Capacity building in Afghanistan: what’s that all about then?

‘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.



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5 Responses to “Capacity building in Afghanistan: what’s that all about then?”

  1. islandbridget Says:

    I often query this myself. Do all cultures need critical thinking skills? Must they value what we value? Before I lived here in Vanuatu, I spent four years in an international school in Thailand. I find it interesting comparing the two places, because Thai people spend their childhood’s rote learning, are very intelligent, many find it hard to think laterally or critically, hate debate, but have values and concepts that we lack in the west, and don’t even know about. So, ‘westerners’ in Thailand see the people as unable to think critically, they see us as loud and uncontrolled (sorry for the sweeping generalizations). In Thailand this sort of thought puts my head at ease… ‘oh every culture has it’s good and bad, blah blah’. But here, access to schooling is so limited, not only is there no critical thinking, but there seems to be little thinking, value for learning, honestly, value for others rights, concept that ‘weaker’ people in society have rights, etc, etc, that it becomes quite hard to get your head around. But then, this place has been mucked up from ‘the white man’ coming in the first place, spreading the word of ‘god’. Traditional culture was wiped out, and not much has replaced it. So maybe we white people are here trying to clean up our white ancestors messes, by imposing ‘the latest’ of our values.

    So, (and this is just what I have come to think), I think reading and critical thinking should be a value in every culture. Maybe because I value it, maybe because it is such a wonderful part of being human, or maybe because it helps with self-evolution. I think open debate, agreement in meetings, etc, are more social things, more entwined cultural values which we don’t have any right to impose on or interfere with. Well not that we have the right to impose on or interfere with anything… but we do so all the same.

    I guess the only other thing I can think to add to those thoughts, is that the part of the brain that is responsible for social and emotional development, which includes what we value as a society and personally, pretty much hardens at about 6 years old. It is very hard to erase (or even shift) those values after that, and it ensures they are passed on from generation to generation.


  2. ash Says:

    Well, I have to agree with islandbridget – Reading and critical thinking go hand in hand. I think being able to get people read and be educated helps them to see how the world works, how others/authors think and makes them question ideas. Books are a great way for that…and to get books to people who “don’t have the education” -persay- would be awesome.

    I see how these countries have so many needs and I hope that as I continue to formulate a plan, I might be able to help….give people the “capacity” they need to accomplish whatever they wish for their betterment.

  3. Roberta Says:

    This is an important and thought-provoking post, and I will be forwarding it.

    One of the questions is, capacity for what? Capacity to survive in the modern global economy, in the wider world? Or capacity to thrive therein? (To submit funding proposals and reports in the correct tone and the approved page layout?) Or capacity to survive within a very tightly defined geographical area? This sort of capacity will no doubt continue to tick along as it has done for centuries, even when the outside world has been brought to its knees by Peak Oil, or whatever other disasters we inflict on ourselves. The resilience of the Afghanis — both personal physical toughness and social cohesiveness — may serve them better than imported concepts and imported gizmos.

    Winter starvation (and early spring starvation too), high maternal and infant mortality, religious rigidity, and blood feuds are hardly unique to Afghanistan. (Not that I am suggesting that you are suggesting that — I’m just going off on my own little rant.) Taking an example close to home, all these features used to be part of highland Scotland barely two centuries ago. One of the duties of the state-sanctioned clergyman was to tramp around the district after snowstorms — on horseback if he could, or more ordinarily on foot — and see which isolated villages or parishoners needed help. Every year in February the death rate would spike, and he’d try to distribute some food held in reserve for the starving season. At the same moment, but further away in the travel times of those days than you are from anywhere on the planet now, cities held promises that the villages could barely imagine. In Edinburgh the Enlightenment flame burned strong, and in Glasgow the Industrial Revolution began to build its muscle power. I say “close to home” because the Scottish influence is still felt across the Anglosphere, not least from the legacy of the Highland Clearances. Are there no parallels in the bleak highlands of Ghor?

    But what do I know about Afghanistan.

    I will just add one technical note. I had heard about a website called Technorati offering blog search, but had never bothered to check it out. I finally did so, and when thinking for a phrase to test it with, “capacity building” popped into my head. I wondered if it would lead back to you. The second or third result was to a blog which also quotes the article you have excerpted, and, oddly, links direct to you (not to where Barnett Rubin originally published his piece). Ah, the networked world!

  4. tirade « Hamesha Says:

    […] that is, please go on and read harry rud’s piece on capacity building in afghanistan and then please shut the hell up and stop this ad nauseum […]

  5. s. najib Says:

    Afghans dont have capacity. Maybe it’s true, but have you thought of why it is so?
    Ok if you judge and differenciate the people of the world based on their country and race, maybe it is lack of capacity, maybe they are fool. That means we are looking to the wrold as if there is a compitation between the nations and the one who stays behind, is the ignorant one. if you think so racial then you maybe right that the afghans dont have the capacity. Or else we need to look at its reasons. I blame the super powers for all this.
    we all are human beings right? so we need to give a hand to each other at bad times. but who has helped afghans?…… nobody! everyone comes for his own benefits.
    they contribute to destroying any apportunities to get capacity.
    First we need to build capacity of being able to act as humans in the world and specialy in the west, then we can build modern day capacity in the third world (as you call it) countries. A person who lives under the daily bombs of allied forces, whose half family lives in swat of pakistan whoes bombarded daily by pakistani jets. And a person who sees daily that his cultural values are sabotagged by the western styles daily, can not work and is not welling to work with this system.

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