Imagine you are an ER doctor trying to treat a very ill patient who has no medical history and only a vague recollection of symptoms. What would you do if you were the doctor? Trust your gut? Trust that the patient has chronicled his symptoms accurately enough to warrant an accurate diagnosis? This is perhaps how policymakers and aid workers felt back in 2001 when they were deciding where to begin the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
At the fall of the Taliban regime, there was an air of change and hope and a concerted promise made by 22 donor nations to unite forces for the rebuilding of Afghanistan. What was lacking, however, was a clear picture of where to start, an X-ray of the country, if you will. Socioeconomic data prior to 2001 was essentially nonexistent. At the sub-national level, it was unknown who needed help the most or where the most urgent challenges were. Even when some indicators were reported, those living in conflict-prone areas – the ones believed to be the most in need – were never accounted for due to security reasons.
Nationally representative data accurately reflecting where Afghans stood in terms of well-being, the depth of poverty and malnutrition, or a clear picture of the challenges they faced were practically nonexistent. Much like an ER physician who must make decisions without the patient's medical history, policymakers and aid workers were forced to make speedy assessments often lacking all the facts.
Today, thanks to the painstaking data collection undertaken by initiatives like the NRVA 2007/08 Survey, there is a much richer understanding of the status of the people of Afghanistan, even of those living in very remote or conflict-prone areas. The Poverty Status Report for Afghanistan, a joint effort of the World Bank and the Ministry of Economy of Afghanistan, provides the first full-body X-ray for the country. From this report, we now know that poverty in Afghanistan is as various and complex as its landscape; for example, while poverty rates are relatively low in the south, an area which has high levels of conflict and opium cultivation, high-poverty provinces are relatively better off in terms of education outcomes, immunization and access to services. From the Provincial Briefs section of this report we can also quantify the tremendous geographical diversity of outcomes and needs that currently exists in the country.
The new Interactive Data Visualization Tool (above) allows us to learn about the status of multiple dimensions of well-being across the provinces and to monitor how these have changed over time. In the same vein, the Food Security Report helps observers understand the way in which the global food price shock of 2008 hit Afghan homes. And, while the value of the quantitative analysis undertaken in this report is palpable, the Internal Displacement and Poverty section gives us a careful and very personal description of the dire living conditions of the internally displaced people, giving voice to thousands of Afghan families and putting a human face on the facts, reminding us that it is not just about numbers.
The hard facts provided by the availability of rich nationally representative data and the insights gleaned from the analysis of the data are significant milestones that must be underscored. Like the availability of medical history of the ill to the doctor, the accumulated knowledge is meant to assist policymakers and other development actors to come up with the right prognosis and to prioritize and better target policy prescriptions. Critically, like a physician’s report card, the information flow will also help evaluate the efficacy and effectiveness of policy decisions and survey the health of the Afghan economy and the well-being of its people.
To read more and explore Afghanistan through the new data visualization tool, go to www.worldbank.org/af/poverty.