Kabul Diary by Mike Petterson
22 May 2010
Kabul abounds with aid people. It is a truly international community. Europeans, North and South Americans, Turks, Iranians, Bangladeshis, Indians, Chinese, Pakistanis – even Africans from very poor countries themselves. So many people, so many skills, so much experience. Most of them have good hearts and motivation. Some of course have other, less noble, intentions. Such is human nature.
The aid is badged in many different forms – USAID, AUSAID, EUAID, thousands of NGOs (non-government organisations), Islamic aid, Christian Aid, Ismaili Aid, the many‐headed labyrinthine United Nations aid and so forth. A plethora of institutions building roads, hospitals, bridges, schools, government buildings; strengthening governance and government, stimulating the private sector…the whole landscape is highly complex and baffling.
So, with all this international interest and effort and trillions of dollars of investment you would think that Afghanistan should be rebuilding itself at a rate of knots. The Western media often portrays the ‘helping hand of the West’ as a one‐way street form of altruism and reflects in bewilderment, ‘Why is progress so slow?’ Impatience sweats through every pore: ‘How long, how long does it take?’; ‘How many of our young men have to die?’; ‘Afghanistan is a crazy place anyway and nothing to do with us – let’s pull out now – they have had their chance’.
Every life lost is tragic. Every limb that is blown away or mind that is warped beyond repair is a human disaster. Is it all worth it? Is Afghanistan an ungrateful lost cause?
I am biased, probably because I have spent a little time here and made a few real connections with real people. My view is that nation building takes decades, generations. Just look even in Europe at the length of time it has taken countries to become half‐decent places for most of society. At the height of the British Empire most Britons lived in abject Dickensian squalor and even now 10% of UK citizens own 90% of the wealth. Civilisation within European nations is skin deep and can be lost within a decade when the going gets really tough and human beings become competitive animals.
The aid machine in Afghanistan does an awful lot of good – let’s not forget that – but it also leaves a lot to be desired. None of the aid comes without strings, agendas and influence. There is little joined‐up thinking. Too many aid related experts are on a personal gravy train. Too many countries spend too high a proportion of their aid budgets on themselves, their own interests and their own citizens. Ordinary Afghans can be left out of the whole circus, receiving only breadcrumbs from the rich nations table. Many aid projects that could populate their whole workforce with Afghans choose instead to import their own nationals. Schools are built without trained Afghan teachers and hospitals built without trained Afghan doctors: every building bearing a plaque: ‘built for the benefit of the Afghan people by ‘insert the name of some foreign country here’.
Is this too cynical? Too dark? Too negative? I sincerely hope so because if the perceptions are half right, it’s just too depressing to contemplate. It’s far better people have a go for all the weaknesses, frailties, cul‐de‐sacs and dead ends that can occur – ‘stuff happens’ as Americans say. I suppose ‘ideal aid’ is something that has been strategically thought out, is fully joined‐up, is properly costed and executed in a timely manner, serves priority needs, employs as many Afghans and as few foreigners as possible, focuses on up‐skilling and up‐training people as much as building objects, and does not lead to over‐dependence but instead gives way, in time to a healthy economy (whatever that looks like). Is this too aspirational? Too unobtainable? Too naive?
So what I needed was a reality check, and boy did I get one. For over 30 minutes a bunch of Afghans berated the government in front of my ears. ‘A bunch of crooks’ said one. ‘Corrupt as they come,’ said another. ‘War criminals with blood and war crimes on their hands,’ said another. ‘One guy has made his brother a double billionaire in five years,’ a friend shouted. ‘Three years ago one (VIP in power) man kidnapped a family and raped one and all for a week with no retribution,’ an acquaintance alleged in an increasingly animated manner. Whatever the truth in this world of claim and counter claim, one thing is apparent: the government are disconnected from many of the people and are not trusted.
So I asked ‘what is the way forward? Who will you trust? Where should the international community focus assistance? What sort of Government should be encouraged? I was met by a confused silence, the product of 30 years of fighting, ethnic hatred, dreadful acts of cruelty, broken promises, blood feuds, and so much more. Nation building does indeed take a long time, especially when you start at a bruised, battered, broken and cheated beginning. Let’s hope the world understands this realpolitik and hangs around long enough to see the rebirth of a truly strong nation.