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Mansions amid poverty

A house in Kabul's posh Shirpur area
(Akmal Dawi/IRIN)

Almost seven years after dozens of poor families were evicted from the suburb of Shirpur in central Kabul where they had lived for decades, they have still not got justice, and the new mansions which have taken their place underline the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The former shanty town has become a symbol of wealth, affluence and some say decadence, in the second least developed country in the world. Many Afghans mockingly call it “Shirchoor” (lion-grabbing), as it contains many of the city’s most outlandish buildings - generally owned by current and former ministers, warlords and other powerful individuals.

A UN special rapporteur, Miloon Kothari, who investigated the Shirpur case in 2003, said in a report: “Notwithstanding the legal considerations as to property rights in this case, I expressed the view that the way in which the forced evictions took place, including excessive use of force, amounted to serious human rights violations.”

The spread of Shirpur’s mansions, however, can nowhere near keep pace with the mushrooming squatter settlements and slums in and around Kabul where, according to the Ministry of Urban Development, illegal urbanization and land grabbing have been going on for years.

“Shirpur is a small sign of the huge crisis of disparity between the rich and the poor in this country,” Kabir Ranjbar, a representative of Kabul in the lower house of parliament, told IRIN.

“The rich are powerful and have manipulated everything to their benefit, while the poor are weak and have been marginalized and deprived of their basic rights,” he said.

Ranjbar’s concerns were echoed, albeit more modestly, by Abdul Rahman Ghafoory, director of the Central Statistics Office (CSO): “Gaps between rich and poor are widening.”

He based the remark on a National Risks and Vulnerability Assessment which says nine million Afghans (36 percent of the population) live in absolute poverty, and five million “non-poor” live on less than US$2 a day.

Unevenly distributed wealth

Over the past eight years Afghanistan has seen an unprecedented injection of funds for rebuilding and development, thanks to the generosity and strategic interests of donors.

Despite worsening security, the country has made strong macroeconomic progress, achieving a record rise of 22.5 percent in its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009-2010, according to the World Bank

However, the benefits have not been equally distributed, experts and aid workers say.

“The rich have become richer and more powerful while the majority of poor have been marginalized,” said Sayed Masoud, an economics lecturer at Kabul University, adding that the aid-inspired GDP growth had been “hijacked by oligarchs”.

“Economic growth can help alleviate poverty - but it can also exacerbate inequality, with only a few benefiting from newfound wealth. To some extent, this is what we are seeing in Afghanistan. While entrepreneurs and new businesses, particularly those based around the aid industry, have flourished, many - especially the poor and those in rural areas - have seen few positive benefits,” said Ashley Jackson, head of policy and advocacy for Oxfam in Afghanistan.

Risk of social unrest?

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime: “Unprecedented resource flows have created a new cast of rich and powerful individuals who operate outside the traditional power/tribal structures and bid the cost of favours and loyalty to levels not compatible with the under-developed nature of the country.”

Pervasive corruption and the abuse of weak state structures by the wealthy and powerful undermine justice and the rule of law, and fuel dangerous grievances, expert say.

Officials in the Ministry of Urban Development and Kabul Municipality say up to 70 percent of new high-rise buildings in the capital are illegal and built without regard to local laws or regulations by powerful individuals known as the “land mafia”.

The Ministry of Agriculture says up to a million hectares of state land has been seized by militia commanders and powerful warlords across the country in the past few years.

“Social unrest, violence and rebellion against the state are the most likely outcomes in a society where a majority of people live in extreme poverty but small elite groups thrive in affluence,” said Masoud of Kabul University, adding that social justice was a prerequisite for peace-making in war-torn Afghanistan.

“The big majority of the poor is indeed a huge problem in this country,” said the CSO’s Ghafoory, adding that opportunities and resources must be distributed fairly.

Almost seven years have passed since calls for transparency and justice in connection with Shirpur’s evictions and land seizures, but nothing has come into the public domain.

The UN’s Kothari warned in his report that a failure of justice and transparency on Shirpur would send out the wrong signals to “war lords and commanders to continue to illegally occupy land with impunity”.

He was prescient, according to MP Ranjbar and lecturer Masoud.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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