Archive for April, 2009

Afghanistan, coming to a stage near you

April 22, 2009

If you live in London, where there’s a series of plays on about Afghanistan over the last 150 years.

It looks interesting. (One day I’ll learn how to embed videos here. Once I’ve learnt all about remote satellite imagining, Digital Elevation Models and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission – my pet project of the moment.)

The thing that caught my eye was the play about aid workers (a thing that caught my eye last year as well with the wonderfully titled play ‘Think Global, Fuck Local’) and this from the Guardian:

[Playwright Richard Bean’s] Afghanistan play, On the Side of the Angels, part of the Great Game season examining the country’s history from 1842 to the present, looks set to be similarly uncompromising in its challenge to conventional liberal values. The play examines the role of western NGOs in Afghanistan. It is, he says, “about the cultural imperialism debate. What are we doing there? Are we interested in democracy or should aid workers simply be trying to raise living standards? Most people in the west would like to see NGOs building girls’ schools and encouraging women’s rights, whereas these are exactly the projects to attract the ire of the Taliban and local warlords.”

The central problem of the short play concerns a dispute between rival Afghan families. A solution is brokered by a western NGO worker – but at the price of a 10-year-old girl being married off to a 50-year-old man. Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle, says: “It takes, shall we say, a fairly acerbic view of NGOs and their policies.”

Now I’m all up for acerbic views of NGOs and welcome anything that takes the gloss off aid work to engage in serious debate, and hope this play actually does so. But a western NGO worker actually out in a village negotiating a solution? Nah, that’s just silly. They’d be sat behind a desk demanding photos of the wedding from an Afghan to send to their donor.

Alas, I won’t be able to go along and make snide remarks about how ‘I lived in Afghanistan for two years, actually, and you know, well err, really, I don’t think your portrayal of the country really does justice to the complexities of the situation, you know?’

Snapshot: The benefits of burqas

April 22, 2009

Walking out the office gate to a car waiting outside one morning, my mind elsewhere, it took me a while to figure out what the blue thing squatting down in the middle of the drive was, or why the guards were trying to shoo it away.

Oh, it’s a woman in a burqa having a pee. Urm, OK, I think I’ll wait here till she’s finished.

Walking out of here

April 18, 2009

Boy did I need that. To get out of Kabul, just for a day, and just walk.

Most weeks running round a dusty school playing field overlooked by watch-towers is the only exercise I get. It keeps me sane but it’s hardly edifying. The furthest I walk during the rest of the week is across the office compound to steal coffee from a colleague in another building.

I could go on ranting about all that but I’m too happily tired to care. I escaped!

We drove out to Istalif, a village an hour or so north of Kabul that’s famous for its pottery. I can’t say I care for it overly, and was happy to drive on further up into the hills before abandoning the car and using my legs for a change.


I’m not poetic enough to begin to describe how good it was, but here’s a selection of photos. Without the better ones with people in, as I forgot to get them to sign consent forms for using them online.


We walked for over seven hours, climbing to 3,000 meters.


Galumphing through snow fields.


Saying salaam to the few bemused locals we passed collecting fuel or herding sheep. Rising above the dust and haze and looking out far across the Shomali plain.


Looking down on the vultures circling below us and the planes heading for Bagram. Looking at the stone look-out positions and shallow trenches scraped into the rock for Mujahideen to crawl hidden through while fighting the Russians.


Looking at the carefully built terraces high up the valley sides for rain-fed wheat.


Trudging slowly upwards; blistering back down the other side of the valley.


What a wonderful change to be physically exhausted instead of just mentally worn out. I had a few great walks in Ghor, and have dreamed of trekking in the Wakhan Corridor. This country has some amazing landscapes to explore, just a pity so many are off limits.

To be able to walk out and up, to feel free, away from it all on top of a mountain… that was good.

Money (that’s what I want)

April 15, 2009

Obviously I’m not paid enough, but I try not to complain. Our Afghan staff don’t think they’re paid enough either, and often do complain.

Salaries are, unexpectedly, a bit controversial. Or at least a complicated question. There is a huge discrepancy between expat and national salary scales, but that is of course right and just and not for me to comment on.

Compared to other similar INGOs, our national staffs’ wages are a little above average, but that’s little comfort for them. Compared with USAID and its myriad of contractors, ours are a pittance. It can make finding and retaining suitable staff a pain in the arse.

One of my guys applied for job with such a contractor. I only found out through a friend of a friend, who happened to be the person looking to recruit him. Talking about it with them in the bar one night, I wasn’t best pleased but was grudgingly happy to think he might get a better wage even if I did lose a valuable person. The going salary would be nearly double. There is though some USAID policy that means they should only pay 5% more than what a person is currently earning, if they are doing the same job. So would I mind signing something to say my guy’s salary was just a wee bit higher than it actually is? I wasn’t going to stand in his way but I wasn’t exactly chuffed. Luckily for me, he didn’t get the job.

There is often confusion in Afghanistan about what an NGO is and what is a for-profit organisation or private company. Our staff sometimes compare our salary scales with those of ‘NGOs’ that are actually multi-billion dollar private companies. We try and pay a fair wage but there’s no way we can compete with those, yet struggle to explain the differences between the numerous outfits.

It’s easy to think they should just be bloody well grateful to have any job at all, but of course I never would.

While the NGOs have trouble with the contractors and companies, the government has trouble with the NGOs. The Director of a small government unit I met recently would be paid around 100 dollars a month. The average junior civil-servants’ wage is apparently around 50 a month. My staff’s salary is about four-times that of the government Director; the salary he would have had with the private company about eight-times as much.

Which doesn’t exactly help the government recruit and retain suitable staff, or avoid corruption. It doesn’t help me quell my staffs’ gripping about their salaries either, but maybe that’s because they think I’m paid too much.

Security stats

April 11, 2009

The good people at the Afghanistan NGO Security Organisation (ANSO) have released the match stats for the first quarter of the 2009 battle between good and evil. As most ANSO reports are supposed to stay within the NGO community, I don’t get to say it often, but ANSO are great and even greater for making this report open source so it can be shared with all and sundry.

Ghosts of Alex has made it available here.

The nub of the matter:

“All data confirms ongoing, widespread and intensifying war.” No shit Sherlock.

The highlights:

Civilians continued to get killed a lot more than any other group (342 fatalities in the first quarter of 2009), with an honourable mention to the Police for coming in second.

The Afghan National Army and the Foreign Army have put in a poor showing, staying mostly alive, while NGO and UN workers pulled up in last.

International Military Forces can proudly claim to have caused a higher percentage of all civilian fatalities in the first quarter of 2009 than the same period of 2008, up from 19% to 32%. However, they’re still lagging way behind Armed Opposition Groups and criminals in the league tables (AOG 2: IMF 1).

The biggest cause of getting killed for NGO workers is SAF. Can you imagine the indignity of getting killed by a three letter acronym? Shocking. Thankfully, SAF mostly occurs on the road so travelling without the Encyclopaedia of Commonly Used Acronyms (ECUA) may mean you never know what hit you. 

In the charity match between Nationals vs Internationals, Nationals get killed in office compounds 9-0. This may suggest a disparity in the protective measures NGOs take with compounds depending on the nationality of who is living there, or that the referee’s a wanker.

Make rain not war

April 9, 2009

As if it didn’t have enough to deal with, the weather was not kind to Afghanistan the last year.

2008 started with an unusual chill that killed several hundred people and many thousands of animals. The heavy snow fall melted early though, the spring rains were not enough, and summer temperatures were above average. The drought in 2008 was the worst in the last eight years, while the price of wheat rocketed (see here and here for more on the same). The year before wasn’t exactly great either.

The province of Ghor in the centre of the country is a barren and impoverished place at the best of times. It’s starkly beautiful and one of the most food insecure parts of Afghanistan. There have been a number of emergency food aid projects there over recent years, but they’ve been pit against the weather and it’s been an uphill struggle.

Through the tedious business of analysing the results of a rapid food security assessment, I saw a picture of hunger emerge from the rows of numbers. It’s not normal to find a database so emotive, but the statistics were depressingly bleak.

Wheat yields were almost half that of 2007 in some districts. The average number of animals a household own also halved. Sheep and goats are a key livelihood, but the drought has forced people to sell off their herds. Levels of debt have increased substantially as families have had to buy food on credit.

At the time of the survey, a majority of households had enough to eat for about two months. What counts as ‘enough to eat’ often amounts to no more than bread and tea. The gap between that time and the next harvest is about four months. To try and fill it, families will go even further into debt with local shop keepers and sell off more animals, furthering a cycle of declining livelihoods. Selling off a daughter as young as twelve or thirteen in marriage is a not an unheard of response to a chronic lack of food and money. 

Food shortages are not uncommon throughout the world. Here though the world’s attention is so transfixed by the fighting that more humdrum problems such as hunger tend to get passed over. But there’s more than one way to die in Afghanistan.

While I’ve been getting increasingly bored with politics, I’ve been spending more time staring out the window at the clouds. How much rainfall there will be this spring has seemed more relevant than how many more troops the US and NATO will send forth into the breach, at least in the short term.

In Ghor and elsewhere, people will be hungry until the next harvest in August, but it’s been a huge relief to see the sky darken and the streets of Kabul turn into one large quagmire after several weeks of rain.

The sailor in me enjoys keeping a weather eye on such things, and another drought like last year’s would be disastrous.

Satellite imagery shows about average snow depth and coverage for most of the country, and so far rainfall has also been on track for a better year. Temperatures have been above average so there’s the danger of earlier snow melt, and a few people have been killed in floods last week (the mud roofs of many more falling in on them), it’s been cold and grey and miserable but I’m still hoping it will last a little longer.

Sat image of Afghanistan extracted from FEWS Net

‘Rain rain rain! It never stops!’ ‘Yes, rain and mud, but at least it is good for the eggs’ I replied.

Eggs / wheat seeds; near enough right?

Kabul in The City

April 1, 2009

I’ve been enjoying reading news reports about the planned protests in London for the G20. I do like a good protest I do. What I particularly like is the news that the police are advising workers in the City to dress-down, adopt a low-profile and, if they do have to go into work, go at different times to avoid arriving on mass. It sounds like working in Kabul: keeping a low profile, altering times and routes of trips to not set patterns, moving in fear of the unknown faceless hordes and forces of chaos and terror and bloody socialists outside.

Almost makes me homesick, but I don’t know for which home. The whole thing is making me a little muddled as I imagine the City Suits walking to work in Kabul and turbaned grey beards stepping off the bus outside the Bank of England chaperoned by the Metropolitan Police riding Humvees, anarchists doing battle with the Afghan National Police and a haze of tear gas over the whole scene.