Letters from Afghanistan – Part IV

“Public Restroom on a Hill-top”
Some Thoughts on International Development Efforts in Afghanistan


October 21, 2010

Foreign overbearing has poisoned reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Despite their (mostly) good intentions, foreign governments and international NGOs have pretended to know Afghanistan’s needs better than its people. And that is one major reason why the international presence resembles the Soviet occupation of the south-central Asian nation in the 1980s.

In the absence of Afghan input, many lofty but somewhat useless projects have sprung up around the country. Take, for example, the public restroom on a hill-top in one of Kabul’s poorer districts. Allegedly sponsored by a European NGO, the said project aimed to provide the residents of the area with clean water and sanitary facilities. The problem, though, was location: The restroom was not built in the middle of the neighborhood but further atop the hill, which was not a very convenient spot for the local folk.

A poor neighborhood in western Kabul

Of course, not all international aid projects – not even a majority – are so flawed. But the case of the “restroom on a hill-top” illustrates the biggest dilemma that the international community faces in Afghanistan: Without Afghans providing direction, international efforts cannot succeed. But getting Afghans to take the initiative in running their own affairs is hard because they’re not really ready to do so.

One important reason why the international community is hesitant to hand over responsibility to the Afghans is the country’s lack of skilled labor (a concern which Afghans themselves share). The war, now entering its 31st year, has forced educated Afghans to flee to Europe and North America. At the moment, there are simply not enough electricians, masons, machine operators, ironsmiths, or nurses to run the country.

Corruption is another problem. International donors are unwilling to hand over their funds to Afghan officials in the face of rampant corruption in the country. (The majority of Afghans agree: 59 percent of the population sees corruption as the greatest problem facing the country; a problem even worse than lack of security.)

In this context, many foreign benefactors – governments and NGOs – have aimed to make a “quick” impression on their own constituents as much as on the Afghan people by executing “quick impact” projects. Otherwise known as “QIPs” (water wells, police outposts, clinics, and small schools), these ventures don’t take a long time to plan, don’t cost much, and can be finished in a few months. The problem is that so many of these projects have been built since 2001 that, as a leading international development expert has pointed out, “QIPs” are actually slowing progress in Afghanistan. “Quick impact = Quick collapse” is an equation heard quite frequently in Kabul these days.

So long as we’re going to use lack of trained personnel or corruption as excuses to postpone “Afghanization” and continue “QIPs,” we’re going to frustrate the people of Afghanistan in the end. The following story relayed to me by an American expert in Wardak province is quite telling: While they were enlarging a mountain road leading to a village, American engineers realized that a significant portion of an irrigation canal would have to be moved as well in order not to cut the village’s water; something that would take time. Unimpressed, Afghan villagers shot back: “You’re Americans! You put a man on the moon! Surely you can move the mountain!”

Afghans’ patience with foreigners is understandably decreasing.

So, what should we do?

As noted by the historian Artemy Kalinovsky, an expert on the Soviet occupation, in 1986, Moscow had suddenly decided to withdraw its civilian advisors in order to end the complacency within the Afghan leadership. Reminiscent of our times, the lack of trained Afghans was compensated by thousands of Soviet experts. And the withdrawal initially made the Communist government in Kabul more self-confident. But without Soviet help, Afghans began facing trouble operating their own economy, especially the gas fields in the north, which was the government’s main source of revenue.

Flash forward to 2010, international experts should gradually scale down their responsibilities in Afghanistan. Nearly nine years after the Taliban, Afghans have a decent idea about what works and what doesn’t. In the mean time, rather than withdrawing, foreign specialists would be better off if they train young Afghans to replace the current cadres. 

Afghanistan will initially experience some turbulence but that’ll ultimately give the Afghans a real incentive to put their house in order. At any rate, they probably won’t build another restroom on a hill-top.

* The author’s travels in Afghanistan were sponsored by the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Turkish Embassy in Kabul.

The author is grateful to the following for their invaluable help:

His Excellency Ambassador Basat Öztürk, former Deputy Chief of Mission Onur Katmerci, Second Secretary Onur Şaylan, Military Attaché Colonel Can Bolat, and Kemal Doğan of the Turkish Embassy; Didem Büner and Burçin Gönenli of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; former Civilian Coordinator Türker Arı, agricultural expert Osman Kabacaoğlu, TİKA expert Mikail Taşdemir, and Mahir Akhüseyinoğlu of the Turkish Provincial Reconstruction Team in Wardak province; General Levent Çolak, Colonel Ali Bilgin Varlık, and Colonel Ramazan Akyıldız of Kabul Regional Command; TİKA Vice President Mustafa Şahin, TİKA’s Kabul representative Özay Özütok, and TİKA experts Adem Urfa, Talha Kaçar, and Ahmet Dayı; His Excellency Governor Halim Fidai of Wardak Province; State Department Representative Jeff Stanton and USAID expert Douglas Blanton in Wardak; Mark Ward, former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan; Prof. Abdul Iqrar Wasel, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Kabul University; Prof. Yusuf Altınışık and Prof. Gulamresul Karlog of the Department of Turkish Language and Literature at Kabul University.

The views expressed in this article DO NOT reflect the opinions of the above-mentioned or the position of the Turkish government.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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