Archive for February, 2008

Linguistic progress

February 28, 2008

The differences between the terms ‘humanitarianism’ or ‘relief aid’ and ‘development’ are often contentious. The usual short definition is that humanitarianism is about saving lives in an emergency, while development is about making those lives somehow better in the long term.

But life is never that simple. On this blog I call myself an aid worker in Afghanistan. Truth be told, development worker would be more accurate, but just doesn’t sound as alliteratively sexy.

In Afghanistan under the Taliban, most international organisations were in the business of humanitarian aid. Not because there was a humanitarian emergency that needed short term relief. But because many donors refused to fund development projects as these might then pass on resources or legitimacy to the ruling regime. The difference between relief and development was political rather than based on any assessment of people’s need.

Seven years ago the Taliban were bombed out of town and Afghanistan became a ‘post-conflict’ country, somewhere in the theoretical no-mans land between relief and development. These two terms are inevitably linked by an idealised notion of linear progress, always in that order: moving from relief to development.

In these years, international organisations have been expected to go from saving lives to developing them, and to develop the capacity and authority of the ruling regime. Most of these organisations would claim to be impartial and neutral, but they are involved in an inherently political business.

So, post-conflict development is what we are all about here in Afghanistan, despite the ongoing conflict in large areas of the country.

And development, despite the ICRC’s recent warning of the worsening humanitarian situation: of conflict, increased displacement and numbers of people being detained, severe cold, food shortages and the prospect of floods. They say they have less access to displaced people now than at any time in the twenty years they have been working here.

The assumed transition from relief to development is looking a little less certain.

Average life expectancy in Afghanistan

February 23, 2008

There’s a black, black humour in the article below:

The Afghan health minister has rejected as inaccurate an Al-Jazeera TV report about the average life expectancy of an Afghan. He claimed the figure given by the news channel was lower.

Dr. Muhammad Amin Fatemi said on Tuesday that Al- Jazeera TV put the average age of an Afghan at 42 years in a report broadcast this week. The Afghan government and the World Health Organisation (WHO) considered the report as wrong, he added.

According to the Ministry of Public Health and WHO, the minister added, the average age in Afghanistan was 45 years. He said Al-Jazeera used information of 30 years back which was not acceptable to Afghan government.

Fatemi recalled that a survey – jointly conducted by MoPH and WHO in 1972 – found the average life expectancy at 42 years. But a fall in the mother mortality rate and better access to health services, he continued, saw the average age of an Afghan go up to 45 years.

By Mustafa Basharat

In 30 years, Afghanistan’s life expectancy has gone up three years. That’s not funny, I know, not in the slightest. It is shockingly appalling. But to be honest, the minister’s response did bring forth a grim chuckle. I mean, get it right guys, its 45, not 42.

Afghanistan’s blogosphere

February 23, 2008

I’ve been slowly exploring the English language Afghan blogging landscape and have come across some interesting sites.

There are several good blogs written by migrant workers, though these tend to run for a year or two and then peter out, as well as from Afghans who have retuned from abroad and usually show a greater understanding of the place than expats like myself.

There seem to be loads of ones from US and UK soldiers which I have only glanced at so far, but did recently see an article about British soldiers even doing video blogs from Helmand, which seems like a novel idea. I wonder what they’ll be filming?

Then there are some excellent news and analysis blogs from Afghanophiles in foreign lands. I’ve put my favourite of all of these in the blogroll down on the right hand side already.

Most exciting though are the ones I’ve been reading this week; ‘home grown’ Afghan blogs, such as The New Afghanistan. There is even an Afghan Association of Blog Writers, Afghan Penlog. Nasim Fekrat is at the forefront of this, writing in his own blog of journalistic freedoms and pressures, amongst other things.

Afghan Penlog has 128 members, mostly writing in Dari or Pashto. Nasim has talked about it in an interview on Global Voices:

The main objective was to build a community to bring Afghan bloggers together from around the world and defend their rights.

We don’t have free media in Afghanistan, but through blogging, journalists and other people who can’t (or don’t want to) use their real names in Afghan media can share their ideas.

Afghan blogs are improving and in increasing day by day. As far as my own research shows, blogs are becoming more popular in Afghanistan. It is a new phenomenon for Afghan people, and they are very interested to go for it. I meet people every day that ask me for help making a blog. The fact that we lack free media also encourages people to blog.

Nasim is also involved with Afghan Press, a fledgling website designed to provide local Afghan news to a wider audience, hopefully avoiding the bias towards the cataloguing of deaths of foreign soldiers and the squabbling of NATO that is the mainstay of international reporting on Afghanistan.

It’s all the more encouraging to come across these sites at a time when there seems to be growing pressure on Afghan journalists. Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh was sentenced to death without fair trial for allegedly downloading and distributing ‘blasphemous’ material at Balkh University in January. His sentence has met with international condemnation and, more importantly, local protests.

There are hopes that his sentence will be overturned, but it has shown freedom of expression to be dangerously fragile. It has also reminded me that a right I take for granted and an activity, blogging, which I basically do for fun, can be deadly serious for some.


February 19, 2008

Driving through town. A burqua clad woman begging at the side of the road. As she turned, her burqua swayed to one side, revealing a pale bare leg.

Surprised double take.

Oh, but it’s prosthetic. That’s alright then; that’s normal.

Blood sport

February 18, 2008

More than one hundred people were killed in a suicide attack in Kandahar yesterday. Another hundred or so were wounded.

They’d been watching a dog fight.

When I heard that I thought of the evening last year when I went to the dogs at Walthamstow in London with some friends. Of the carnage there would have been if a bomb had gone of there.

Still I can’t imagine the horror of it, and hope I never really have to.

The press are saying it was targeted against Abdul Hakim Jan, described either as the leader of a local militia or as a police chief.

Such a huge blast to kill one man. The Taliban are the usual suspects but have not claimed responsibility. They are unlikely to given the number of civilians killed. That sort of thing doesn’t tend to endear local people to them. But then people will make of it what they will anyway.

“I doubt the Taliban would do such a thing,” Tooryalai told a Reuters reporter during a mourning ceremony in Arghandab.
“This was the work of foreigners in order to give a bad name to the Taliban and to justify their presence here in Afghanistan by saying ‘security is bad and we can’t leave’,” he said. Others nearby nodded in agreement.

If the numbers killed are confirmed it will be the worst attack since 2001. Not that that particularly matters to the families of those who have died.


Reading cars

February 17, 2008


I’ve got a bit of a thing about cars. It’s a purely academic thing I hasten to add, not some strange fetish. There’s a lot to be learnt from such seemingly mundane things.

All the shiny new Afghan National Police vehicles are Fords. Apart from these, I haven’t seen a single Ford vehicle anywhere in Afghanistan. Now, I don’t know about the relative merits of different makes, but it’s always struck me as odd that the police would choose a type of car for which there will be few if any spare parts available locally, nor the expertise to fix them, making running costs that much higher. And odd that the huge contract for supplying the police with thousands of new vehicles should go to a major American company, rather than to an Indian or Japanese one say.

Every car on Kabul’s roads tells a story, often linked to that of the country. There’s a beaten-up, rusty orange VW camper van parked up round the corner. I like to imagine it’s a relic from when Afghanistan was on the hippy trail, abandoned between Europe and India when its original owners got lost in an opium-induced haze. Then there are the solid Russian jeeps, left over from the Soviet occupation, that look so bone-jarringly uncomfortable to drive.

The latest layer of vehicle imports points to the years of war since that VW pulled up here. Little Canadian flags adorn the back of many private cars. Others have their Afghan number plates screwed on over what can still be made out as the original German markings. Large numbers of the cars on Kabul’s roads today have been imported by the Afghan diaspora: refugees in Germany or Canada shipping home old, but here still valuable commodities.

There is a marked preference to Toyotas (a fact that first got me thinking about those police Fords), from yellow taxis to the white Land Cruisers of international organisations. The latter are often cited as a source of resentment for many Afghans, a sign of where all that aid money has gone. Moreover, rather hard and fast signs that are liable to send the supposed beneficiaries of that aid money – Afghans – jumping for cover (though to be fair they are driven no worse than any car on these streets). They are so obvious a sign that many organisations now prefer not to use them, trying instead to keep a lower profile.

Such is the symbolism of these cars that one academic, Kurt Mills, has called them the ‘postmodern tank of the humanitarian international,’ having replaced the tank as the photogenic sign of war, and Western governments’ response to war. He notes the irony of the Land Cruiser being “a symbol of Western profligacy and excess, and [which] simultaneously represents the Western response to war and desperation in the developing world. The Land Cruisers found in this conflict habitat are invariably white, thus representing the white hats of the good guys coming to the rescue” (2006: 263). In a blog that attracted some interesting comments, Hugo Slim described them as “emblematic of the international aid industry – its power, its presence, its gifts and its opportunities.”

Cars are much more than just symbols though. In many conflict zones around the world there has been an increasing number of attacks on aid workers and their shiny white vehicles. There is widespread concern that this is in part due to a blurring of the boundaries between ‘military’ and ‘civil’ actors. In Afghanistan for instance, the NATO led Provincial Reconstruction Teams – a controversial merging of security and development concerns, of ‘civil’ and military – have used unmarked white Toyotas to transport military personnel, much to the ire of others who see these cars as the preserve, and symbol, of ‘humanitarians.’

One could argue, if you accept Mills’ argument that Land Cruisers are the West’s new tanks, that such attacks are justified: that the boundary between humanitarianism and political and military interventions no longer exists. Something to think about while driving along at any rate.

Cars are also very social (or anti-social) things. On one of the first days I was in Afghanistan I, being a true gentleman of course, got out of the front seat of the car to offer it to my female boss. But no, this wasn’t the done thing. For it would have meant a woman sitting next to a male driver when there was no need, there being space for her (and others of her gender) in the back. If there were just one female and several male passengers, the woman would then have the excitement of sitting in the front, this being deemed less bad than sitting with other male passengers in the back. Every day before getting into a vehicle, thought must be given to the appropriate seating arrangements. As the old anthropological adage has it (sort of), cars are good to think with.

Post-conflict reconstruction poetry

February 16, 2008

The End and the Beginning, by Wislawa Szymborska (translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh )

After every war
someone’s got to tidy up.
Things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.

Someone’s got to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone’s got to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone’s got to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone’s got to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railway stations, too.
Shirt sleeves will be rolled
to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.
But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who’ll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less
than nothing.

Someone’s got to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.

News from a distance

February 13, 2008

Afghanistan’s been in the mainstream news a lot more than normal these last few weeks. I scan the headlines of a couple of dozen headlines each day but have stopped reading them. They all seem so very distant.

I couldn’t figure out why at first. It’s not because I claim some special vantage point by virtue of living here, from where the comments of others, more knowledgeable than me, appear further away from this country. Far from it.

It is because the majority of these articles are not actually about Afghanistan, not in any independently meaningful way. They are about NATO, Canada’s troop levels and next elections, arguments between Germany and the US, about Paddy Ashdown, about America’s policies on the war on terror or the war on drugs.

Not what these wars mean to people in Afghanistan. Not what the future of NATO is for Afghanistan.

If these articles mention the 500 dead from the cold and snow, or the families that have sold a child for ten dollars (why is the price always included in this, as if the shocking thing is not that someone’s been forced to sell their own child, but how little money they have done it for? Not only are they evil parents, they’re bad capitalists to boot) just to survive, it is to give otherwise dry articles a bit of ‘colour.’ The focus remains on the danger to NATO, the threat of terrorism to Europe.

In the mainstream news at the moment, Afghanistan is an exotic but incidental background to the manoeuvrings of more powerful players.

Development careers advice from Shakespeare

February 12, 2008

A few people have asked me of late how I came to this line of work. Curiously, they have all been soldiers, in passing conversations at airports or bars. Why did you join the army? I always want to retort. Instead my stock and deliberately vague reply is that it’s a job much like any other and one I just sort of, err, drifted into.

One man, a cut and polished English officer, was particularly dissatisfied with this. He seemed to expect me to say how I wanted to help the poor or something of similar ‘do-gooding’ sentiment. Yet it’s my aversion to such sentiment that makes it a difficult question to answer. For sure, I’d rather not be an arms dealer say, and I get mighty pissed off with the hypocrisy and inequality of this world, but I am often ambivalent about the political and sometimes even moral ‘good’ of much development work.

When I was first offered a job abroad I prevaricated. What right did I have to assume I could go over there and help? To know what that ‘good’ was for people I’d never met before and of whom I had no understanding? And that I actually could, that I had the skills and experience to do so? Who, I asked, did I think was? The hubris of idealism worried me. I tried saying something of the sort to my then boss. Rather than telling me to just shut up he quoted some lines of Hamlet that have stuck with me:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

But how Shakespeare helped get me into this line of work isn’t the sort of thing that’s easy to explain while hustling in line at the departures desk at Dubai, waiting to board a plane to Kabul at four in the morning. And that’s only the beginning of my anxious reasoning about pursuing a career in international development.

Walking with my uncles

February 8, 2008


Today being a Friday, after a morning playing chess and drinking tea, I decided to go for a walk. The sun was shining and I felt the need to stretch my legs, maybe stroll down to the river, and enjoy that state of thoughtful peace that walking in a beautiful, tranquil place can bring. When I’d gone out of the compound before on foot I was assigned a guard to accompany me up the hill to the nearby shops. I was amused by this at the time but today wanted to be alone and hoped to avoid having to drag someone else along with me.

It wasn’t to be. When I said I was just popping out for a bit someone was summoned to go with me before I could make good my escape. Piqued, I decided if I couldn’t get out of my prison alone I may as well not bother at all. One of those silly acts of stubborn petulance I can do so well. I feel I can and do put up with a lot quite happily while working in Afghanistan, but the lack of basic freedom to move about when I see no good reason not to really gets to me.

The local manager tried explaining it to me: ‘security, you know…some people here…expatriates…I am responsible for your safety…’ I don’t buy it, not here, but felt suitable chided by the last point to settle down with a book instead. And his suggestion that the guard could follow twenty paces behind me cheered me up again.

I face the same thing when I’m in Chagcharan in Ghor. But being largely based there, time and necessity meant I have developed better coping strategies while there. The best of these involves colluding with my fellow expats, each telling their own staff that they are going to such and such an office, meeting up somewhere else and walking off into the hills instead.

And in Ghor I have my ‘uncles’ to contend with. ‘Kaka’ is an informal but respectful term of address, generally for those older than oneself but who don’t quite ‘merit’ a ‘sahib’. It is how I’ve come to think of the guards and drivers who gather round the gate when I walk out, wondering where I’m going and if it’s safe for me to do so. I love them for it, but at times their concern begins to feel oppressive. On special occasions – getting into a car with two unknown foreign women, or riding off on the back of a friend’s motorbike one night to go for a meal and a drink elsewhere – there can be four or five of my uncles peering out of the gate after me as I try to assure them there’s no problem and no, I won’t be back too late.

That motorbike ride was a memorable occasion. Whizzing along the deserted main road, scarves wrapped tightly around our heads trying to keep out the freezing night air, I felt unbelievably, joyously free. Maybe it was a little foolhardy, but no policeman pulled their occasional trick of jumping out of the dark screaming like a banshee and waving a gun around, and on the way back after a couple of rare cans of beer the air felt warmer the road smoother and I felt liberated.

Arriving back home though, as on the few occasions I’ve been out in the evening in Chagcharan, and I felt like a teenager again, getting back home too late and trying to hide the smell of alcohol on my breath. One of my uncles caught me. ‘Afghanistan, you know…it’s not so safe a country…’

In the end I gratefully accepted the company of a colleague to go for a walk today. It was less relaxing than I’d hoped, having to talk about sex and marriage in veiled terms and getting mobbed by kids as I took a photo of the river. Still, it was good to get out. As we slid our way back to the office, our conversation moved on from the German soldiers in town to had I ever been to Germany and did I need a visa to visit other European countries, and how it is nigh on impossible for Afghans to get one. ‘You see,’ my companion concluded as we got to the gate, ‘you say you are in a prison here. But we are prisoners in this country.’