The South Asia Channel

Can Cities Save Afghanistan?

Urbanization is the future. Afghanistan needs to catch up so it won’t continue to fall behind.

Modern Kabul - Rising From The Ashes
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 11: Traffic moves through the old district February 11, 2006 in Kabul, Afghanistan. With the huge influx of foreign revenue, Kabul's economy is booming and with more of the capital city's 4.5 million residents are purchasing cars. Citywide traffic jams often don't ease until after sunset. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

In 2007, for the first time in human history, the number of people living in cities surpassed those living in rural areas. In 1950, only 30 percent of the world’s population was urban. In 2050, it will reach 66 percent. This urbanization trend is projected to add 2.5 billion to world’s urban population, “with nearly 90 per cent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa.”

The future of the world is urban, and so is the future of Afghanistan. By 2050, nearly half of the Afghan population — or 25.6 million people — will be living in cities, according to a recent United Nations study. In just the past few years, major cities in the country have grown dramatically in size and population. In the capital city, Kabul, the population has increased from 1.5 million in 2001 to around 6 million in 2014, making it the fifth-fastest growing city in the world. Yet despite this rapid urban growth, Afghanistan has done little to prepare its urban governmental bodies to tackle the challenges presented by this expansion.

Afghanistan’s urban population growth is driven by the return of refugees — mainly from Pakistan and Iran — which first escalated after the fall of the Taliban in 2001; the increase of internally displaced people fleeing war and natural disasters; and most importantly, the acceleration of rural-urban migration. Rural migrants who move into cities are in pursuit of opportunities and resources that are not available in the countryside. They want jobs, better education for their children, and greater access to the services, leisure activities, and comforts that are distinctly urban.

In addition to this desire for city life, Afghanistan’s urbanization has partly been fuelled by the fact that the country is not a suitable place for its current agriculture-based economy. Production issues — lack of proper irrigation systems, insufficient transportation infrastructure, lack of modern machinery, and a lack of arable land — cause major barriers to expanding the country’s agricultural sector, and should warn Afghan authorities that a traditional agrarian model cannot serve as an engine for economic growth.

In Afghanistan, where only 12 percent of land is arable, agriculture constitutes 20 percent of its GDP, while employing 78 percent of the country’s workforce. There are a number of reasons why so many people produce so little and why the agricultural sector is a failure, but land ownership is the primary cause of the dysfunction.

Contrary to many other developing countries, where a few people control vast areas of land, the majority of the agricultural lands in Afghanistan are small family plots. However, due to the recent population growth, these plots are increasingly divided into smaller pieces among the heirs, making it even harder for families to live off of them. Plus, the un-mechanized mode of production continues to be a challenge for Afghan agriculture yields. If Afghan leaders want to root out the endemic poverty and malnutrition in the country, they need to focus on city-based economic sectors instead of the underwhelming agricultural one. In fact, the United Nations has asked countries like Afghanistan to consider urban creative industries — like the arts, fashion, and architecture — for long-term development.

Due to this shifting focus, there has been much talk in Kabul lately about the mining industry and how it can save the country’s economy, but this sector also needs to be urbanized. While mines are usually located in rural areas, the industry itself demands an urban lifestyle and urban services, such as modern transportation, housing, and municipal services. To reach a higher level of industrial production in mining, Afghanistan will need a new breed of workers who live in dense areas and work on a structured schedule — a far cry from the lifestyle of the villagers, who enjoy greater flexibility. Therefore, if the future of the Afghan economy is dependent on mining, as many seem to believe, it is important for the government to train the right workforce, build the needed infrastructure, and improve urban governance to accommodate the changes its cities will experience.

In the current (predominantly traditional) agricultural system, Afghans do not produce enough to accumulate wealth: They cannot save money, which is a key factor for increasing social mobility and growing the economy. It is only by living in the cities that people can have a better chance of accumulating wealth and saving more of what they earn.

According to the results of a survey published by two American economists in 1968, there are four indicators for development potential: the growth of private savings, improvement in transport systems, the mechanization of agriculture, and the commitment of the leadership for economic growth. In this survey, which compared 75 different countries and measured the “development potential” of developing countries, Afghanistan was labeled as having low potential for growth and given zero chance of advancing its status, all due to the traditional structure of its economy. That structure hasn’t changed much in the nearly 50 years that have passed since the results were released.

Development for many countries in the world has been a form of urbanization, as there is no developed country where most of its population lives in villages. Some, like Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, go as far as to say: “[T]here’s no such thing as a poor urbanized country; there’s no such thing as a rich rural country.” Density and heterogeneity, according to Glaeser, are the city’s greatest sources of wealth as more people living in close proximity to each other means there are more opportunities for innovation and creativity. Therefore, for sustainable development and growth, a country needs a predominately city-based economy.

It is because of these opportunities that the rural-urban migration in Afghanistan has mostly been a one-way journey. A countryman, once settled in the city, will not voluntarily return to his village. Even the internally displaced people fleeing war, and who now live in tents on the outskirts of Kabul, say that they are not going to return to their villages, regardless of when peace is restored there. The reason is simple: even in urban slums, with difficult living conditions, people have more access to employment and services than in rural areas. Yet, Afghanistan has been suffering from serious shortcomings in its delivery of basic services.

In the post-Taliban era, the situation slightly improved thanks to billions of dollars in foreign aid. However, the burden of delivering this aid to rural areas was shouldered by the NGO community, not the government. In fact, the Afghan government’s reluctance to invest in urbanization and reform city governance stems from the fact that the more people live in cities, the more they demand government services. The government body responsible for urban development — the Ministry of Urban Development Affairs (MUDA) — is considered “one of the worst performing government departments,” with no capacity to spend even half of its modest development budget.

But it seems that the Afghan government is looking at urbanization the wrong way. If the government wants to fight poverty and improve the quality of life of its citizens, urbanization is its best chance. In cities, because of the higher population density, it is easier and cheaper to provide people with services such as roads, water, healthcare, and education, as compared to rural areas where people are scattered throughout a vast territory. As a result, cities are, according to the economist Glaeser, “the best hope for lifting people out of poverty without wrecking the planet.”

Urbanization is the future and instead of worrying about it, the Afghan government should start working on urban-oriented development plans, including reforming urban governance. Responsibilities should be efficiently divided between municipalities and MUDA in order to end the current disputes over duties. Municipalities should be de-politicized and mayors should be elected by direct votes, as the Afghan Constitution requires. The mayors, like most other local government officials, are currently appointed by the president, who cares more about their political loyalty than their competence. An elected mayor can stand against corrupt government officials and the city residents can hold him accountable for his performance. Afghanistan needs to take planned measures to make cities more livable, welcoming, and safer, especially for women. The city is not a threat — it is an opportunity, especially for poor countries like Afghanistan.

John Moore/Getty Images

Ali Karimi is a Vanier Scholar at McGill University in Canada where he is writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Kabul city. Twitter: @TheAliKarimi