Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Afghans Vote for a New President

by Isobel Coleman
April 7, 2014

A man loads ballot boxes and other election materials on a donkey to be transported to polling stations that are not accessible by road in Shutul, Panjshir province, Afghanistan, April 4, 2014 (Courtesy Reuters/Ahmad Masood). A man loads ballot boxes and other election materials on a donkey to be transported to polling stations that are not accessible by road in Shutul, Panjshir province, Afghanistan, April 4, 2014 (Courtesy Reuters/Ahmad Masood).


Despite significant security concerns, Afghans went to the polls in droves on Saturday to elect a new president. An estimated 7 million voters, one-third of them women, cast ballots – a marked improvement over the 2009 elections in which only 4 million voted. Fraud and violence also occurred less than expected: while at least twenty people were killed across the country and numerous fraud complaints have been filed, there were no major attacks or allegations of foul play on the level of the 2009 election.

The results of the election won’t be known for several weeks, but a run off is likely given that no candidate is expected to get over 50 percent of the vote. President Hamid Karzai will likely play powerbroker in whatever political deals are made behind the scenes. But once in office, the new president will have to chart his own course, grappling with ongoing challenges of corruption, weak governance, insurgency, and economic turmoil. Read more of my thoughts on the election and presidential front runners in my latest U.S. News article.

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  • Posted by Peter Graves, Canberra

    2014 is a pivotal year for Afghanistan. A new president is being elected and major combat by the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) will end in December. This year the remaining international military forces have been gradually shifting from a combat role to a training and assistance role.

    The future of a country where Australia has invested $480 million in foreign aid over the past three years is under significant debate. However, much of this debate had concerned the levels of foreign military forces remaining there next year and the abilities of the Afghan national forces to defend their country.

    We also need to consider the lives that will be led by the Afghan people, both next year and in the years afterwards. The thirty million people of Afghanistan face immense development challenges creating their future. The country ranks 175 out of 187 countries on the UN 2013 Human Development Index (HDI) and on average men live only to 59 and women only to 61.

    Most of the population live without sustainable access to clean water and sanitation. Gender inequality is profoundly entrenched and gender-based violence is widespread.

    In Afghanistan, 99 children out of every 1,000 will die before their fifth birthday and 1 in every 11 Afghan women will die giving birth to those children. That’s the death of one woman every 30 minutes. There has been progress in the lives of Afghanistan’s people, but it usually doesn’t make the news headlines.

    In 2012, the UN Children’s Fund reported progress has come more slowly in areas such as women’s literacy, vaccination coverage and early childbearing. Consistently, the education level of women emerges as a reliable predictor of almost all indicators for women and children. As women’s education levels rise, performance is higher on most indicators. For example, child mortality is much lower among women with education compared to women without education.

    However, there are entrenched cultural norms that oppose the education of girls. Early marriage also often interrupts the education of those girls fortunate enough to have entered school. A general shortage of teachers and acute need for female instructors, coupled with too few physical structures, make attendance difficult – particularly in rural areas.

    This is a time of significant uncertainty for the future of Afghanistan and its people. Conflict has crippled the ability of Afghan national institutions to deliver basic services, justice and security. For example, Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world and an average of 42 civilians are killed or wounded each month. Australia has already helped clear 2.2 square kilometres of contaminated land and this has enabled more than 3,900 people to walk their land in safety.

    Foreign aid makes a difference and here’s another example. The Self Help Group approach empowers women to help raise their family’s standard of living, through basic health awareness, business training, human rights, education and literacy. The Swedish non-government organisation Operation Mercy has close to 600 of these groups in Afghanistan.

    Australia has committed to providing long-term support for Afghanistan, in the key areas of security, trade, development and capacity-building. Indicating the importance of on-going international support to that country after 2014, the Afghan Government also signed similar agreements with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and India.

    A former commander of the ISAF in 2006, Britain’s General Richards recently commented that the gains made by Afghan women during the presence of ISAF are in danger of being lost. In an interview with the BBC on 8 March, he asked us to remember that “the military operation may be drawing to an end, but the job there is not yet done”.

    The deaths of hundreds of ISAF soldiers and thousands of Afghan civilians deserve far more than western countries saying “(military) mission accomplished”.

    For Afghanistan’s civilians, the west’s foreign aid is a hand up, not a hand out. More please.

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