Archive for March, 2008

Aid failures in Afghanistan

March 25, 2008

I feel more like banging my head against a mud wall than posting anything here today. But while I do that, your own time might be more productively spent reading this:

KABUL (Reuters) – Peace in Afghanistan is undermined by Western nations’ failure to deliver promised aid and 40 percent of funds that do reach the country return to the West in profits and salaries, aid agencies said on Tuesday.

Afghanistan relies on international aid for 90 percent of its spending as it tries to rebuild state institutions shattered by nearly 30 years of war and at the same time fight off a renewed Taliban insurgency that killed 6,000 people last year.

Foreign spending on aid and development is dwarfed by that spent on international military operations in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military alone now spends some $100 million a day fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, but spending on aid by all donors since 2001 amounts to only $7 million a day.

“Given the links between development and security, the effectiveness of aid also has a major impact on peace and stability,” the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) said in a report.

“Yet thus far aid has been insufficient and in many cases wasteful and ineffective,” said ACBAR, an umbrella group for non-governmental organizations working in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan received just $57 per capita in aid in the two years after international intervention, compared to $679 a head in Bosnia and $233 in East Timor, it said.

The international community has pledged to spend some $25 billion on reconstruction and development in Afghanistan.

But, the report said, “just $15 billion in aid has so far been spent, of which it is estimated a staggering 40 percent has returned to donor countries in corporate profits and salaries.”

While there are problems delivering development to Afghanistan due to poor security, government corruption and the ability of the country to absorb aid, major donors have fallen far behind on their pledges, ACBAR said.

The United States, by far the biggest donor, has paid out only half of the $10 billion it committed in aid to Afghanistan for the period 2002-2008, the Asia Development Bank and India only a third of their pledged assistance for the same period.

Two-thirds of international assistance to Afghanistan bypasses the Afghan government, undermining the rebuilding of its state institutions, the report said. International donors also do not coordinate well among themselves and with the Afghan government on where their money goes.

“The Afghan government says it does not have information on how one-third of all assistance since 2001 was spent — some $5 billion,” the report said.

ACBAR called on donors to increase spending on development and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, fulfill their pledges of aid, coordinate spending more effectively and channel more funds through the Afghan government.

By Jon Hemming.

For the executive summary and link to the full report from Oxfam and ACBAR, see here.

Incidentally, this isn’t the reason why I want to bang my head against a wall, but it will give me something to think about while I do so.

Happy New Year

March 22, 2008

March 21st is naw ruz, نوروز, new year on the shamsi (solar) calendar used in Afghanistan, and the spring equinox.

May the year 1387 be a peaceful one for you.

1387 A.H. – After Hijra, or the year The Prophet migrated from Mecca to Medina, 622 A.D on the Gregorian calendar.

The other calendar used is the qamari (lunar) one. Which I think is pretty much the same as the shamsi one but I get a bit confused at this point. The solar calendar is secular and corresponds to the signs of the zodiac while the lunar calendar corresponds to the, errr, moon.

I happened to be walking home late one night two days ago and though I had a torch I didn’t need it, the full moon lighting my way with stunning luminescence  – the benefits of high altitude and no light or air pollution.  

With the qamari calendar, each month is 11 days earlier than the proceeding one. So Ramazan for instance gets a little earlier in the cycle each year.

In the margin of the book I’ve just been looking at to actually figure this out, next to the lunar/Islamic/qamari calendar, I’ve scrawled the words ‘Taliban months!’ When last I looked at it, trying to learn the names of the months, someone told me how since the ‘fall’ of the Taliban, people have gone back to using the shamsi names (at least in polite society) so I shouldn’t bother learning the qamari calendar. Apart from the obvious month of Ramazan anyway.

Turns out I haven’t learnt either calendar or the names of the months yet. But then with another new year, I get to make another new year’s resolution to improve my Dari.

And probably another opportunity to fail in it, though yesterday I did finally figure out how to conjugate past, present and future verb tenses. Which I’ll be quite chuffed with if I can remember them.

Dud rockets and mobile phones

March 19, 2008

A couple of days ago some rockets were fired from the low hills surrounding Chagcharan into town. They fell in dead ground, didn’t detonate properly and hurt no one. Which is of course good, if not somewhat incompetent.

Chagcharan July 07

Some folks here say they were aimed at a nearby mobile phone mast. If so, this would fit with recent Taliban attacks on the mobile phone network in the south. These followed a Taliban order to mobile phone operators to shut down the network between 5 pm and 7 am. With around 10 phone masts knocked out so far, the operators have had little choice but to comply.

There’s something about this story I don’t get though. The reasons the Taliban have reportedly (here and here for example) given for all this is that the army has been monitoring their calls and using them to track them down. Which I’m sure they have (and seem to remember reading somewhere that this fact prompted the Taliban and Al Qaeda to adopt a communications system using written notes and couriers several years ago).

But would it not be a bit easier for the Taliban to just not use mobile phones themselves? Or not to use them between 5 pm and 7am? (Do the Americans not tap phone calls during daylight hours?) Or go back to using hand-written notes? Isn’t this tactic somewhat self-defeating? Their logic is ineffable. Or I really have missed something, in which case please do enlighten me as I’m baffled.

As for those rockets in Chagcharan, no one seems too sure who fired them but it almost certainly wasn’t the Taliban, who don’t come up our way much. And normal mobile phone services continue – in the 20 mile radius that is covered in the whole province.

Rumour has it that it’s most likely to be some disaffected local commander with a grudge against the provincial government or police. In which case I guess it’s possible they may have meant not to hit anything, but rather serve as some pointed reminder about something or other.

After hearing so much of the military prowess of former mujahideen and the Taliban I rather hope this guess is correct, as it would be slightly disappointing to think that our local ‘armed opposition groups’ couldn’t aim and fire a rocket properly.

Nagging worries

March 18, 2008

A couple of those smiles that initially welcomed me back last week have faded somewhat since.

Part of my job involves supporting the work of senior Afghan colleagues in the field, not managing them but helping them do their work, building their capacity.

Which is all well and good, but I sometimes worry that, occasionally, that support boils down to me nagging them. I’ve been struggling this week to find the balance between helping and encouraging someone and treading on their toes.

Entirely understandably, I feel some people begrudge my presence. At which point it becomes difficult to provide the support I am supposed to. But taking a hands-off and painstakingly diplomatic approach as I usually try sometimes means work isn’t done as well as I would wish.

It’s hard to describe this without going into the details of my work, which I don’t plan to do. But if there was a British-style tabloid newspaper here, I reckon it would be describing me as a ‘bloody foreigner, comin’ over here, takin’ all our jobs…’

And the Afghanistan Government is giving the impression of taking a similar line. Issues of NGOs’ and foreigners’ tax, visas, work permits and so on are becoming increasingly troublesome. Either they are trying to squeeze more money out of us (which is fair enough, although that money comes from foreign donors), or they’re trying to claw back some of their power. Again, fair play to them.

But increasing the bureaucratic hurdles people have to jump over to work in this country when there is already a shortage of qualified personnel doesn’t seem like the best of ideas.

One thing the government is now requiring of foreign aid workers is an explanation of why they are needed and what they offer that an Afghan can’t provide, and assurances that the foreign worker will work to train a national counterpart to replace them.

Which is quite right too. Though right now I’m struggling, and fear the smiles are getting a little frosty.

The Perry Bible Fellowship: Food Fight

March 16, 2008

Food Fight

Comic genius.

Hugs and handshakes

March 14, 2008

Getting back to Ghor after too long away, I’ve had some catching up to do.Most importantly, this has involved greeting my colleagues, including all 60 or so of the ones currently in town for a training workshop.

The first few hours back in the office were a whirl of hugs and handshakes, with the men anyway.

Forget remembering names, the biggest problem was remembering who I’d hugged before, and with whom I’d been through the long greeting of chetor haste? jonjorestee? baherastee? khubastee? chetorhastee…? how are you? how is your health? how is your day? how are you? how is your family? are you well…?

With women, the hugs and handshake replaced with a simple right hand on heart, but the same long winded greeting.

It was exhausting, and slightly pythonesque entering a room and going through this warm and elaborate ritual with 20 odd people in turn, my Dari reduced to a stream of gibberish, brining forth cackles of laughter from all.


March 13, 2008

Badakshan airstrip

Roads and security in Afghanistan being what they are, to get from Kabul to our field sites we usually have to fly.

I’m not a great fan of planes, not least for their environmental impact, but I have to admit there is something quite fun about commuting to work in a light aircraft.

For the first dozen times anyway, and when they show up on time, and when the hour long flight isn’t spent bumping and fluttering around the sky like a paper aeroplane, or with a pilot with a penchant for stunt flying.

When it’s relatively smooth, and you can see the Hindu Kush mountains spread out below (and occasionally besides) you, it can be wonderful.

With nothing to separate the passengers from the pilots in the small eight seat planes, I feel I’ve picked up quite a lot about how to fly the things. It looks quite easy you know. One day I’m going to ask to have a go.

The downside is when a large red light suddenly starts flashing on the control panel, or when the co-pilot nervously starts tapping the fuel gauge. Sometimes it’s best not to know.

For the perspective of someone responsible enough to be in the cockpit, flying relief flights in Africa, check out this blog.

Landing back in Chagcharan invariably brings a smile to my face. In part it’s relief, but there’s also something in the desolately fresh air that makes it a pleasure to return.

And then there are the NATO soldiers from the nearby base who come to meet some flights. As the plane taxis off the gravel runway, they nonchalantly fan out to ‘cover’ the plane, weighed down with scary looking guns and a scary array of pockets.

It adds an extra element of excitement, as if something really important is happening instead of it just being the end of another commute.

At least it would if they didn’t look quite so bored, but seeing them scratch their arses with their rifle butts slightly spoils the scene. Does make me laugh though.

Spring’s sprung

March 11, 2008

It seems spring has sprung. Most of the snow in Kabul has melted, with only what are by now rather tawdry patches left on the higher mountains surrounding us. Water no longer freezes in the pipes and the threat of suffocating, exploding heaters is over, for now.

From the bitter cold of a month ago it has warmed up quickly, the snow melting into mud then drying into dust with surprising speed. I wear my coat out during the day only through enforced habit, and because I have yet to empty the detritus of several months living in it from its pockets.

The crisp air of winter is giving way to a sunny, dusty haze. Patches of grass are starting to emerge, mornings are announced by bird song, and Fridays by the sounds of kids playing on the streets again.

Sitting outside in the warm sunshine with one’s eyes closed, spring seems to be a time of optimism and hope. After a fairly bleak past few months, I’m looking forward to getting cracking with projects suspended by winter and with some new plans for the year ahead.

I was expecting another cold snap before it got warmer but it seems that’s not going to happen. But higher areas are still under snow, with many places remaining cut off. As all the snow does begin to melt, there are fears of floods and mudslides, and the warmer weather won’t bring much relief to places like Ghor where thousands of people will still be desperately short of food.

And at the moment in Afghanistan, the word ‘spring’ is invariably coupled with the word ‘offensive’ instead of with ideas of re-birth. Expectations of renewed conflict kind of take the gloss off the warmer weather.

Best just to sit in the sunshine with your eyes closed, ignoring the seasonal vagaries of war and listening instead to the sounds of a city shaking off a bad cold.

Women’s day in Afghanistan

March 8, 2008

Happy International Women’s Day.

Some 685 women will die today in Afghanistan due to disease or during childbirth.

Over 24,000 women die of these causes each year.

87% of these deaths are preventable. That figure is 25 times more than the number killed by conflict.

70% of pregnant women do not recieve medical care. 

80% of women in the country are affected by domestic violence.

60% of marriages are forced.

Half of all girls are married before they are 16.

These, and a few more topical statistics for the day, are from this IRIN report.

Now, to cheer us all up, here’s a photo of some women celebrating Women’s Day in Kabul, courtesy of the UN. Conditions may be no better than it was during the Taliban, but at least they can play with kites.


Having just written that I went out to an International Women’s Day celebration thingy.

Lots of speeches in Dari, most from men, many discussing how women’s rights fit into Islam and the teachings of the Prophet. How they are compatible.

The figure 24,000 kept floating round my head as I was sitting there, along with thoughts of the gross inequalities and the hardships women face.

Returning to this computer I am feeling less bitter than when I left though, for I was reminded of the Afghan women and men who work in small ways and in large to improve the lives of their sisters.

Keeping fit on lockdown

March 8, 2008

Friday, my one day off a week. I had it all planned out. An hour’s running round a muddy field with some friendly folk, do some shopping on the way back, have a shower then a long lunch in a nearby café.

The running round the muddy field bit was to be the highlight. I don’t get nearly enough exercise here and my body’s been atrophying over winter. I’m not in as bad a shape as these German soldiers, but was looking forward to stretching my legs.

I’m not one for exercise for exercises sake, and the idea of a sanitised gym fills me with dread. Outside of Afghanistan I’d keep vaguely healthy by walking a few miles each day to and from work rather than getting the bus, or better still cycling through muddy woods or swimming in the sea. Exertion preferably followed by a good drink. None of which is an option here.

So anyhows, was all geed up by the prospect of a muddy field in Kabul and was just leaving the house when I get a call saying we’re on lockdown. A possibility of protests in town over the reprinted Danish cartoons and new anti-Islamic film, so best to stay at home in stupefying boredom.

(Oh yeah, and cheers for those cartoons guys, your pursuit of freedom of speech and artistic integrity, not to mention your razor sharp wit and intelligence, well that’s just great. About as funny as the death threats you’ve received and the deaths of people in Kabul in the rioting last year.)

I was not best pleased. In desperation, I did what I’ve thought about doing on many an occasion, and knew I should do, but dismissed as too caged, too un-muddy to be described as exercise.

I did some press-ups. I’m not going to say how many. I tried doing some sit-ups but came closer to falling asleep. Working out my frustration, I ran up and down the stairs. Wheezing, I walked around the house looking for something else to do, and did some pull-ups on the creaking banisters. Endorphins overriding common sense and failing heart, I burst outside, neighbours and dignity be damned, and started running round the small, muddles compound.

Dear lord, what has become of me? Well, I’ve collapsed on the sofa for one, part of me thinking I should do that more often, the other part vowing never to be so foolish again and wondering where I can find some beer and crisps.


No problems in town yesterday, and I spent the rest of the day recovering my slothfulness reading a truly terrible romantic novel I found lying around. So all’s well that ends well.