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Are better days ahead in Afghanistan? A new survey signals that just more than half of Afghans think their country is headed in the right direction. Here: Mohamed, who makes a living by working as a day laborer in construction, makes his way home after work in Kabul.
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According to a new survey by the Asia Foundation, 52 percent of the 6,300 Afghans it surveyed in June feel the country is heading in the right direction. It's the first time in eight years of conducting this survey that the foundation found a majority of Afghans held a positive view.
At a press event in Kabul, representatives of the nonprofit organization said they surveyed Afghans across the country. Topics ranged from security to corruption to women's rights, and included nearly 90 different questions. Some were open ended, others were multiple choice.
Of the 52 percent saying the country is heading the right direction, 41 percent of them said it was because of good security. Conversely, of the 31 percent saying the country is heading in the wrong direction, 39 percent said it was because of bad security. Security was the biggest determinant for both positive and negative views.
Other numbers that jumped out were the approval ratings for the Afghan Army, National Police, and the central government. Still, strong majorities said Afghan forces need continued foreign support.
Eighty six percent said the Afghan National Police are honest and fair and help improve security. When talking to Afghans, it's rare to hear such positive comments about the police. And in private, NATO personnel often express serious reservations about the ANP.
The Afghan National Army received even higher marks, though it is fairly typical to hear more positive than negative comments about the Afghan army.
When asked to name the biggest problem at the national level, 28 percent of those surveyed said insecurity, 27 percent said unemployment, and 25 percent said corruption. And, 79 percent of respondents said corruption was a major in Afghanistan as a whole (56 percent said corruption was a major problem in their daily lives).
So, given those numbers (and the constant complaints one hears in Afghanistan about the failures of the government to deliver services), how is it that 75 percent of those surveyed gave the central government a favorable rating?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in this statistic: 64 percent of respondents said it is inappropriate to criticize the government in public.
When pushed on this point, Fazel Rabi Haqbeen with the Asia Foundation, said he didn't think there was excessive bias in the numbers.
"However, we are looking into the social desirability aspect of the survey," he said.
He admitted that culturally, Afghans are likely to express either favorable opinions or opinions they think the questioner wants to hear.
Journalists encounter this constantly when talking to Afghans — people who might sit with family and criticize the government, the security forces, or NATO forces for that matter, might turn around and tell a journalist they are happy to have foreign forces in the country and they think they're doing a great job.
Haqbeen said that since this survey has been conducted for eight years, people are aware of it, and don't feel the need to tailor their answers for the interviewers. Also, eight years establishes a track record — and, again, this is the first such survey to show more than half saying Afghanistan is headed in the right direction.
But the Afghan staff in NPR's Kabul office expressed skepticism about much of the data, especially the positive responses about the Afghan government and the police in particular. They said it simply doesn't fit with what they see and hear.
They also questioned the finding that 55 percent of men surveyed said it was acceptable for women to work outside the home. They felt that was too high.
Some of the numbers that did seem more realistic were that 48 percent fear for their safety or the safety of their family, 63 percent expressed no sympathy at all for armed groups, and 70 percent said employment at the local level is very bad or quite bad.
A more interesting details from the demographic breakdown of the interview subjects: 58 percent never attended school, 34 percent were farmers, and 87 percent were from households with a monthly income below $300. Lastly, 38 percent said if given the opportunity they would leave Afghanistan, and 60 percent said they would not.
The presenters of the data said that they will be conducting analysis in the coming months to interpret the results and present findings and conclusions to the government and policy makers.
(Sean Carberry is NPR's Kabul correspondent. Click here for some of his other reports from Afghanistan.)