‘Capacity building’ is a phrase endlessly bandied about in Afghanistan.
After decades of turmoil with no decent education system or civil service institutions to train them, so the story goes, Afghans lack the capacity to build and run their country as a modern nation-state.
The stated aim of just about any organisation working here, from NATO to NGOs, is to build the capacity of Afghan counterparts. The Afghan National Army; the judiciary; journalists; engineers; civil servants; development workers: all are the focus of capacity building.
Read any document or report, listen to any foreign worker describe their job, and ‘capacity building’ will crop up sooner or later (or will be criticised for the absence). Any academic analysis on the state of Afghanistan, any Kabul bar-room debate will touch upon this ‘lack’ at some point.
At times, these discussions are accompanied by an arms in air edge of despair: ‘if only there was more local capacity to do this!’
Or of resignation: ‘we could try, but there’s just not the capacity, you know. Maybe in a couple of years.’
Sometimes, the specific aim of capacity building hedges an excuse: ‘it is not our function to do that; we are here to support the Government of Afghanistan.’
Capacity building is the dominant discourse on nigh on all things Afghanistan. Security, drugs and development may be the headlines, but capacity building lies at the centre of all these.
For there to be security, the army and police needs the capacity to protect the country without external assistance. To control opium production, the government and judiciary needs the capacity to curb corruption. For there to be development, teachers and health workers need the capacity to do their jobs effectively, the whole population needs the capacity to farm, to build, to work, to earn an income to feed their families to strengthen the economy.
You get the gist. Capacity building is where it’s at.
It’s true. Through no particular fault of its own, this country seriously lacks capacity. It needs help. Just finding suitably qualified staff with the requisite capacity is a perpetual problem.
Only thing is, I’m not entirely sure what this thing that is so abundantly lacking called ‘capacity’ is, nor how one goes about ‘building’ it.
I probably shouldn’t admit that, but I don’t think I’m the only one.
Capacity building is a phrase endlessly bandied about but never described. I’m instinctively suspicious of a phrase that holds such sway, that’s used as a shorthanded by very different people talking about very different things, that is rarely substantiated. I’m suspicious of something that seems to be taken for granted.
Like all the most fashionable terms (good governance say, or development, participation or progress, or democracy), capacity building is difficult to define.
In some instances it seems pretty straightforward. We build the capacity of the army by training them how to aim and fire a weapon. Whiz bang job done.
We build the capacity of the police by training them how to fire a gun, when not to fire a gun, the basic civil laws, so it helps if they can read and write, how to investigate and document crimes, how not to be corrupted, so it helps if they’re not dirt poor and paid a pittance, how to protect communities from local commanders better armed then they are, how to control conflicts between rival factions or over scarce water resources, how to uphold law and order, peace and justice – and justice is no easy concept to define either.
Sometimes this ‘capacity’ thing is damn hard to pin down, it’s ethereal, not some technical skill easily transmitted.
In my work, capacity building may involve direct training, or having a formal supervisory session, or sitting down with someone with a flask of tea to discuss how their work is going, or just having a chat about stuff. Either which way, it builds my capacity as much as theirs.
The capacity I see lacking (anti-capacity? non-capacity?) most often day to day is an (in)ability to analyse a situation in a particular way, to interpret and above all question critically. This is partially related to something I wrote before about there being no real culture of reading in Afghanistan.
I am the product of an education system that has encouraged me to question what I am told and what I read, and of a working environment in which debate and dissent is accepted. Most Afghans, if they are the product of any education system, have been taught by rote, rarely encouraged to question their seniors, and prefer public agreement at work.
It’s a small point perhaps, but it can affect my colleagues’ ability to weigh in during meetings or explain a situation, analyse causes and consequences, and then write a report about it. Or at least do so in a manner familiar to and accepted by foreign standards. And it is a skill that is very difficult to teach in a couple of weeks or months with some flip charts and coloured pens.
I’m feeling deeply uncomfortable writing all this and am scanning what I’ve written looking for places I can add an extra caveat or two (‘most Afghans’ – what nonsense, and as for that stuff about a lack of analytical ability – pure tripe). To talk about capacity building is too often to make sweeping generalisations that are deeply critical. The need for capacity building, due to a lack of capacity, as the polite (and purposefully undefined) way of saying that someone’s, or some institution, or indeed a whole population, are just a bit shit at their jobs and need a helping hand.
To even describe the lack of ability to analyse something in a certain way as a lack of capacity seems deeply suspect. Is it an absence, a negative, or is it rather a different (dare I say cultural?) way of thinking and talking?
The worst bit of it is hearing Afghans saying they lack capacity themselves, when this ‘lack of capacity’ is internalised as a fact. It’s no surprise given how often the mantra is repeated, but to hear a clever, educated colleague, or a farmer, or President Karzai, saying they or their country lack the capacity to do such and such is deeply depressing.
It may be true; they do lack the capacity (and far better to admit it than blunder one’s way through). But then so does NATO and the international community, so do NGOs: they’re all clearly doing such a great job at sorting out this country’s ills, are they not? They must have tonnes of capacity.
And sometimes such claims display a well developed capacity: when Karzai, or a farmer, say they don’t have enough ‘capacity’, it is often followed by a well phrased request for more financial assistance; the ‘lack of capacity’ doctrine put to good effect.
At times claiming a ‘lack of capacity’ becomes a lazy way of making excuses for or not seeing other problems. As a small example, in one meeting recently a foreigner was talking about a department not having the capacity to do something. Some Afghan members of that department demurely agreed. One man stood up for himself though: ‘It’s not that we don’t have the capacity, it’s just that we don’t have the time.’
I’m now feeling I really don’t have the capacity to make sense of all this or make my own thoughts clear and I best leave well alone.
And I don’t have time. But still, I can’t leave without mentioning an excellent article by Barnett Rubin on the same topic, which I’m going to copy at length so as to hide behind it.
Foreign aid donors and consultants working in Afghanistan often complain that Afghans “lack capacity” and suggest programs of “capacity building” to enable Afghans to develop their economy and state. Such programs train Afghans in internationally accepted standards and practices, on the assumption that mastery of these standards and practices constitutes “capacity.”
Unfortunately many of these internationally accepted standards and practices do not work very well in Afghanistan, since they presuppose a set of interoperable systems that do not exist. Hence the need to train Afghans to fill out project proposals for donors soon mutates into demands for a different type of education and legal system, which in turn press Afghans to abandon their languages and political institutions. Since the international standards and practices don’t work very well anyway, Afghans resist abandoning their identity and accepting that they “lack capacity.” Mutual incomprehension and resentment result, if not worse.
Sometimes when a consultant tells me that Afghans lack capacity, I try to imagine my interlocutor being forced to survive in Uruzgan province with two jaribs of land and a goat. I wonder if this person would be capable of transferring billions of dollars from undocumented workers in the Persian Gulf to families living in remote villages with no banks or telecommunications. I wonder if he could transform a local conflict incomprehensible to outsiders into a million dollar business funded by superpowers that have been convinced they have existential stakes in the outcome. I wonder if he could smuggle emeralds out of Afghanistan to buy weapons and ammunition in Ukraine and transport them across seven closed borders into the Panjshir Valley. I wonder if he could create a multibillion dollar a year industry in one of the world’s poorest countries with no government by turning those handicaps into assets in a world with an insatiable demand for illegal addictive substances.
Me, surviving with two jeribs of land and a goat? So that would be a no then. Help build my capacity; comment and tell me what you think.