Labor markets, livelihood strategies, and food security in Afghanistan

Originally published


A special report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET)


The Famine Early Warning Systems Network's (FEWS NET), along with its local governmental and nongovernmental partners; monitors, analyzes, and reports on food insecurity. For the traditional wheat producing provinces in the north, the performance of the wheat harvest strongly correlates with the food security situation of the local population during the following marketing year. In contrast, local production has less of an impact on household food security for populations of the south, southeast, southwest, central, and western sub-regions. In these areas, households have been responding to eight years of drought by diversifying their livelihoods strategies, particularly by expanding reliance on wage employment (e.g., in construction and poppy production). Wheat is the principle staple in these areas as well, but a large portion the wheat consumed is acquired through markets that are essentially supplied by imports from Pakistan. To effectively analyze and monitor the food security of these populations, it is important to consider factors other than, or in addition to, local production such as food prices, trade restrictions, wage rates and employment opportunities. The aim of this study is to gain a better understanding of labor markets and labor-based livelihood strategies in southern and central Afghanistan with an aim toward improving food security analysis, assessment of vulnerability and early warning. The findings from this study will enhance food security monitoring and scenario development as well as and help identify appropriate food security interventions.


The basis of the study was a review of existing literature and data sets on labor markets in Afghanistan (summarized in Annex A). Data on labor markets in Afghanistan are incomplete. Different organizations use different definitions and categories for occupations and different research methods. Resultant outputs are of varying reliability. Future data collection could be much more focused on directly answering labor market questions, such as identifying not only the main occupations households engage in, but also the proportion of household income derived from each occupation. The literature review was supplemented by a simple case study in Bamyan Province, where focus groups were conducted with three sets of casual laborers. Key informant interviews were conducted in Kabul and a two day workshop was held in October 2006 to bring together a variety of actors interested in labor markets and food security.


The Central Highlands (Wardak, Uruzgan, Ghor, Bamyan, and Daykundi Provinces) are a chronically isolated food insecure region where mountainous geography, impassable snows during winter and poor transport infrastructure limit economic growth, access to markets, and employment opportunities. Livestock is still a key livelihood strategy in the Central Highlands, although livestock ownership has been in decline for nearly a century due to competition for rangeland, conversion of rangeland to cropland, and degradation of rangeland due to deforestation. Agriculture is important in terms of providing food for household consumption, income from crop sales and agricultural wage employment opportunities (although share cropping is more common). However, landholdings are typically too small to sustain households, and non-agricultural employment such as manual daily labor in construction and loading and cart pulling in the bazaar is common. Employment opportunities are inadequate and levels of unemployment and underemployment are high. Seasonal and longer-term migration to urban centers, Iran, and, Pakistan is common, but seasonal migration is not as easy as in the south due to distance and poor transport infrastructure. Income generation through and trade and services is quite limited with the exception of Wardak Province, due to its close proximity to Kabul.

Some of the factors that contribute to food security in the Central Highlands and could serve as monitoring indicators include: the numbers of returnees from Iran and Pakistan coming into the region; local employment opportunities and the wage rates; employment opportunities in Kabul, Iran, and Pakistan; surpluses from the previous harvest and expectations for the upcoming harvest as both promote activities related to marketing and trade; and the number and magnitude of on-going and planned public works and NSP construction projects. Some signs of stress would be a sudden or abnormally high number of people gathering at the city plaza in search of day labor as well as significant numbers being unable to find work through this means, or increased out migration during the summer months when typically there would be higher local demand for labor.


The provinces in the south, southwest, and southeast of Afghanistan (Paktika, Paktiya, Khost, Nangarhar, Nimroz, Helmand, Kandahar, and Zabul Provinces) have suffered from long-term drought and increasing conflict and insecurity, both of which have had a negative impact on food security and on labor markets. Opium production and trade are key sources of economic growth, livelihoods and labor opportunities across the southern region and particularly in Helmand Province. Southern provinces have larger Kuchi populations than the central provinces. Livestock is the most important income generating activity for the Kuchi, but in the south the Kuchi appear to have a more diverse income structure.

Trade and services are more common occupations in the south than in the Central Highlands due to better transport infrastructure and the fact that this region spans the border with Pakistan and some portion of the border with Iran, facilitating cross border trade. Engagement in trade is particularly common among urban dwellers. Unlike the Central Highlands, the south has two urban centers, Jalalabad and Kandahar, which also stimulate and facilitate trade. There is large-scale seasonal migration across the Pakistan border, and also longer-term migration to Pakistan and the Gulf states. The reliance on remittance is higher for the South than the Central Highlands as reported by the 2005 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment.

Factors that affect food insecurity include: the numbers of returnees from Iran and Pakistan coming into the region; local employment opportunities and the wage rates; employment opportunities in Kabul, Iran, and Pakistan; and surpluses from the previous harvest and expectations for the upcoming harvest as both promote activities related to marketing and trade. While a number of the factors influencing food security in the Central Highlands are also important in the South, there are significant differences. Formal and informal policies promulgated by Pakistan or Iran and related to or influencing cross border activity affect the intensity and cost of legal as well as illegal trade. Opium eradication, especially if well enforced and deteriorating civil security also play a significant role.


As part of this study a labor market monitoring table (Annex B) was developed. It describes the key labor markets in a given province, and suggests labor market indicators that could be used to monitor potential shocks or resultant crises. The table attempts to break monitoring down over a season or a year, suggesting when events are most likely and when corresponding indicator monitoring is most useful.

Data on wage rates for agricultural and non-farm labor are collected and monitored at the local level by a number of organizations on an ad hoc and long-term basis. There are many organizations operating in different provinces whose knowledge of local labor markets could be an invaluable input to the monitoring table. A number of these organizations are identified within the body of the report.

The establishment of a labor markets information network that would feed information on labor markets from a variety of different perspectives would benefit all actors interested in labor markets, livelihoods and food security. The input would also contribute to monitoring the yearly/seasonal indicators outlined in the labor monitoring table. In addition to regular monitoring activities, strategic periodic interviews with laborers and traders at key market locations and the border could provide useful insights on current and expected economic activities and hence labor opportunities.