Afghanistan: my part in its downfall*

It’s been two years to the day since I first arrived in Kabul. As part of my anniversary celebrations I’ve been dwelling on the impact I’ve had on this country (egotistical of me I know, but then blogging seems to do that to me). Here are ten random things I’ve done to change the world around me:

1.Living in a house modest by many expat standards but that has still helped lead to a huge rise in house prices in Kabul, benefiting a few but forcing out many more from affordable housing in their own city.

2.Tempting qualified Afghans out of service to their own government with hugely better pay at an INGO

3.Failing to build the capacity of those people, in a position that will be filled by another expat rather than someone I have trained to replace me.

4.Failing to even have the common decency of learning the local languages, and having only the scantiest knowledge of a country on which I am experimenting with ill-informed development projects.

5.Taking a large cut of the budget of those development projects as my salary, most of which I will take home with me.

6.Treating my life as more valuable than those of my staff

7.Drinking in an Islamic country and generally being a bad influence as well as an example of the debauchery and gross-oppulance of the West. Not good for long-term cross-cultural understading that one.

8.Flying about too much and demanding electricity from the generators and generally contributing to a lot of carbon emissions in a country that will probably be devastated by climate change.

9.Eating scarce food when others around me starved

10.Bitching about all and sundry, how various policies will lead to the downfall of this country, but doing nothing to suggest better alternatives.

*With an affectionate nod to Spike Milligan for the title.

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26 Responses to “Afghanistan: my part in its downfall*”

  1. Ibrahim Mangal and the Sub-Tribes of Zadran Says:

    You sound like a positively vile person. I on the other hand have contributed nothing but good and useful things to the country, Afghanistan would be in much worse shape if it weren’t for my presence here. I save babies dropped down karezes, prosperity to the poor, emancipation to the oppressed and joy to everyone I meet. Maybe you should stop being so selfish and take a leaf out of my book.

    • harryrud Says:

      You’re right. I wish I could be more like you. I promise to try harder in future. In fact, I’m going to go and look for a baby to drop down a well right now so I can then save it.

  2. Marianne Says:

    Ah, but you helped preserve the sanity and sense of humour of at least one person in Ghor, to which my current state of wholeness of mind is testament. Of course, she wasn’t doing any better than you at being a positive influence around about the place so perhaps that counts as another strike on the cons list?

    • harryrud Says:

      Ah Marianne, you’re too kind. Hmm, think I’m going to keep that one on the positive side of the balance sheet.

  3. Morty Durand Says:

    Stop kicking yourself.

    I am sitting in my comfortable air conditioned office drinking hot coffee. I am a world away from Afghanistan. All I have been able to contribute thus far is to do research for a few Afghans that live in the states.

    I am learning the language but I may never get a chance to use it.

    I applaud you for having the balls to be there.

  4. Ibrahim Mangal and the Sub-Tribes of Zadran Says:

    How many babies have you dropped down karezes and subsequently saved today? I saved at least ten before breakfast. Now I’m off to have a chat with Mullah Omar over crumpets and jam to try to sort this whole mess out. Will keep you posted.

  5. transitionland Says:

    Do you have the phrase “liberal guilt” in the UK?

    Because you have a pretty severe case of it.

    That, or Ibrahim Mangal (and the Sub-Tribes of Zadran) is entirely correct. I’m willing to go with either, honestly.

  6. harryrud Says:

    I reject all claims of liberal guilt or that i am kicking myself. this is a statement of fact. some of the things i do have a negative impact. i’m cool with that. egotistical (and of course exaggerated and one-sided), as i said, to think that i alone could be the downfall of a country. but then i am not alone.

    Ibrahim and your Sub-Tribes, any joy? I struggle to find decent jam in Afghanistan and you simply must tell me where you got crumpets. I still haven’t dropped/saved any babies; been too busy this week throwing myself on UXO so the kids could play safe.

  7. Ibrahim Mangal and the Sub-Tribes of Zadran Says:

    Oddly, all I could find was Marmite (which really is odd, seeing as Gardez’s local Waitrose only usually stocks packets of expired Pakistani biscuits, dusty packets of chewing gum and rows of teeth-breaking dried apricots). My boy Omar wasn’t keen on the Marmite. He said he didn’t trust the way it moved. I told him not to be so ridiculous, that of all the types of jam in the world, Marmite was possibly the most trustworthy spread. He said it tasted like shit. I reminded him that when he was hosting, he could serve what the hell he liked. I told him to stop being so downright rude. What is it with foreigners not liking Marmite? Anyway, so much for ending the war on terror. I’m very pleased to hear about your heroic deeds this past week.

    • harryrud Says:

      Did you show him that thing where if you pat marmite with the back of a spoon enough it turns white? surely he’d be impressed by that. for my own part i can’t stand the stuff. if you’re ever in kabul and want to argue about it let me know.

  8. Mona Says:

    Fantastically honest post. How many thousands of us could have written the same?

  9. Ibrahim Mangal and the Sub-Tribes of Zadran Says:

    Let’s argue about it! (I had no idea Marmite did that – it has just shot up even further in my esteem) I’ll be in Kabul all of tomorrow actually, en route to home for a couple of weeks – I usually spend most of my time at the Wakhan cafe – want to meet there at 4-ish?

    • harryrud Says:

      I like the Wakhan. But how do all you fit in there? Um yeah, that could be cool, should be able to knock off work around then. If I haven’t already resigned after not being invited to the french embassy. Guess I’ll look out for someone covered in marmite stains shooing away a crowd of mothers thanking them for saving their babies?

  10. Ibrahim Mangal and the Sub-Tribes of Zadran Says:

    Uncanny. I was going to say ‘I’ll be the one covered in Marmite’. We can make it later if you like. My sub-tribes start getting restless in the late afternoon, so please forgive the pandemonium in advance (here is a little known fact: according to Pashtunwali, if you tug on a tribal elder’s earlobes at the same time, he has to grant you a wish. If he doesn’t, his neighbour is allowed to slaughter all of his goats. But you have to time it just right and tug on both simultaneously, otherwise it’s considered incredibly offensive.)

    See you around 4-ish then, don’t worry if it’s a bit later.

  11. Tom Says:

    I completely understand how you feel. A much shorter period (six months) in Kenya has left me with similar feelings. Although different in many ways, I am plagued by the feeling of making things worse rather than even maintaining the status quo.
    Great Blog!

  12. zulusafari Says:

    I’m blown away by the honesty in your post.

    I’m a missionary working in a war torn area. Looking around to the other NGO expats here, I see all these things and it pains my heart to see the ‘witness’ they bring into this place. I long so badly to reach out not only to the ‘locals’ but to those expats. Some of these things are personal, but some of these things are more systemic to the aid industry. One big one being the destruction of the local economy by the NGOs paying inflated prices because they can afford whatever the cost is. It was extremely difficult to find housing here and even then, I’m paying more than double what I should be paying. What happens when the NGOs leave (if ever!)? okay, I’m getting on my soap box and didn’t mean to.

    Really Harry, your honesty and transparency is admirable!

  13. Steve Hutcheson Says:

    Unfortunately, idealism and integration is not likely to solve the issues in Afghanistan.

    I have been here on and off for three and a half years since 2002 and have to say, if it wasn’t for the money the NGOs and the UN and the international companies and military spend, there would be next to nothing happening in Afghanistan. Take it away and the government revenue is about 1/3 of what is necessary to run itself, and the national GDP would be totally reliant on poppy production.

    We tend to measure our success by what we deliver as opposed to what impact we have and for the most past, we deliver within a social welfare framework as opposed to a economic development one and never the twain shall meet.

  14. Ibrahim Mangal and the Sub-Tribes of Zadran Says:

    You’re late.

  15. [insert here] delenda est Says:

    Good points but 7 and 8 are silly. Of course you should drink alcohol if you want to, there is no reason to ‘respect’ their culture by imposing it on yourself. You are hardly going to expect an observant muslim Afghan friend of yours to drink alcohol if s/he comes to the UK, will you?

    And climate change is irrelevant to countries like Afghanistan. Given the dire state they are in and the minute impact of any decision you might make at present it would be criminally immoral to make any such decision at all based on climate change.

  16. Shaggy Says:

    It’s good to self reflect, but I agree with an earlier comment; you need to stop the flow of blood gushing from your bleeding liberal heart. It sounds like there are things you could be doing better, but I’m not sure anything from this list actually hurts Afghanistan. Putting money into the economy in the form of rent and salary may have a negative effect on some, but ultimately it does much more good than bad. I’m sure economic growth in Afghanistan is a goal of you INGO, even though it necessarily will displace the poor.

    Let’s say you were going to come to a city in America and promise to do the following:
    1. Raise the value of housing
    2. Offer people excessively high paying jobs
    3. Purchase lots of food locally
    4. Frequent the pubs
    5. Live locally while earning a high salary from a foreign source
    There’s not a mayor in America who wouldn’t buy you a one way ticket.

    Work on #3, 4, 6, 8 and 10 on your list, but everything else actually benefits the locals. Jeez, now that I’ve tallied this, I guess I’m in 50% agreement with you, although I sense you’re probably just frustrated with the overall situation over there. Hold your head high, and keep up the hard work. You might just be a small piece of the puzzle, but an important piece.

    Am I wrong?

  17. zulusafari Says:

    @Shaggy

    I think ur economics have it wrong. Our politicians have shown to be unwise, so I’m not so sure I’d care for their opinion on the matter.

    There’s also one big difference. An entire ‘class’ of person enters a town with money. The local infrastructure is increased (more roads, more water, electricity, etc.) and prices on goods and homes increase. Some are completely priced out, some can only now afford less with the same money. And an elite few of the locals get high paying jobs.

    Then, one day, that entire class of people up and leave. Now the infrastructure is twice as big as it needs to be (as that class of people used much more compared to the average person) with no taxes, etc to pay for it’s maintenance, the prices on goods are inflated, etc. etc. The receivers of high paying jobs now have no way to pay their debts on lower paying jobs, etc etc.

    This has the opposite effect you suggest. In the short run cash is put into the economy (positive), in the long run it creates inflation (never good) and destroys the economy… in the long run (negative).

  18. Shaggy Says:

    @ZS,

    I’m sure your opinion stems from much more knowledge and experience than my own, but I’m not convinced that I’m wrong. It just seems that in order for an economy to move forward, there is inevitably going to be negative consequences. It’s impossible for an economy to grow unless industries change (new industries replacing old industries) and people’s demands increase. These things are very difficult on some people in the short run (certain jobs are phased out, inflation kicks in, and education becomes necessary), but in the long run it brings an improved lifestyle to just about everybody. A growing economy means a shifting economy which means some people won’t benefit until they’re able to shift themselves.

  19. zulusafari Says:

    @Shaggy

    We can agree to disagree.

    Case in point, in recent years, Juba, Sudan was named the 2nd most expensive city in the world, after Hong Kong. This can be blamed on one thing, hyper-inflation brought on by the presence of NGOs.

    http://www.sudanvisiondaily.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=44074

  20. Shaggy Says:

    zulusafari,

    Juba is an interesting case. They don’t have a true free market there. The business owners aren’t allowed to buy their properties, so nobody ends up building any improved infrastructure. The people there were just given money, so nobody is willing to work. But the people who suffer the most are people like you and I who have shell out $100 USD a night to stay in a glorified tent called a hotel. But then again the locals do have to deal with a wild west system of law. If there was a true free market in Juba, there would be people working hard to create new properties and products for people to spend their money on. Instead the added money in the local economy is just creating hyperinflation. Give a bunch of kids in Chicago $1000 each and they’ll go out and buy televisions and cars and such. Give a bunch of kids in Juba $1000 and all of a sudden it costs $10 to buy a beer. In a true free market there would be much better use of the money in Juba.

    I’ve never been to Juba, but when I was in Gulu I talked to several Ugandan news reporters who complained extensively about the place and some of the people who live there. I have a friend in Nairobi who has been complaining about their real estate spike due to Somali pirates buying up houses. That I think is a potentially huge problem because of what the pirates bring to the community. If wealthy philanthropists who cared for the community were buying up the houses, I wouldn’t see it as a problem.

    I’ll agree to disagree, but I don’t pretend to be set in my ideas. I’m still relatively young and I enjoy the discussion.

  21. zulusafari Says:

    Truth be told, it’s hard to find a true free market anywhere these days, including America. The reality is that much of Africa operates in a true free market as it’s so remote from any gov’t interference.

    It might be you and me who suffer now for $100 nights in tents and shared facilities, but once we leave, it’s those who stay who suffer from the hyperinflation.

    Just rented in Nairobi recently and felt I over paid a bit. Not crazy prices, but I’ve not been around long enough to know the difference. I did hear about the Somali pirates buying up houses, but the inflation in homes, particularly in Karen, as been happening for a few years, before the piracy started.

    Another truth be told, like you, I’m pretty young myself and enjoy the discussion. I live with my family around E Africa and plan to be here for quite some time. I grew up in Texas.

    Find me on twitter @zulusafari ! (twitter.com/zulusafari)

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