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How Many Afghan Lives To A Western One?

Posted by on April 1st, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

In the Guardian today, Peter Singer breaks down the price of a life in Afghanistan.

Most just say that an Afghan life is worth the same as a British life, because all human lives are of equal value. Isn't that what we all believe?

The Ministry of Defence has been paying compensation to Afghans for accidentally killing their children, their brothers and sisters, or their parents, during the fighting in Afghanistan… in no case was more than $8,000 (about £5,000), paid for the loss of a single life.

Now let's take a look at the value of a British life. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice)… recommends that the NHS pay up to four times as much to extend the life of a British citizen by just one year, as the MoD is prepared to pay in compensation for killing a child or young person. That young person could – even allowing for Afghanistan's dismal life expectancy – expect to live another 40 reasonably good-quality years. That suggests an answer to the question with which I started: it takes about 4 x 40, or 160 Afghan lives, to be worth the same as one British life.

But that would not be the right answer, because £5,000 will buy much more in Afghanistan than it would buy in Britain – according to international price comparisons, perhaps four or five times as much. Let's say five times. Even with that adjustment, it is going to take 32 Afghan lives to be worth the same as one British life.

There is nothing unique about Britain in this respect. The Guardian has reported that the US generally pays no more than $2,500 in compensation for the loss of an Afghan life. In contrast, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the US government set up a Victim Compensation Fund. The average payment it made to families of victims was $1.8m. Adjusting for purchasing power at a 5:1 ratio suggest that the US regards the life of an American as equivalent to the lives of 144 Afghans.

That is all kinds of fucked up. But its even more fucked up to consider that in America at present the government continues Bush's penchant for giving money to the super rich, with the top 0.13% of the population making as much from those tax breaks as the bottom 90%. That means that one rich American is worth about 693 poor Americans – or 9972 Afghans.

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