of grievance and disillusionment with what are efforts have been made by the Government and international partners to improve their lives and that of their children.

RFE/RL [translated from Dari]: Question with two parts. You mentioned a number of factors for poverty in Afghanistan. Can you please name some of the main factors on why there is poverty in Afghanistan? What percentage of people are suffering from poverty in the country and would it be possible to tackle these issues in the short-term?

OHCHR: Actually, that is three questions but I will do my best to answer them. One of the factors – there are different drivers of poverty, and I do need to underline this. I am not saying that it is just human rights issues that drive poverty. Poverty is a multi-dimensional problem here in Afghanistan as elsewhere in world, so it is multi-faceted poverty.

I am going to mention five drivers of poverty from a human rights perspective. On top of the list is the abuse of power. In other words, power and vested interest that drive the political agenda, often against the advantage of those who are already marginalized, and power, when it is abused, of course, have significant influence over laws, policy and the allocation of resources.

You will not be surprised when I note that discrimination and, of course, the marginalization that goes with it is a significant driver of poverty. And here, we are talking in particular about women, for example the Kuchi population with very high level of poverty, households with disabled people as the chief breadwinner, female-headed households, all of these particular groups are particularly affected by discrimination and marginalization.

And, of course, Afghans who are poor and impoverished and marginalized will almost automatically have limited access to choices, will have fewer choices in their lives, and much fewer access to opportunities, whether that’s sending their children to school, or to income opportunities.

Of course, it will not be a surprise to you when I say that the poor tend to be powerless and thus have limited, almost non-existent, but definitely have a very limited impact on decision-making, and decision-making that influence their lives and that of their families.

And, of course, finally but not unimportant, the reality of the armed conflict and insecurity, not only this armed conflict, inhibits development opportunities. It also is much more expensive to get your child to a school or to get to a clinic. So armed conflict definitely and not just here, but in Afghanistan as elsewhere, tends to exacerbate poverty.

And you asked about percentages. So one-third are absolutely poor with another third just hovering around the poverty line. And this basically means a hand-to-mouth existence so that if there is any shock, with a child getting sick, there is very little buffer, very little opportunity for the family to address that kind of problem.

Then, I don’t remember that very last part your question, but maybe what I should do to pull this together – of course these problems are not, one, two, three, four or five. These problems intersect so, indeed, if you’re poor and a difficult situation arrives in the household for the individual, then you end up getting into a bigger cycle of poverty, so the problems intersect and compound.

AYNA TV [translated from Dari]: How much money is needed for poverty reduction in the short-term?

OHCHR: That’s one I am not able to answer. I should say of course monetary resources are needed since I am trying to shine the spotlight with your help on the human rights dimension. What is also no less important is that issues of discrimination, marginalization, the ability to participate in decision-making are even more important than the actual amount of monetary resources that are available. To conclude, I am not saying – because I don’t know the actual amount of financial resources that are needed – I am not saying it is unimportant – of course it is important to dig wells or to support healthcare infrastructure in a remote valley. Of course money is needed. What I want to underline this morning is the human rights dimension of the equation.

RADIO KILLID [translated from Dari]: How do you see poverty in Afghanistan in terms of the severity of poverty last year? Second, you mentioned that about 25,000 women are dying because of complications during giving birth. I want to know how accurate this figure and whether it is accurate or is it just an estimate? If it is accurate, it means the majority of the Afghan population is going to die in the coming years.

OHCHR: In terms of the first part of the question, there has been some reduction in absolute poverty but the fact that two-thirds of the Afghan population is below or just above the poverty line has to be a major concern. On the second part of your question, it is not a High Commissioner figure. It draws on available statistics which comes from the Government, the World Health Organization and UNICEF. My understanding is it does reflect a vulnerable situation. It is the worst situation globally in terms of maternal mortality rate. We talked earlier about the discrimination. So let me not to go back to that issue, but women and girls are affected and many mothers are quite young. But women and girls have a low status in Afghan society and that is one of the biggest determinacy in the very alarming maternal mortality situation.

CHANNEL ONE TV: What do you request from the Government of Afghanistan in order to reduce poverty?

OHCHR: At the back of the report, page 21, there are a number of recommendations, both to the Government of Afghanistan but, of course, also to its international partners. There are six recommendations and I will just highlight them very briefly. The first one, of course, is about consultation. If you really want to address poverty, it is not just about building more wells and better roads, it is about empowering people. People cannot be empowered if they are not part and parcel of what, in principle, is there to improve their lives. There are lots of successful models of poverty reduction in the country such as, and we have mentioned in the report, the National Solidarity Programme, but there is also a host of NGOs doing very valuable work. So the proposal is to build on these successful models. The third recommendation is to constantly measure, review and evaluate; to see if your initiative, your poverty reduction programme, is working. As I mentioned earlier, poverty does not happen in a bubble, it is not something accidental, and neither is it inevitable. So if one of the driving factors of poverty, we talked a moment ago about maternal mortality rates, the very high rates, is discrimination, then to tackle poverty successfully, you need to also tackle the problem of discrimination and marginalization. And then the fifth recommendation is that the militarization of aid is not the way to go. The communities, and thus the civilians, need to be in charge, because, again, poverty reduction is really about empowering the poor. And then the final recommendation is actually a summary of the foregoing; it is to be guided by the principles and the aspirations of the poor, and not by short-term objectives, whether these are military or other.