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Asia Foundation Opinion poll – 2012

November 21, 2012

Summary: Opinion poll in Afghanistan shows many things.  Interesting and useful reading, but caution should be applied

By Tim Foxley

The Asia Foundation have released their latest opinion poll of the Afghan population.  It is well worth a read through to give you a sense of all the kinds of flavours of issues that the population may be interested in (or worry about) that do not normally crop up in day to day media reports.   Here is what I wrote about their 2011 poll.  The poll continues to appear well resourced and extensive – and has resulted in an annual survey every year for six years now, giving a certain amount of credibility and stability to its findings.  There is considerable transparency regarding their process – including the number of interview areas that could not be reached for security reasons.  I recommend a skim through the executive summary at least, which in a total paper of 218 pages, is the length of a short paper in its own right (being 16 pages long).

But here is a good starting point for the over-arching thrust of the conclusions:

Asia Foundation:

“…public optimism about the overall direction of Afghanistan is currently at its highest point since 2006; just over half of Afghans think the country is moving in the right direction, up from previous years. Many people report they are feeling safer in their communities, and crime and violence has reportedly decreased. Support for peace and reconciliation is very high.

Over time, Afghans are reporting improvements in a wide range of areas that affect their day-to-day lives, and they are generally satisfied with government performance, from the central to local level. However, in the face of these positive developments, many significant challenges remain. Afghans remain deeply concerned about job creation and the economy, as well as corruption. Security improvements have been uneven across the country, and many Afghans are still afraid to engage in basic public activities that people in other countries take for granted.

There is a rising sense of powerlessness to influence government decisions through political participation, and although there is broad support for women’s rights in several spheres, Afghans are divided on key issues related to women’s political participation…”

When an Afghan poll of this sort comes out there it raises a key issues regarding to what extent an accurate portrayal of popular thinking inside the country can be given.  As usual, I find the poll something of an analytical challenge, as it appears to paint a more positive picture of the country than I would.  But this gives me a good opportunity to reflect upon how I reach the judgements I reach.  With my full disclosure that I have not read through every inch of this report, there are perhaps a few issues which perhaps should be borne in mind when considering the poll:

Methodological issues – which the Asia Foundation freely admit:

The replacement of 168 out of 1,055 (ie 16%) sampling points for security reasons means that some areas with high levels of insecurity could not be accessed by the field survey team. This, in turn, means that the opinions of those living in insecure areas are likely to be underrepresented in survey findings.

The list of villages and districts (pages 193 – 208) that could not be reached seems to have a worryingly large number described as under Taliban control.  The AF seem good at exposing their working practises (and difficulties) overall, however.

Cherry-picking – the risk that different media, government, political, security and NGO groups select the information from within the poll that best suits their particular agenda or storyline.  Eg:

  1. Positive slant:
  • Afghans’ positive assessment of government performance is at its highest point since 2010, including in education (89%), security provision (70%) and maintaining relations with neighboring countries (55%).
  • Just over half of respondents (52%) say Afghanistan is moving in the right direction, up from 46% in 2011.
  • Regarding public confidence in public institutions and other important bodies, respondents continue to express the highest levels of confidence in the Afghan National Army (ANA) (with 93% of respondents saying they have a fair amount or a great deal of confidence) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) (with 82% of respondents expressing some level of confidence in them).
  • Three quarters (75%) of respondents give central government performance a positive assessment, including 15% who say it is doing a very good job and 60% who say it is doing a somewhat good job.
  1. Negative slant:
  • Nearly half (48%) of those surveyed report fearing for their personal safety or for that of their families,
  • Insecurity (39%) is the most commonly cited reason for pessimism.
  • Security thus remains the most significant factor in shaping Afghans’ assessment of progress in the country.
  • 30% of the population have “a lot” or “some” sympathy with the “armed opposition groups” in Afghanistan
  • Perceptions that corruption is a major problem in Afghanistan as a whole and at the provincial level are at their highest points since 2006, and perceptions that corruption is a major problem at the level of local authorities and the neighborhood, too, have been steadily rising.

Is “good” bad and “bad” good?

Sometimes a particular set of responses might indicate one issue but mean another.  Examples:

  • High levels of dissatisfaction with unemployment and national infrastructure is not good, but it might be a good indicator that fewer people are seeing fit to complain about the security situation
  • Reported dissatisfaction at government corruption levels might be a) because people expectations are increasing, b) the fact that government (as opposed to no government) is increasingly a feature across the country and c) people are increasingly comfortable about criticising their government.
  • High levels of trust in the media might still be indicative of high levels of naivety.
  • High levels of confidence in the army and police.  I have always struggled to understand reported high confidence in the police.  A respondent might be loath to criticise government institutions publicly.  Or they might genuinely feel more secure – if you, as an adult Afghan have moved, in ten years, from a state of no security, no infrastructure, no education and no governance, you might be more inclined to see any indication of order and organisation as a very positive thing.

In conclusion, I think the poll has a valid place.  We should read it, albeit with caveats and cautions (some of which I have suggested above) fully understood.  Opinion polls in Afghanistan will be flawed, that’s just the way it is.  There are useful insights here and, I at least, feel helpfully challenged to think about the way I think.

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