Archive for November, 2008

Scratched records

November 30, 2008

Reading yet another report on civil-military relations in Afghanistan is a depressing experience. The same things have been said over and over again as each year passes. Nothing changes, and the record keeps skipping.

‘Aid and Civil-Military Relations in Afghanistan’ is a briefing paper from BAAG and ENNA. It doesn’t say anything new but it’s still worth a look, as is the original research it draws on if you’ve got the time. From the summary:

Governance and Security: The military emphasis on using aid to ‘win hearts and minds’ and promote security as part of their stabilisation strategy is misplaced and even counter-productive in some instances. Ending the violence in Afghanistan requires a much greater focus on the political challenges related to the country’s ‘rule of impunity’ and conflict between power-holders at national and local levels.

Involvement by the military in development places beneficiaries, projects and implementors at risk: Inappropriate associations between the military and some NGOs create security risks for the wider NGO community and local beneficiaries. Military forces should stop instrumentalising NGOs to deliver on their short-term ‘hearts and minds’ objectives; and take greater steps to minimise risks incurred through their interactions with civilian agencies.

Effective development outcomes versus military ‘quick impact’ projects: Afghan communities want long-term development assistance based on transparency, accountability and local ownership. Such approaches are not compatible with the short-term imperatives which drive the military’s stabilisation strategy. The military’s use of often costly, ineffective and unaccountable implementing partners is also highly problematic. Donors should invest in civilian-led and sustainable programmes, with a focus on
building local capacities.

Afghanisation: Policy and practice of both military and civilian agencies needs to be more informed about and inclusive of Afghan perspectives. Military operations are inadequately sensitive to Afghan social and cultural norms which define notions of an individual or community’s security and dignity. Donors and humanitarian agencies need to invest more in cross-cultural translation of the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, as well as focusing on access negotiations with all parties in the conflict.

It continues:

that a simplistic ‘development brings stability and security’ thesis is misplaced and even misses the point. Afghan respondents saw the development-security linkage as artificial and contrived. The deteriorating violence in Afghanistan does not primarily result from poverty, nor will economic incentives buy support for an opposed military presence or government. Following a long history of aid and military intervention, including during the Soviet occupation, Afghans are familiar with and suspicious of ‘hearts and minds’ strategies. Furthermore, aid represents a small component of most Afghans’ coping strategies in times of conflict and transition. Predominant strategies include communal cooperation on rehabilitation and remittances.

And it continues (though the reports brevity is to be welcomed; maybe some folks might actually read it). It doesn’t get round to pointing out the many failings of NGOs (apart from the really dodgy ones), but there are other records that do that. God damn it, that’s a whole musical genre complete with its own specialist annual awards ceremony. But really, it’s time the military crooning about ‘hearts and minds’ put a sock in it.

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Bon anniversaire

November 29, 2008

Today is Harry Rud’s first birthday. Bake him a cake and post it to Kabul if you wish, he’d be very grateful.

This alter ego thing is getting a bit much. I had a long phone call a while back with somebody who knew me as, and addressed me as Harry (not my real name, by the way. See the ‘about’ page for an explanation), and it was decidedly confusing and not a little unnerving. In the end I cracked and confessed all.

I digress. Happy birthday to me. One year ago I wrote my first post, having just been on a trip to Lal war Sarjangle. As it happens, I’ve just peeled off my long-johns having got back today from a trip to a place not so very far from there, with the same cold smell of winter in the air, the same barren mountain ranges. More of that in the days to come.

Since that momentous day, this blog has had 10,072 visitors, currently averaging about 350 a week. God knows who you are or why you bother, but thank you for dropping by. I started this blog and continue it mainly to have something to do on otherwise boring evenings, and as a way of sorting out my thoughts through trying to express them. But I must confess that checking out the stats pages on this thing can become slightly addictive, while having people take an interest and comment or email, and getting to know other bloggers has been a wonderful bonus. Besyaar tashakor, as we say round these parts. I do dislike all the blogging related neologisms, but it’s been a good eye-opener, getting to know the blogosphere. Fucks sake Harry, stop rambling.

Despite having two egos to contend with, modesty forces me to realise that out of that number of visitors, the vast majority will have moved on just as swiftly as their internet connection could carry them. Still, mustn’t grumble. Most important is that it’s been fun.

Right then, we’re off to celebrate by going to sleep.

Grab bag

November 22, 2008

For situations in which one might have to move in a hurry, it is advisable to have a ‘grab bag’ at the ready: a small bag containing essential items you don’t want to be caught without. Of course what one stores in one’s bag depends largely on the context. As an example, here is a list of fifteen essential items to be carried in preparation for being kidnapped in Afghanistan:

1. A very, very long book (one of those you’ve been meaning to read for ages, but never got round to. Mine is Ulysses)
2. Toilet paper
3. A music player of some sort and collection of soothing songs (as my dad said, bonus points if you’ve got some regional/religious music on it. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a popular choice, but may not best please hardcore Taliban)
4. Toothbrush
5. Inflatable pillow like people use on aeroplanes (those caves can be very uncomfortable)
6. Opium pipe (opium to be provided)
7. Bottle of whisky. Full. (Some argue that this may get you in trouble. I believe it would be a good thing to share with one’s captors on a cold night.)
8. Psychedelic drugs (to put in their whisky)
9. Hacksaw, file, lock-pick and short-handled shovel
10. Spare turban
11. Wig and fake beard (black)
12. Small sachets of salt and pepper
13. Spare bottle of whisky
14. A torch
15. Pen and paper (for playing hangman etc., and swapping names and addresses so you can stay in touch afterwards)

Never leave home without it.

Will the persecution never end?

November 20, 2008

Oh, the injustices faced by the red-haired of this world! Centuries of persecution and a dying gene-pool, and now this…

A few weeks ago, I received a security report that had me smiling for the rest of the day. It contained the following:

“there is an extant, credible threat of kidnap against a red-headed member of the international community at present.”

As if the taunts of school children weren’t enough, the Taliban are now in on the act. Personally, I think they are jealous. It must get boring living in a place where everyone has the same hair colour. As evidence; note the tendency of certain older men in Afghanistan to henna their beards a bright orange. Clearly they want in on the act, and are now taking the pent up frustrations of their thwarted ambitions out on others, more fortunately endowed. It’s understandable, but such trichomania requires serious counselling.

The good of small things

November 18, 2008

So much negativity. But it ain’t all bad.

So some of the things I want to do at work aren’t going to happen, which is mighty frustrating, but there are still things to be getting on with. Finally finishing a report, improving some basic systems from the safety of my desk, doing staff appraisals and developing a training plan, getting bukharis installed and set up in the right place, making sure we have enough paper clips to weather the winter, sharing a cup of tea and a joke with my team.

Getting home late in the evening and having a good bitch with my house mate as we eat, laughing at the stupidity of it all. There may be trouble outside, but I’m still enjoying my muesli and cup of coffee in the morning. Still getting out for a game of frisbee or a run on a Friday, lounging around with lunch and laptop at the café, having a drink or few around the fire place in the bar.

The usual round goes on, and there’s fun to be had. The more so if you can take pleasure in the small things: a proper loaf of freshly baked bread, a flight of birds or a thunder storm cleaning the air, the idiosyncrasies and absurdities.

It’s hard to be objective when thinking about security; anxieties and self-delusion creating a turbulent sea. So on a good day I try not to think. I do wonder if there’s a secret enjoyment to be had in the danger, a thrill in the sound of helicopters washing low overhead and distant explosions, in the very stress of it, and the stories you imagine telling when it’s all over. I think the stress is too mundane for that right now, but it does make the good of small things more vivid.

The latest small good things are two puppies we’ve taken home, filthy and cute as. Getting them settled in and building a kennel for them, lined with old towels warmed on the stove, and generally fussing over them and feeding them up has been a wonderful distraction. They’re going to grow up to be good guard dogs if we can train them a bit over the winter, and if the cold doesn’t kill them first. If they do survive, expect this blog to turn into saccharine schmutz about their every bowel movement.

The small things add up, and for much of the time life is good. Now I come to think of it, that’s a pretty normal state of affairs.

Iraq

November 16, 2008

Is not a country where I would want to work. Mainly because I see it as an illegal occupation I would not want any part in, however ‘humanitarian’ the ideals.

For sure, things have changed since 2003 when US troops were invading and I was marching futilely through London. But my memories and associations of that time remain strong.

In comparison, Afghanistan seemed more like the good fight. OK, so I was never that naive but alongside other reasons, I was willing to work here. While I was shouting for troops out of Iraq I never joined in the chorus calling for that here, and I get pretty pissed off when I get emails now still singing for the same.

And yet. And yet I’m increasingly unsure about how I can justify my presence here. It is hard to feel optimistic for the country. It is hard to feel that aid organisations are doing anything more, in the grand scheme of things, than propping up a government that has little support and colluding with foreign military forces that have even less. The Taliban appear to now see NGOs as a valid target, which is just plain wrong. But on many levels is understandable: humanitarianism is political, after all. And the politics, grand and personal, of being in this country, are complicated. Made no simpler by the bombings of civilians and the loss of legitimacy it causes.

I flirted with the thought that ‘talking to the Taliban’ was the only way forward, but have been largely persuaded otherwise. Which doesn’t leave with me much in the way of positive possibilities to look towards. A surge perhaps, to make the discrepancy between military and humanitarian spending even greater…

Most of the time I ignore the issue, and stay sane and motivated by focusing on the smaller things. The little victories, the desperate failures: the fine grain of trying to make just a wee tiny bit of a positive difference on the lives of a few.

But zoom out, or look towards long-term development, and many of those inconsequential things loss their force amongst a general sense of futility. Building sandcastles on the beach with a rising tide.

Which in itself is not a reason not to try. But the balance of forces has shifted so far from a humanitarian to a military endeavour that I feel less comfortable being here. It’s not that I’m planning on going somewhere else right now, and at the moment I’m enjoying being here, just that I’m not so sure about the morality of my position.

Concrete impressions

November 13, 2008

There being some wet concrete outside my house, I couldn’t resist sticking a finger in and engraving my initials.

Now, whenever I walk past it, I can’t help but wonder if that will be the only lasting impression that I leave on this country.

My gut feeling is that it will be. The work that I do is, I believe, an important part of a greater whole that does and will make a difference. But the impact is not as visceral as wet concrete, or as visible, or as likely to survive.

It’s a slightly melancholy thought but not a surprising one, and I’m fine with it. You’d have to have some kind of god delusion to think you could individually make a real impression on this landscape. The current climate is too harsh for much to last. Even that concrete is likely to freeze and crack this winter.

‘Making a difference’: a difference to what, and to whom? Who should decide what kind of ‘difference’ to make? There’s such hubris in the phrase, as in development, though perhaps it’s necessary. There’s also a particularly individualistic streak to my thinking here, a Western philosophical orientation towards the self rather than the group, illustrated perhaps by the childish desire to carve my initials in the first place, to make my personal mark.

Anatomy of a kidnapping

November 11, 2008

poppy

I started by writing of how the French aid worker was kidnapped in Kabul last week, but have just deleted it. Working for a French organisation with connections to those affected, I’ve heard little else recently, apart from the plans of several other small French NGOs to repatriate their expatriate staff, and there’s no need to repeat the details. Needles to say, it isn’t a fun story, and it hasn’t been the best of weeks. It’s been a fucking terrible week for some.

Though a good one for others: two journalists who had been kidnapped, one of whom was taken a little way out of Kabul three weeks ago, have both been released. We had heard about it in Kabul, but there was no mention of it in the international media. As is often the case with kidnappings, they are not reported to try and aid the negotiations. So it was a surprise when the most recent case became headline news within hours. Judging by the progress of the story throughout the day it seemed like someone in Paris must have released the identity of the kidnapped man.

There’s a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez about kidnappings in Columbia, but it’s years since I read it and I don’t remember it being particularly good. Not sure why I’m mentioning it actually, but my mind’s wondering a little this evening.

It’s been hard to concentrate. I have two projects I need to complete before the end of the year and both now seem like they might be scuppered by separate security incidents in the provinces. One should be OK but is impossible to plan for with a high degree of uncertainty about weather, flights, budgets and the rotation of the planets. The other I could remotely manage, but that means sending one of my Afghan colleagues to a region there’s not a cat in hells chance I’m going to, and neither of us would feel so happy about that.

I think the decision of some NGOs to evacuate staff isn’t a particularly good one, but at the same time am not that sure how much useful work I can do in current conditions. When I arrived back in Afghanistan, I half had it mind that when it got to the stage where I could no longer walk in the streets, then that would be the time to pack it in and go home. With new security rules in place it’s got to that point, but I don’t feel like leaving yet. Just feel frustrated and dis-empowered, which makes me feel determined not to be beaten by these bastards with the guns, and rather tired.

 

The other presedential elections

November 5, 2008

Presidential elections are due to take place next year in Afghanistan. The first stage is voter registration, which is taking place at the moment. They are starting with the most inaccessible provinces before the winter snow shuts them off. My trip to Ghor coincided with the process, and the presence of some 300 Afghan National Army soldiers to ensure it goes without a hitch. I wasn’t greatly pleased with this coincidence, concerned by the security implications and the effect it might have on our work.

We were there to carry out an evaluation of a project, and I was worried that our asking of questions might get mixed up in people’s minds with the government’s asking of questions, so we had to take pains to separate the two. As for the security, I was assured that unlike the police, the army would actually quieten things down not stir them up.

Driving through a district where I would have preferred not to stop, we did. Just as I was beginning to protest, the driver pointed to a cloud of dust on the road ahead. We pulled over to let the convoy of 40 or 50 vehicles past, and took the opportunity of having a picnic upwind of the road. As we sat on the grass tearing at our bread and meat, we shyly waved at the guys in the back of the pick-ups, their black balaclavas pulled tightly down to keep out the dust. Pick-ups, supply trucks and an oil tanker, an ambulance and a couple of humvees rolled passed, slowing in the bottleneck of a little village then speeding away up the valley.

On a hill above our picnic spot was the ruins of some old building: a stack of stone pillars worn down but amazingly still standing. There were several sites like this on our trip. I was told they were watchtowers, positioned to survey movement up the valley, built during the Ghorid empire that ruled here in the twelve century. There was an apt juxtaposition between these and the army convoy: of ruling powers trying to patrol, monitor and protect their domain.

Struggling to count and name villages in just a couple of districts, I dread to think what it must be like trying to get an even remotely accurate electoral register. That though is probably the least of their problems.

There have already been reports of voter intimidation in Logar province, and there are worries that using schools and clinics as registration centres will make them into political targets, endangering those inside. I don’t see it being possible to do what they are doing now in Ghor in large parts of the south and east of the country. They would need a much larger convoy, and even then it’s hard to think that the security situation will allow the unfettered registration of voters. And as these parts of the country are where the majority of Pashtuns live, if the registration process is seen as at all incomplete, then a large proportion of the population will see themselves, and probably will be, as under-counted and politically disenfranchised. That will not make for a happy election.

(I’ve just read a newspaper article saying some folks are pushing to have the election cancelled altogether.)

Micro-finance, micro-loans and Kiva

November 2, 2008

A lack of credit is often a real barrier to farmers and small traders expanding their business or recovering from shocks. To increase the productivity of your farm, for example, it helps to have improved seed varieties or fertilisers. To get those, it helps to have credit to buy them. You need money to make money, as the adage goes, and it doesn’t always take huge sums to make a difference. Yet as a dirt poor farmer, there aren’t many banks willing to give you a loan, which is where micro-finance institutions (MFIs) step in.

A friend back home paid me for something unnecessarily. She suggested I do something useful with it. So, rather than just frittering it away, and as something of an experiment, I’ve loaned it through Kiva: an outfit that allows people to give small loans directly to people in developing countries, working through partner MFIs. I’ve no idea how much the credit crunch in the US and UK will impact on access to credit elsewhere, but it seemed appropriate.

I would have liked to have given it in Afghanistan, but although they have one partner listed here, they don’t seem to be taking loans for anything. I’m surprised there aren’t more MFIs registered, as several exist in Afghanistan and all would benefit from extra fundraising. But there are a lot of problems associated with loans here. A lack of security and infrastructure for one, but also of regulation, Islamic laws on interest (not that you earn any through Kiva), and the likelihood of borrowers defaulting. Kiva has certain criteria it requires of partners and perhaps MFIs here are unable to meet them. There does seem to be a lack of particularly innovative enterprises on their website which suggests they play it pretty safe when choosing who to work with.

In Afghanistan, many people borrow off neighbours or market traders, and often owe huge amounts of debt, in cases effectively becoming bonded-labourers. While there’s been some research questioning the benefits of MFIs in Afghanistan given the presence of other mechanisms of loaning and transferring cash, I haven’t got round to reading it yet.

Anyway, as there was nothing doing in Afghanistan I’ve lent the cash to a person in Tajikistan: a neighbouring ‘stan that lacks the news value of war and is just stuck with mundane old poverty instead. Two people actually, as I couldn’t decide which. There’s something that feels rather odd about ‘shopping’ for people to loan to but it’s better than child sponsorship.

I loaned 75 dollars each to two women who live in area called Jalollidini Rumi (a name I liked) who both need 1025 dollars in total (it’s been less than a day since then and writing this and they’ve both nearly raised all of that). One sells bicycle parts in the local market and wants a loan to expand her business. The other has a fruit and veg stall, and wants to expand by selling potatoes wholesale in the off season. Bikes and spuds: both down as ‘good things’ in my book.

This is the spiel from the website:

Hosiyat Nosirloeva lives in the J. Rumy region. She is 42 years old, is a widow and has 4 children. Hosiyat has a high school education. She has a sales location at the local market where she sells bicycle parts. This business is the main source of income for her large family. Right now, she would like to purchase products from wholesalers. Hosiyat plans to pay back her loan over 12 months.

Kutfiya Hojababaeva lives in area Jalollidini Rumi. She is a widow with two children. Despite her difficult situation, being single with two children, Kutfiya began working. She works in business. She sells vegetables and fruit in a market. She has been doing this for two years. She plans to increase her sales by selling potatoes wholesale in the season when people are stockpiling them. If she sells her product wholesale, she can make good money and pay off her loan in 3 months.

(Incidentally, what with increased grain shortages/prices, the humble potato is getting more of the attention it deserves in the fight for food security.)

There are html links to their details but I haven’t figured out how to embed it in WordPress yet. I don’t know how much there is in the way of monitoring and reporting on the people you lend to, but what there is I plan to track here.