A new survey in Afghanistan by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV shows massive disgust with corruption in Kabul and the provinces, anger and contempt for the Taliban, and a majority of the population insecure and living in primitive conditions with widespread poverty and deprivation.
The poll is the latest in a series in Afghanistan by ABC and its colleagues, and it shines a much-needed light on the abysmal living conditions for so many in Afghanistan.
In its report, ABC News emphasized positive findings, with a headline saying "Views Improve Sharply in Afghanistan, Though Criticisms of the U.S. Stay High." ABC underscored what it described as "hopes for a brighter future" and a slight softening of views toward the U.S. and NATO when compared to a similar survey in January 2009.
The details tell a more painful story -- one very similar to what world poverty expert Jeffrey Sachs described in a recent interview with Nieman Watchdog in which he urged the press to stress issues relating to almost unimaginably poor living standards in Afghanistan.
Only one in seven of those interviewed said they felt very secure from crime and violence. More than half -- 57 percent -- said their monthly household income was $100 or less. Three out of five rated availability of electricity as somewhat bad or very bad; one-third rated the availability of clean water unfavorably, three out of five said they could afford very little or no food and had to rely to a great extent on what they could raise themselves or on food assistance. Half said they can't afford the things they want and need, half said they are unsafe from the Taliban and other armed groups.
Regarding electricity, almost half said they had no electric power in their homes. (About one-quarter lived in homes served by power lines, and they reported sharp improvement over recent years in availability of electricity.) Only one-third said they could afford all or some of the fuel they need for cooking or generators; the rest said they could afford very little or none and had to rely on fuel assistance. Fifty-six percent said they had received no education; only 24 percent reported having gone as far as junior high school.
At the same time, six in ten said they own or have access to a mobile phone, four of five have radios and about half have TVs in their homes. They can be in touch with the world, or at least aware of it, if they choose.
In all, 1,534 people were interviewed from Dec. 11 to 23. ABC made much of a finding that 70 percent in the survey felt the country was headed in the right direction, that 71 percent expected their own lives to be better a year from now, and that 61 percent felt their children would have a better life than they themselves do.
These hopes for the future seem to be viewed by ABC as expressions of optimism. Maybe they are for some Afghans. But for a great many, they may instead reflect a feeling that things hit bottom years ago and just can't get any worse.
It seems only reasonable that people with no money, little or no education, struggling just to get food or keep the lights on might expect their lives to improve, especially with all the world's attention on them. And by Afghan polls standards, 70 percent seeing the country moving the right direction direction isn't so great. In a 2006 survey by WorldPublicOpinion.Org, 83 percent in Afghanistan said they thought things were going in the right direction.
Regarding attitudes toward the West, the details aren't so rosy either. The increases in favorable views toward the U.S. and NATO from January 2009 to December weren't really very sharp. Not only that, but ABC and its colleagues have been doing survey research in Afghanistan since 2005, and the new findings don't show any gains at all when compared with polls in most of those years.
For example, one question asked people to "rate the work" of the United States in Afghanistan. The dismal results: Six percent rated the work as excellent and 32 percent as good, compared to 59 percent who gave an unfavorable rating. That's a negligible improvement over the previous poll, when the figures were 5 percent excellent, 27 percent good and 63 percent negative--but it's worse than polls by the same groups in the three earlier years.
Similarly, 68 percent said they support the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan now (including 21 percent who say strong support), up from 63 percent in the January 2009 survey. But in the groups' 2007 survey, 71 percent said they supported U.S. military presence, and in 2006, 78 percent did.
The survey also found that while a majority felt there had been fraud in the re-election of Hamid Karzai as president last June, 75 percent still said they were satisfied with the election's outcome.
Some observers are skeptical of a survey stating that 68 percent of Afghans approve the U.S. military presence and that 75 percent are satisfied with the Karzai's re-election. An article in Huffington Post had a headline, not exactly subtle, stating, 'Experts on Afghanistan Doubt Survey on Foreign Occupation: Results Are Impossible.' The thrust of the complaints was that parts of Afghanistan are so unsafe that interviewers wouldn't go there, that respondents said what they felt interviewers wanted to hear, that interviewers probably spoke to people they already knew, that the interview selection technique used isn't feasible in Afghanistan.
ABC's polling director took issue with these criticisms, defending the methodology and the group that did the field work.
It's fair and proper to question how forthcoming Afghans are in expressing their opinions on politics, as critics of this survey do. But there's little reason to doubt respondents' descriptions of their living conditions.
(A personal note on surveys by news organizations: I started the Washington Post poll in 1974; then in 1981 a colleague from ABC News and I founded the Washington Post/ABC News poll. We did about a poll a month most years, more during election periods, until 1987 when I left the Post. Our polls always had shortcomings. After each -- invariably, that is -- I thought of questions we should have asked but didn't. Our aim was to add to people's understanding of life in America, and I think we did that, to an extent. It looks to me like that's what ABC, BBC and ARD German TV have in mind regarding life in Afghanistan. It's a worthwhile, important effort. I commend them for it.)
(This item first appeared on NiemanWatchdog.org)