Afghanistan is known to the world as a failed state. Who decides what a failed state is, and the extent to which one has failed? Max Weber describes a failed state as one which is unable to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders.1 Noam Chomsky includes in the definition a state which fails to provide security for the population, to guarantee the population’s rights at home or abroad, or to maintain the function of a democratic state.2 The Fund for Peace & Foreign Policy has created an index system that quantifies a dozen aspects of state failure, including: physical control of its territory and erosion of legitimate state authority to make collective decisions, inability to provide reasonable public services, extensive corruption and criminal behavior, inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support, and environmental decay.3 Contrast this list to indicators of successful societies, which include measures of education, literacy, health, and well-being, and it becomes clear that visions and indicators of success and failure have become disconnected.

This apparent disconnect between the symptoms of a failed state and the remedies suggested by what is seen to constitute its healthy counterpart makes it difficult to imagine a way out of failed-statehood. We contend that it is necessary to rethink what a failed state is, to understand, at a rather more practical, grassroots level, the drivers of failed or successful societies.

The impracticality of the blurry failed-successful state dichotomy, and the potential of rethinking its criteria, can be illustrated by looking at the region of Badakhshan in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The provinces of Afghan and Tajik Badakshan share a watershed that is inhabited by Pamiri people with a common language, religion, and culture; these provinces are separated only by the Amu Darya River and 70 years of divergent development paths. Tajik Badakhshan benefited from Soviet development of infrastructure, education (99.5 percent overall literacy rate), a health care system, and access to markets. In stark contrast, 30 meters across the river, many Afghans still walk up to 12 days along donkey trails to the nearest commercial center and have severely limited access to healthcare (maternal mortality is the highest in the world at 6,507 deaths per 100,000 births)4 and education (18 percent and 36 percent literacy rates for women and men, respectively). Yet despite these stark contrasts in development and traditional indicators of “success”, many Tajiks will say that Afghans are better off because their livelihoods are more autonomous, independent of external inputs, and their economy is much less affected by global price fluctuations. One farmer in the Tajik district of Rushan said,

Now, life on the Afghan side of the river is better because they are able to feed themselves from their own land. They have money because they are not dependent on the global economy. Their clothes are much better because there is a tailor in every village. There are no tailors in Tajikistan.

Success or failure, then, depend on scale of analysis: success at the level of everyday livelihoods may or may not coincide with whether a state is deemed to have failed or not. In fact, often it doesn’t, since the criteria of failed statehood are quite disconnected from the lives of normal people. Part of the reason for this is that people fail to see a causal connection between how people lead their lives and how states fail or succeed, yet it is precisely in this connection, between the local and higher national, even global levels, that it becomes possible to look for solutions to the failed state.

In other words, identifying the systemic role of state failure requires a break away from the indicators mentioned above, and asks us to question the processes that create resilient communities in a system ridden with political rigidity, corruption, and violence. Given the uncertain future stability of a country subjected to complex, intertwined cycles of violence and despair, it can seem ridiculous to talk about solutions. Yet many Afghans in the north of the country have lived through, and even thrived, during 30 years of war.

In this paper we draw on cases from the province of Badakhshan, in Northern Afghanistan, to present three local solutions that all have some potential to break, from the bottom-up, the self-reinforcing loop that characterizes the trap of failed states. While all deal with local-level solutions to food production and diversification, they work at very different levels of human activity: the first describes an agricultural research station’s attempt at improving agricultural production, through an innovative approach to governance. The second example is a bold and innovative experiment to teach women the skills to grow and process vegetables in the high Pamir Mountains. It succeeded in introducing greens and beans to seminomadic communities who had never eaten vegetables before. The third works at the level of identity and imagination: using food culture to rekindle people’s sense of pride in who they are, it helps to offer a different basis from which to re-imagine a future that is their own, free of war.


Jamila Haider
Farmers measure the yield of different wheat varieties at Ganjabad research station. Through agricultural experimentation, Ganjabad is trying to bolster food security and establish a meaningful local partnership with the national government.

Case 1: Community Organizations and Research Stations Respond to Low Agricultural Yields

Development organizations often consider environmental resource management separate from economic development and conflict reduction. In Afghanistan, these are intimately related. Scarcity of natural resources can drive environmental degradation, perpetuating a positive feedback cycle in which scarcity leads to conflict, and conflict leads to scarcity.5 The irreversible loss of forests and top soil in many parts of Afghanistan decreases the availability of already scarce water resources in lower catchment areas and deepens economic hardship, spawning migration and social strife. The eastern region of Afghanistan lost between 50 and 80 percent of its forest cover between 1977 and 2002.6 Moreover, particularly in the northern mountainous region where the case studies in this paper are located, climate change is influencing glacial runoff, inducing flash floods and rendering downstream water availability erratic. Land is subdivided into smaller portions with each generation. Eventually, the plots cannot properly support their cultivation, fallow periods are neglected, and greater poverty prevents investment in conservation.

Pressured to produce more wealth with less land, farmers increasingly resort to opium production. From 2010 to 2011, opium production in Afghanistan increased by 61 percent, or 15 percent of total GDP.7 The trend was fuelled by falling wheat prices, making opium cultivation 11 times more profitable than growing wheat. Consequences are felt both at the state level, with increased income for the insurgents, and by farmers and traders, further increasing violence and stressing an already limited social infrastructure. Not only does the opium trade increase intracommunity violence, it also brings violent norms to the north of the country.

While the northern region of Badakhshan Province has been less plagued by physical conflict, it has also remained largely isolated from the infrastructural development in the rest of the country. Local systems of trade, development, and culture have not only managed to persist, but diversified over the decades of war. The people of Badakhshan have proven to be extremely resilient amid constant social, economic, and environmental shocks. The current government of Afghanistan and its implementing partners are working to build on these successful traditional management systems in order to adapt to pervasive changes. Development organizations have been active in Badakhshan, working closely with regional government authorities to implement community-based approaches to development, namely the National Solidarity Programme, under which Community Development Councils (CDCs) are established. CDCs have been established in two-thirds of the country, and while their place among local existing institutions remains disputed, their role in managing community-driven development activities has established them as primary governance actors at the subnational level.8 Compared with most international aid initiatives, which invariably run into the complexities of customary law and Afghan norms and customs, CDCs have been relatively successful in achieving equitable election processes, women’s inclusion in decision making, and overcoming entrenched power establishments.8

In response to the interacting environmental and social threats in the region, various successful interventions have improved agricultural productivity. Market accessibility and the promotion of “alternative licit livelihood strategies” have been successful in transforming opium fields to orchards or other staple crops.9 These successes can be attributed in part to support by physical infrastructure (canal systems and storage), but primarily to the community organizations around natural resources in the form of pasture management committees and water use associations. The Ganjabad research station outside Sultan-Ishkashim has spearheaded the rebuilding of legitimate government authority in the region by testing local and improved varieties of wheat and potato varieties. The station sowed 1.75 metric tons of true potato seed, imported from Peru in 2009, resulting in 15 metric tons of seed potato harvested this year.10 Farmers were able to sell this seed at local markets for further multiplication, thereby improving their food security and establishing a meaningful partnership with the national government. Positive impacts of this partnership have crossed the boundary with Tajikistan, as Afghan and Tajik researchers have begun sharing results and seeds.


Jamila Haider

A woman cooks over an open fire in Northern Afghanistan, where food is integral to culture and can offer pathways out of poverty.

The experiment could be improved by paying more attention to local customs and landscape. While true potato seed has obvious technical benefits (less chemical input, reduced risk of infection, reduced transport and storage costs), their long-term yield capacity and adaptation and the demand of farmers for true potato seed in the Pamir Mountains is unknown. These interventions are largely based on developing value chains for current market conditions, which for many Afghans are inconsistent with their traditional values. In many cases, the growth-based market paradigm undermines local ingenuity and survival. Several years ago, the agricultural office in Afghan Shugnan handed farmers a package with an improved European wheat variety and the corresponding necessary fertilizers. Local wheat, of which 153 varieties have been identified in the Pamirs, is grown without chemical fertilizers, which are prohibitively expensive; animal manure is used instead. Not surprisingly, the new fertilized wheat grew beautifully tall and provided a good harvest. Equally unsurprising, the extra demands posed on the soil meant that yields dropped after two years, and the taste of the flour poorly suited the dishes traditionally prepared with it.11

Case 2: High-Altitude Vegetables in the Wakhan and Little Pamir?

Extending beyond the idea of increasing production and economic growth, a rather daring initiative has managed to increase crop diversity and improve women’s health in the extraordinarily harsh environment of the Little Pamir of the Wakhan corridor in northeast Afghanistan. This area is inhabited primarily by semi-pastoralists, the Wakhi, and nomads, the Kirghiz, who mostly live off fresh milk products and meat from the summer pastures. Yet as isolated as the region is from the rest of the country, it has not been immune to change, and over the past 10 years communities have become more sedentary and are increasingly dependent on imported products from the expanding trade routes with China, Pakistan, and Iran. Traditional agricultural and pastoral practices and products are abandoned for third-grade, but “easy,” market goods, most of which are the world’s “left-over” products and seem to have negative impacts on regional health.

To improve health and increase nutritional diversity, development organizations have worked with women to establish small vegetable gardens. Through participatory technology development, plastic film technology was introduced, with which Kirghiz herders in the region managed to grow vegetables at an altitude of 4,000 meters for the first time this year.10

While the vegetable patches have been largely successful, few women knew what to do with the vegetables themselves. As the coordinator of the project explained:

The cucumbers grew to such a size, I was sure they would explode. Yet, the women did not use them. I asked them why they had not harvested the cucumbers and they told me they did not know how to eat them.12

Training was then given to the women on how to prepare salads, which they had never done before, and on preservation techniques to keep the vegetables for the long winter, when there are precious few sources of vitamins available. As with the improved wheat variety mentioned above, integrating new crops into livelihood strategies must be done with an understanding of local knowledge and traditions.

Case 3: Food to Imagine the Future

The past three decades of conflict have brought farmers in northern Afghanistan more than their share of hardship. The resilience they have shown in the face of these challenges has been remarkable. The source of this resilience must, for an important part, be sought in the autonomy they have managed to maintain vis-à-vis external influences, most notably with regards to their food and agricultural systems.

In recent years, development projects have begun to address some of the major physical and social challenges faced by farmers, with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, growth-driven interventions, such as the example of the improved wheat variety above, are all too common, and sociopolitical pressures from drug traders and the Afghan military compound these misguided efforts.


Jamila Haider
A young boy thrashes wheat in Northern Afghanistan, where 153 local varietals have been identified, each cultivated without chemical fertilizers.

Ensuring that all Afghans maintain a strong voice in the development process, for example, in the form of the CDCs mentioned above, may seem like an obvious solution. It isn’t. For most Afghani farmers, thinking about the future, imagining things they would like the future to bring, is not something they dare to do. When asked about their ideas, the response is often little more than a weak reflection of the discourse of markets and growth that has been promoted by development organizations for a long time.

In our work in the region over the past four years (2008–2011), we found food to be one way in which people, particularly women, are able to reflect on their ancestral history and rich culture, much of which revolves around agriculture and food. It appeared to be a powerful tool for farmers to make sense of the present, to explain drastic changes in landscape, trade, and social relations, and so to imagine solutions that could inspire development trajectories which are their own, unmarred by the unyielding presence of corruption, violence, and foreign markets.

A hint of the beauty with which local food culture could imbue development practice, if given the space, is offered by the story of the formation of the famous Lake Shewa, told by a farmer in the Afghan district of Shugnan:

At the bottom of what is now Lake Shewa, there was once a village. One evening, an old man came to the village and asked for food. His clothes were torn and people laughed at him, threw stones at him. But there was one woman who treated him kindly. She was poor and had only shiroghan to offer him – a warm cream made of milk, fresh butter and some salt. Thanking her, he told her to take her son and belongings and to seek refuge in a place high up on the mountain. That night there was a strong earthquake. Water appeared and flooded the village and its inhabitants. Later, the woman understood that the old man had been the holy Nasir Khusraw. Since that day, shiroghan is considered a holy food.

Food provides a common ground for discussion, invokes memories of the past, establishes identity in a turbulent world, and allows for an empowering vision of the future. Such narratives are deeply powerful metaphors in the local context and could, if married with the type of meaningful initiatives described above, inspire real solutions in a country whose future is looking increasingly uncertain.


We thank the many Pamiri families and colleagues who have helped us develop the thoughts presented in this paper. Financial and logistical support for this work were generously provided by the Christensen Fund, the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, the Swiss Cooperation Office Tajikistan, the Aga Khan Foundation Afghanistan, and the Mountain Societies Development and Support Programme. We also thank the photographer Judith Quax for allowing us to use her material in this publication.


Jamila Haider

Jamila Haider is a PhD candidate at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where her thesis focuses on the dynamics of persistent poverty in biocultural landscapes. Her research seeks to identify linkages between...


Frederik van Oudenhoven

Frederik van Oudenhoven works with agricultural and indigenous communities in Latin America and Central Asia. From 2007 to 2010, he worked as an associate scientist with Bioversity International (IPGRI)...

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