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Weak state, strong society

looking beyond the poverty statistics in Afghanistan

Adam Pain
Paula Kantor


The conditions under which Afghan rural households have lived over the last four decades is one in which the state was distant (as in pre 1978), the enemy (as in the 1980s), substituted for by the rule of semi-mobile bandits or subject to authoritarian rule (in the 1990s) and since 2001 dysfunctional when state behaviour and that of other power holders has often been predatory and arbitrary.

Drawing on detailed qualitative research in five Afghan villages across two contrasting provinces, this paper explores household livelihood trajectories since 2003 within a context of longer village histories. An environment of acute risk and uncertainty has characterised most provinces although the causes, dimensions and consequences of this are highly variable. There are important differences between provinces and villages. The concept of village republic is used to explore the variable capacity of villages to provide public goods, the circumstances that have brought this about and argues that it is possible to characterise long term village behaviour. Such variability is rarely captured in programming. Village practices and authority structures sit uncomfortably with donor views of good governance, in some but not all cases with good reason. Often the village and more often the household secures an allegiance for the relative physical and economic security, whatever the costs, because they offer what is unavailable elsewhere in Afghanistan’s institutional landscape. The room for choice or autonomy in such circumstances is limited. But there is a commitment of individuals to these institutions although they are well aware of the costs and compromises associated with them. Rather than seeing the village and Afghan household and the social norms that structure them as exceptional and problematic in their formation and operation, there are grounds for seeing them as something more usual and necessary.

Publication Type(s)

Conference Paper

Ten Years of War Against Poverty Conference Papers

Conference: Ten Years of War Against Poverty


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