Why Are Afghans Smiling?

Afghanistan has been at war more or less continuously for more than 30 years. The country has been invaded and effectively destroyed multiple times. With frequent reports of clashes and strife over the upcoming presidential election, most polls depict Afghans on the brink of an abyss and cite growing frustration with the violence, the United States and the international community. But research we conducted this year reveals that, relative to international norms, Afghans remain surprisingly happy. And unless we understand what makes Afghans so counterintuitively cheerful, we are unlikely to ultimately win their “hearts and minds.”

A certain level of stability, of course, is necessary for society to function. While focusing on security alone may address the concerns of Western audiences, such a strategy is unlikely to please Afghans. After years of war, Afghans appear to have adapted to insecurity, as they have to crime and corruption. A sharper focus on reducing tolerance for corruption and improving public trust, based on an understanding of how those feelings vary across districts, might help foster the important glimmers of hope and preferences for political freedom that we found.

The surveys we conducted across eight regions of Afghanistan allowed us to gauge welfare under a variety of socioeconomic circumstances and to capture changes in mood as the nature of political and economic regimes changes. In collaboration with researchers in Kabul, we completed the first such survey in Afghanistan in January. We found an overall high level of happiness – for example, 81 percent of Afghans said that they had smiled the day before. Smiling yesterday is a commonly used measure of innate happiness, and Afghans who were smiling in January are likely to have been smiling yesterday, too. And the reasons so many Afghans smiled were intriguing.

Adaptation to crime and corruption appears to be key. Of 2,000 respondents – 11 percent of whom were women; fear of violence leads many women to avoid talking to unfamiliar men – 25 percent reported having been a victim of corruption in the past 12 months, and 11 percent were victims of crime. Yet victims were no less happy than the average, as were those who reported being unable to walk safely in their neighborhoods. This is a marked departure from most other places in the world, where being victimized or afraid in one’s own neighborhood causes unhappiness. As crime and corruption have become the norm, these phenomena do not appear to be having the usual effects on well-being. The ability to adapt to adversity is good from an individual perspective, but from a societal perspective, it can lead to complacency in the face of rampant crime and corruption.

Afghans don’t think their lives compare well to the lives of people elsewhere, but they are optimistic that they will live better in the future. Sixty percent of respondents said it is possible for someone who is born poor to become better off. In Latin America, which surely has more economic and political stability, only 30 percent of 18,000 respondents to a 2008 regional survey said that hard work is more important to success than connections.

Afghans are sensitive to their political environment. Afghans who are satisfied with democracy are happier than the national average, as are those who believe that they can speak freely. Yet support for the idea of democracy does not translate into trust in public institutions or fellow citizens. Fewer than 10 percent of respondents answered that they could trust their neighbors; 20 percent said they trusted the government; 21 percent trusted the police; and 17 percent trusted the international security forces.

Perhaps most intriguingly, we found increased levels of happiness among people living in areas with moderate Taliban influence. (Our team could not conduct interviews in regions with the most extreme violence.) We also found that living in such areas had a stronger effect on happiness than all but one factor: income. People in these districts were more likely to be satisfied with democracy, to say that they had freedom of expression and to trust others. One possible explanation for these higher happiness levels is that crime and corruption levels in these areas were lower. Ten percent of respondents said they were crime victims, and 19 percent reported being victims of corruption. Corruption victims in these areas were less happy, perhaps because there is less tolerance for corruption.

Our findings give reasons for both hope and despair in a country in which the international community has a major stake. The optimism and resilient preferences for freedom could be an important counterforce to the general climate of violence, fear and mistrust that persists in Afghanistan. Many studies demonstrate how low trust in public institutions and high levels of corruption result in bad development outcomes. Unfortunately, establishing trust in public institutions and reducing corruption are among the aid objectives we know least about. These objectives are even harder to achieve in places where people are complacent about the problem. It is critical to a successful outcome in Afghanistan that we better understand why some parts of Afghanistan – which, coincidentally or not, have more Taliban influence than others – have different norms of corruption and higher levels of happiness, democracy satisfaction and trust in fellow citizens. The implication is that a U.S. strategy focused on violence and security and directed at the Taliban or at drug lords may not match Afghan concerns.