How can Afghanistan’s young adults escape poverty amid layered crises?

Published on 11 August 2022

Vidya Diwakar

Deputy Director, Chronic Poverty Advisory Network; Research Fellow, IDS

Orzala Nemat, Director, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit

One year ago the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. This was preceded by existing multiple crises, including drought, Covid-19, and political insecurity, and all have affected the prospects for young women and men to develop pathways out of poverty.

What happened to Afghanistan? After the widespread  outcry accompanying the shift in power last year, other global challenges have since dominated the international media. Yet, the latest data from our new research shows that 80 percent of Afghan households reported that they faced a much worse economic situation in January/February 2022 than they did in early 2021. In a country where nearly four in five people are under the age of 35, this poses a serious concern for the future of the country and efforts towards zero poverty.

Youth livelihoods caught between multiple crises

When understanding the plight of Afghan youth, it is important to understand how many young adults are impacted by poverty and the striking deprivations and inequality they experience. This represents many Afghans: approximately 4.7 million young adults aged 18-35 years old were living in poverty in 2019/20 and young adults headed around two in five households. Some of this may be affected by what survey data constitutes as a household, especially important to consider in a context like Afghanistan where joint households may be the norm.

Our recent analysis of 2019/20 survey data (before and during the onset of the pandemic), shows that households in poverty headed by youth—perhaps on account of their early stage of life— had a lower average value of assets, livestock, and were less likely to own cultivable farmland, compared to older household heads also living in poverty. They were also significantly more food insecure.

We did find that youth heads of households had more years of schooling and have been more likely to migrate or access salaried employment. However, these options were severely affected during the pandemic, with schools closed, borders restricted, and social protection initiatives that were largely inadequate. The suspension of donor support since the shift in power and cut in salaries for teaching, healthcare and other essential work affected young adults in those jobs.

Erosive forms of coping with crises

From our qualitative interviews in Herat and Kandahar in July 2021, we found that many youth who lost access to credit in the summer of 2021, started working in low-paid agricultural wage labour. Others were driven to mortgage their land. While many would have commonly relied on informal social networks of support, our research found that these were also drying up as entire communities struggled.

The precarity of livelihoods and coping was also felt by women. The survey data points to a slight increase, from a low base, of women in poor households engaging in economic activities in 2020 during Covid-19, compared to pre-pandemic months. Women in areas facing environmental or agricultural shocks (disasters, reduced water, or high food prices) and insecurity also increased their economic activities in 2020, compared to less disaster-prone and more secure areas. This response is potentially a survival need rather than a form of economic empowerment; indeed, past research has pointed to Afghan women intensifying income-generating activities to survive as households sought to cope with drought.

At the same time, many other women  also experienced job loss as our mixed methods data indicates, reflecting additional intersecting sources of vulnerability in a time when sequenced shocks limited their ability to cope in times of crises.

Inclusive youth futures in Afghanistan

So, what can be done to support pathways out of poverty for Afghan youth? Based on our research we make the following recommendations:

  • Responses across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus need to address the context of overlapping crises. There is a good basis for this already in the UN’s 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan. When as many as 97 percent of Afghans could be living in poverty this year, strong coordination within the humanitarian-development-peace nexus is needed to address these crises, especially in ways that can counter historical myopia.
  • Current donor prioritisation for Afghanistan focuses extensively on humanitarian concerns, but this alone is not going to be enough. Instead, multi-sectoral interventions are needed that span the remit of the nexus, with a focus on food security and livelihood support and further supported by strengthened institutions for education, health, and inclusive financing.
  • Youth strategies in Afghanistan should be embedding dialogue with local authorities to develop a shared commitment to youth inclusion that engages with youth as agents of change – where they are able to articulate their interests. This focus should be mainstreamed across projects and programmes in the country.
  • Policy and programmes for young adults in poverty should include developing their asset base and expanding social protection floors, with an urgent focus on addressing the most severe forms of hunger, plus social insurance (e.g. for health and death, business assets, livestock). This would help promote pathways out of poverty while also preventing impoverishment. This could also bolster informal support structures.
  • Support for young women in and near poverty could include providing monthly child allowances, cash benefits for parents affected by day closures, and work-sharing arrangements in response to the care crises.

Parts of this agenda may be unworkable in current circumstances but could benefit from stepwise change through increasingly coordinated efforts by government ministries, NGOs and CSOs, and aid agencies. Bilateral funders would then need to remove or reduce their restrictions on what can be funded to support youth inclusion in Afghanistan.

In all of this, addressing intersecting inequalities – especially on poverty, age and gender will be key to promote inclusive futures of young adults in Afghanistan.

This blog draws on multiple recent research publications:

International Youth Day

To mark international Youth Day 2022 we would like to encourage you to revisit a series of seminars from last year on Youth Employment and Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa region. This includes a seminar chaired by Marjoke Oosterom on Hard work and hazard: Youth and the rural economy in Africa.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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