Skating towards peace

Observations on Afghanistan

Observations on Afghanistan

In America, one in 10 teenagers owns a skateboard. In Afghanistan, the people have three boards between them. None of the barefoot street kids and policemen with Kalashnikovs gathered around an empty fountain in Kabul has ever seen people rolling around like this on a plank of wood and four wheels. But they seem to like it. Everybody is grinning.

It's not long before the boys in the crowd are jumping into the concrete bowl to have a go, whooping as their friends lose their balance and tumble over. One angry young shoeshine boy in traditional Afghan robes who, arriving a few minutes ago, viciously belted another urchin for working on his turf, is giggling as he is led along by the hand on a skateboard by Amir, one of the Skateistan boys.

Amir tells me: "No one knows even the name. They say, 'What is skateboard?' People are interested. I think it will be very popular. When you go down the street everyone is like, 'What is it?'"

Skateboarding, the sport and subculture of disenchanted youth, has landed in Afghanistan, bringing its philosophy of physical expression of freedom.

Skateistan means "land of the skates". It's not a conventional NGO. The three Australians who have set it up, Travis Beard, Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan, are simply doing something they love - spreading the gospel of skateboarding - and at the same time empowering a generation of urbanised youngsters in Afghanistan. This year they will build the country's first co-educational skateboarding school.

Travis, a bearded photojournalist, explains: "It's about taking kids off the street when they would normally be selling phone cards or lighters on a Thursday afternoon. The kids who are in school are there for only a few hours each day anyway - boys go to school in the morning here and girls in the afternoon.

"We want to create a positive image of Afghan youth, to bridge east and west, and of course the guys will learn all sorts of life skills from Skateistan. But above all, it's about sport and having fun."

It is also extremely touching to see young people having fun in a country that has suffered such a long and violent attack of the blues. Under the Taliban, all sports, including kite-flying and even chess, were banned.

Travis remembers that when he was growing up, he used to see stickers declaring "Skateboarding Is Not a Crime". Skateboarding has not been rebellious in the west for the past 20 years but, as he says: "Afghanistan is like going back in time."

"A father came down the other day to see what his son was up to," he says, "but once he realised it was just sport - like a toy, not any of this western infidel business - he was fine."

At the moment the problem is finding places to skate. There are too many potholes in the streets and the "Kabul dust factor" ruins wheels. The schools are too preoccupied with security to let children skate there and the police have chased them away from Ghazi Stadium, which the Taliban used for public executions. But, as Travis remarks: "The police saying 'You can't skate here' happens all over the world."

Despite this, the idea of veiled women skateboarding in Afghanistan is still pretty radical. I had hoped to see a burqa on a board, but this won't be possible until Skateistan secures the land on which to build an indoor school, which should happen later this year. Once a safe and enclosed environment is assured, women will be able to attend single-sex skateboarding classes, under a female instructor and out of the public eye.

But now, a little girl of perhaps eight approaches shyly. She is still too young to wear the veil. She hops on to a board and rolls along with arms outstretched and a look of furrowed concentration. The Skateistan boys are thrilled as she dismounts, leaping out of the fountain to hide her blushes. Travis punches the air with his fist: we have just witnessed Afghanistan's second-ever female skater. An anonymous donor in Australia gave $250 to the NGO when news broke about the first.

Since the US-led invasion in 2001, $15bn has been spent on aid, and a further $20bn has just been pledged for the next five years. Yet many Afghans have become disillusioned with conventional NGOs. Twenty per cent of the country's aid money is spent on consultants and for many people, seven years on and after myriad promises, living conditions have not improved. They simply see foreigners driving around Kabul in glistening 4x4 cars. These foreigners, a great number of whom earn six-figure salaries, are meant to be there to help but they are always on lockdown in their fortified compounds.

Given the upsurge in suicide bombings in Kabul, the first rule in the NGO handbook is "Don't attract a crowd". Skateistan breaks the rules, but the reception, from what I can see as I fly on to my backside to the raucous laughter of the crowd, is overwhelmingly positive. Afghanistan is a difficult place to exist, and its people's lives are devoid of fun and frivolity. Perhaps skateboarding is the way to win hearts and minds.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.