From academic to labourer: Afghan economic crisis spares few

By Zeba Siddiqui

(Reuters) – Unpaid for months and with many mouths to feed, Afghan assistant professor Khalilullah Tawhidyar recently found temporary work on a building site. With the 300 afghanis ($3.30) he earned that day, he bought provisions for his family.

The former member of a government taskforce on educational reform, who teaches English at Parwan University just north of Kabul, is one of thousands of middle class, educated Afghans fighting poverty as the country’s economy teeters.

“I had no choice,” Tawhidyar told Reuters, adding that he had not received his salary for three months. “This is the story of many educated people here now.”

Already battling a severe drought and the coronavirus pandemic, Afghanistan’s financial crisis has worsened since the return of the Taliban to power in mid-August.

Billions of dollars in international aid have dried up as the international community works out how to interact with the hardline Islamist movement, and billions more in foreign currency reserves are locked up in vaults in the West.

“You see doctors, teachers, judges being forced to work as shopkeepers, taxi drivers, or labourers,” said Victor Moses, the Afghanistan country director for the non-profit group CARE.

A report by the group last month said close to half of Afghanistan’s population – around 19 million people – face acute hunger. A recent UN report said as much as 97% of the population could sink below the poverty line by mid-2022.

Over the weekend, the Taliban renewed calls https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-says-failure-recognise-their-government-could-have-global-effects-2021-10-30 for their government to be recognised, saying that a failure to do so and the continued freezing of Afghan funds abroad would lead to problems not only for the country but for the world.

FIGHT FOR FOOD

Tawhidyar, who has a masters degree from India and has attended courses in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, said he took up manual labour after he ran out of money and food.

While he sometimes goes into the public university where he works, classes have yet to resume because of lack of funding.

Like many Afghan households, Tawhidyar lives with his extended family, and 17 people depend on his salary.

“I was making just enough money to support my needs,” said the 36-year-old. When the salary stopped, he borrowed from friends and relatives, but that ran out weeks ago. By then, his heavily pregnant wife had missed two doctor’s appointments.

“The situation came that we didn’t have bread … we were just cooking rice and then the rice also finished,” he said.

Syed Bashir Aalemy, head of the English language department at Tawhidyar’s university, said he had been working as a taxi driver for the past few weeks.

“There is no other way,” Aalemy said. With fuel prices rising, that work may dry up, he added.

The rise of an educated middle class, working in education and government or for aid groups, banks and media and telecoms companies, was one of the most visible products of 20 years of Western involvement in Afghanistan.

Thousands of those people fled in the chaotic evacuation that followed the Taliban’s shock victory in August, fearing a return to its harsh rule and restricted freedoms. For those who remain, financial distress is common, even among the better off.

Abdul, a 41-year-old former police officer in Kabul and father of four, said he recently sold the last piece of land he inherited from his father in order to buy a taxi.

The 300-500 afghanis he earned each day was barely enough to provide daily meals for his family of six, added Abdul, who declined to give his last name for security reasons.

DEBTS PILE UP

Tawhidyar said he was carrying a sack of building material at the construction site when a friend took a picture of him.

Later that night in mid-October, he said, he posted an emotional message on Facebook featuring the image. “I was thinking about where I have come in my life.”

The post quickly went viral with thousands of shares on social media, and some of his friends reached out to express sympathy and offer financial help.

He borrowed around $300 from close friends who insisted he took the money, he said.

“But how long will I borrow? I already have a debt of thousands of dollars.”

Fearing a backlash, and warnings from Afghans who support the Taliban’s return to power, he said he had since deleted the post and deactivated his Facebook account.

If the university salary does not arrive, he said, he would have to return to manual labour.

(Additional reporting by the Islamabad newsroom; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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