Afghanistan is the unhappiest country in the world — even before the Taliban swept to power last August. That's according to a so-called World Happiness report released ahead of the U.N.-designated International Day of Happiness on Sunday.
The annual report ranked Afghanistan as last among 149 countries surveyed, with a happiness rate of just 2.5. Lebanon was the world’s second saddest country, with Botswana, Rwanda and Zimbabwe rounding out the bottom five. Finland ranked first for the fourth year running with a 7.8 score, followed by Denmark and Switzerland, with Iceland and the Netherlands also in the top five.
Researchers ranked the countries after analyzing data over three years. They looked at several categories, including gross domestic product per capita, social safety nets, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity of the population, and perceptions of internal and external corruption levels.
Afghanistan stacked up poorly in all six categories, a confounding result coming as it did before the Taliban arrival and despite 20 years of U.S. and international investment. The U.S. alone spent $145 billion on development in Afghanistan since 2002, according to reports by the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan.
Still, there were signs of increasing hopelessness.
Gallup did a polling in 2018 and found that few Afghans they surveyed had much hope for the future. In fact the majority said they had no hope for the future.
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Years of runaway corruption, increased poverty, lack of jobs, a steady increase in people forced below the poverty line, and erratic development all combined into a crushing malaise, said analyst Nasratullah Haqpal. Most Afghans had high hopes after 2001, when the Taliban were ousted and the U.S.-led coalition declared victory.
“Unfortunately the only focus was on the war, the warlords and the corrupt politicians,” said Haqpal.
“People just became poorer and poorer and more disappointed and more unhappy... that is why these 20 years of investment in Afghanistan collapsed in just 11 days," he said referring to the Taliban's lightning blitz through the country before sweeping into Kabul in mid August.
When Masoud Ahmadi, a carpenter, returned to Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan after the 2001 collapse of the Taliban, his hopes for the future were bright. He dreamed of opening a small furniture-making shop, maybe employing as many as 10 people. Instead, sitting in his dusty 6-foot by 10-foot workshop on Saturday, he said he opens just twice a week for lack of work.
“When the money came to this country, the leadership of the government took the money and counted it as their personal money, and the people were not helped to change their life for the better,” said Ahmadi.
The report warns that Afghanistan's numbers might drop even further next year when it measures Afghans' happiness level after the arrival of the Taliban. The economy is currently in free fall as the group struggles to transition from insurgency to governing.