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Poor Afghanistan

Three years after allied forces routed the ruling Taliban, living conditions in Afghanistan rank near the bottom of the 178 countries surveyed by the United Nations. According to the National Human Development Report, Afghanistan is just ahead of the poorest sub-Saharan African countries.

This first comprehensive look at Afghan life in three decades paints a "gloomy picture," concedes President Hamid Karzai. The country has the worst education system in the world with an adult literacy rate of less than 30%. Maternal mortality is 60 time higher than in most developed countries. One in eight children dies because of contaminated water; 20% of all children die before the age of five. Those who survive can expect to live less than 45 years.

But Barnett Rubin, Director of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, says even though the U.N. report is one of dire poverty, the fact that the survey was even conducted is a sign of progress.

"It shows first of all, that you now have an Afghan government that cares about these problems and is trying to address them and that it is now mobilizing the skills and commitment of Afghans themselves to do that," says Professor Rubin. "So those are all tremendously positive developments. But of course, the report documents how big the challenges are that Afghans and the new Afghan government have to meet."

One of the biggest challenges facing the country is illegal drugs. Almost all of the poppies used to make heroin are grown in Afghanistan. Although growth of the legal economy is expected to be at least 10% per year for the next decade, illicit drugs still account for nearly 60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

In order to transcend the drug economy, Afghan specialist Barnett Rubin says the government must reestablish the foundations of free market capitalism.

"It has to be able to provide security so people know that if they make some money, some warlord or commander isn't going to just come along and grab control of their enterprise," says Professor Rubin. "It has to have a legal system that can resolve disputes and enforce contracts. It has to have secure land titles and transparency of operations so that corrupt government officials don't also stand in the way of businessmen."

There's near universal agreement among scholars that rebuilding Afghanistan's economy and establishing democratic institutions must go hand in hand. Last year, a new constitution was adopted and the country held its first free presidential election. And parliamentary elections have been announced for September. But armed warlords throughout much of the country still threaten peace, stability and economic progress.

Years of battling a Soviet invasion, factional violence and harsh Taliban rule have left Afghanistan wrecked and impoverished. That's why foreign policy analyst Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute says Afghans will be forced to rely on massive foreign assistance at least in the near term.

"There's a huge amount to do to recreate an infrastructure in Afghanistan, real basic things like roads, school buildings, electricity, pure water and all of the rest of that stuff," notes Mr. Donnelly. "For the next couple of years, this is a case where the classic models of international development actually are quite worthwhile as long as we don't try to tell the Afghans how to run their government."

Researcher Daud Saba, one of the authors of the U.N. Human Development Report, agrees. Although Mr. Saba points out that Afghans are grateful for the billions of dollars of international aid that have poured into his country during the past three years, he stresses that Afghans should have more say in how that aid is directed.

"Afghans need to be given a chance to participate in decision making through democratic mechanisms which are still lacking in the country," says Mr. Saba. "It has to be coordinated with Afghans and among the donors, and giving the leadership to Afghans to find out what their needs are and to participate in the design of the programs and to solve their problems."

Afghanistan's standard of living is slowly improving. For example, the United Nations reports that vaccination programs may soon eradicate measles and polio. And two-thirds of the country's children now attend school, including girls who were denied an education under the Taliban.

Whether this country of 28-million people will emerge from decades of violence and poverty, most analysts say, will depend not only on support from the international community but also on the Afghan people's determination to nurture their fledgling democracy.