Afghan living standards among world's lowest

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 22 2005 12:16 p.m. MST

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Three years after the United States drove the Taliban out and vowed to rebuild Afghanistan, the war-shattered country ranked 173rd of 178 countries in the U.N. 2004 Human Development Index, according to a new report from the United Nations.

It was trailed only by five countries, all in sub-Saharan Africa: Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sierra Leone.

"National Human Development Report: Security With a Human Face," released Monday in Kabul, is the first comprehensive look at the state of development in Afghanistan in 30 years. In addition to ranking Afghanistan in the development index for the first time, the report warned that Afghanistan could revert to anarchy if its dire poverty, poor health and insecurity were not improved.

"The fragile nation could easily tumble back into chaos," concluded the authors, led by Shahrbanou Tadjbakhshz. "The basic human needs and genuine grievances of the people, lack of jobs, health, education, income, dignity and opportunities for participation must be met."

Despite the problems, Afghanistan has shown remarkable progress since the U.S.-led war in 2001, the report said. More than 54 percent of school-age children are enrolled, and the economy is making great strides, with growth of 16 percent in non-drug gross domestic product in 2003.

Still, said Zphirin Diabr, associate administrator of the U.N. Development Program, the country has a long way to go just to get back to where it was 20 years ago. The figures, as President Hamid Karzai says in the introduction, paint a gloomy picture.

Average life expectancy is 44.5 years, at least 20 years lower than in neighboring countries. One out of two Afghans can be classified as poor, and 20.4 percent of the rural population gets less than the benchmark of 2,070 calories a day to eat.

Most glaring are inequalities that affect women and children, some of the worst social indicators in the world, said Alistair McKechnie, country director of the World Bank, which financed the report with the Canadians and the United Nations.

One woman dies from pregnancy-related causes about every 30 minutes, and maternal mortality rates are 60 times higher than in industrialized countries, the report said. One-fifth of the children die before the age of 5, 80 per cent of them from preventable diseases, one of the worst rates in the world.

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