Faces of Afghanistan: beyond the headlines

4 May 2010

Shada Islam, EPC Senior Programme Executive said the conference would highlight the work of Afghanistan’s vibrant, courageous civil society to create a stable country.

William E. Kennard, US Ambassador to the EU, said the United States Mission to the European Union is “a place of ideas”. The US government wants to build a stable Afghanistan to ensure global security, and “loves democracy, the rule of law and civil society”. This conference gives people the opportunity to learn how civil society is helping to build the new Afghanistan.

Francesc Vendrell, former EU Special Representative to Afghanistan, said the current counter-insurgency strategy lacks a political dimension and has lost the possibility of pressuring President Hamid Karzai to carry out reforms, and seems unable to assert any leverage on him. He was concerned that the parliamentary elections could be as fraudulent as the Presidential one.

The West is looking for a way out, and must encourage President Karzai to build a consensus on ‘reconciliation’ with the Taliban. Civil society must decide the price it can accept to reach agreement with them and NATO members must decide the approach to take during talks, while ensuring the country’s neighbours do not sabotage the process.

Civil society should elect a standing committee to meet with the international community and establish links with sympathetic diplomats in key embassies.

Panel I: Governance

Nasrine Gross, founder of the Roqia Center for Women’s rights, Studies and Education, Afghanistan, said one must focus on improving governance in the country. She described the international military as “the country’s guardian angels”, as it would be impossible to operate without their presence.

She outlined four ways to improve governance: strengthen democracy at all levels; ensure parliamentary elections succeed and the IEC can operate freely; build up the presence of women in the public life and increase female literacy; and support Afghanistan’s credible democratic opposition.

The most important task is to improve education and the second is to ensure that information about the country is correct.

Aziz Hakimi, Country Director, Future Generations, Afghanistan, said there was huge fear in the country that over the next six months the international community would withdraw, leaving the country on the verge of collapse, so any solution must include talking to the Taliban.

The West established a security state and a flawed programme of national building, which concentrated power in the centre, without consulting local people, when it should have given more power to the provinces and concentrated on creating democratic leaders. Despite the international community’s hopes to leave quickly it must understand that “there are no quick fixes”.

Elizabeth Winter, Special Adviser for UNA, Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics, said her field work showed Afghanistan has a vibrant civil society, although security makes it difficult to operate. Afghanis do not see a contradiction between having a strong civil society in a Muslim country and do not see ethnic differences as that important.

While much past international help has been inconsistent and unhelpful, donors are now designing programmes using local knowledge to support civil society, with stronger follow-up. A crucial first step is to set up literacy and numeracy programmes and teach people their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

Women have an important place in Afghanistan, but do not enjoy rights and entitlements under the current constitution.

Abbie Aryan, deployable civilian expert, Her Majesty’s Government’s Stabilisation Unit, DFID, UK, took a critical approach to international support, giving examples of how some aid projects are incompetently run and of how government personnel and contractors benefit from a “contract war” in Afghanistan.

He felt the international community has been complicit in allowing the development of a very flawed system of governance, but said that it had chosen President Karzai so must learn to work with him, as well as respecting the wishes of the Afghan people and supporting them to find their own solution.

Panel II: Economy and job creation

Rangina Hamidi, entrepreneur and President of Kandahar Treasure, Afghanistan, described the handicraft business she runs which employs 350 women. She felt that most early aid projects had been short-term, often inappropriate and lacked sustainable follow-up, which had left many young men and women, disillusioned and unemployed.

It is difficult to set up small businesses in a war economy, given the lack of transport of electricity infrastructure, she said, and many people felt some people were enriching themselves, while ordinary people became more impoverished.

In some countries using micro-credit has been successful – particularly for women, but what works in Bangladesh does not automatically work in Afghanistan. The country needs stability to create markets and let the economy grow, and to market its products “with pride and dignity”.

Michel Przedlacki, Head of Programmes in Afghanistan, People in Need, said one must recognise the positive things happening in the country as good aid projects extend the autonomy of the individual. Local initiative is central to development projects and outside donors need to support grassroots’ activity.

Good aid can help identify and support good community leaders and build civil society, provided that aid organisers treat recipients as partners and listen to what they want, and are not too bureaucratic Bad aid is when a donor recites a monologue about what people need.

Gul M. Sabit, President and CEO of Pashtani Commercial Bank, Kabul, said peace is interconnected with economic development, as the insurgency is the result of being jobless, poor, uneducated, and without access to the outside world. Pouring money into the country is not the solution as one needs to invest in job creation – particularly in agricultural activities in the rural areas.

One needs to lend to traders and to construction activities, and work to expand micro-credit as it can help create jobs in agriculture and technical production. The biggest challenge is both to create a secure environment and to stamp out corruption and reduce bureaucracy.

Mirwais Sarah, Director of Civilian Technical Assistance Programmes, Ministry of Finance, Program Officer, UNPD, said donors should work together to prioritise assistance by dividing aid needs into clusters, and this also ensures that aid does not only reach a few geographical areas.

It is important to modernise agriculture, particularly in areas such as water management, which could help overcome some of the reasons for the conflict – creating wealth by restoring agricultural areas back to their 1960s’ state, when the country was an agricultural exporter. Good sectors for job creation are water management and road construction.

Paul Turner, International Relations Officer, Co-desk Afghanistan, DG External Relations, European Commission, said that almost one third of the total European Commission aid budget goes to Afghanistan, and 50% is channelled through the Afghan government for projects on health, etc., and the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which pays public servants’ salaries.

Speaking in a personal capacity, he said until 2007/8 the international donor community’s approach to rural development focused on counter-narcotics but this had little effect, so the new approach is ‘reintegration’, channelling funds through local NGOs. An additional approach is to use trade, rather than aid.

Panel III: Forces in civil society

Bettina Muscheidt, Policy Officer, Co-desk Officer Afghanistan, DG External Relations, European Commission, introduced the third panel, outlining the three important themes: education, communication with the government and the international community, and the organisation of civil society.

David Harvey, President, Proliteracy International, said 30% of Afghanistan’s population of 31 million are illiterate, and this is a core problem, as without education other efforts to help Afghan society will fail, and this reflects President Obama’s emphasis on educating women and girls.

He welcomed the new donor approach of working in partnership with indigenous Afghan organisations, and mentioned other literacy initiatives promoted by USAID and the World Bank.

Zainab Rahimi, Director of Broadcasting SABA TV, looked at the role of the media in empowering civil society and as a force for cohesion and stability. She said after the fall of the Taliban, over 30 organisations began promoting the cause of justice so security problems must not prevent them continuing to promote the rule of law and democracy.

Civil society and the media can be a force for unity, as the media can help promote civil society, by providing air time, running investigative programmes and mobilising public opinion.  

Quadir Amiryar, Senior Policy Adviser and Legal Studies, Ministry of Higher Education, Afghanistan, speaking in a personal capacity, said the government had made strides in increasing the number of students in public higher education, tripling the number of higher education institutions, and encouraging private education institutions.

There are plans to double the number of students in higher education, improve the quality of the teachers, and empower girls and women to be both students and teachers. The ministry is taking measures to improve governance, to be more transparent and accountable, and to enhance equity in education.

Janan Mosazai, an independent civil society activist, said Afghanistan has had a vibrant media for many years and the new government has had a positive impact: it encourages public debate, as listeners and viewers become more sophisticated, using the media to express their hopes and dreams.

It has brought Afghans closer to the outside world, and is helping to break down social taboo with the presence of many active female journalists; however it is not yet fully mature enough to operate independently and needs more investment to be fully independent of the state.

Closing remarks

Renee M. Earle, Minister Councillor for Public Affairs, US Mission to the EU, said the conference demonstrated that the civilian strategy is as important as the military one, but needs ‘retooling’ to improve the work with civil society. Given the concern about an imminent military withdrawal she said President Obama had raised the possibility of beginning the withdrawal process in 2011, so there would be no premature withdrawal.