Sunday marked the 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and as I watched the media coverage on various news stations, I couldn’t help but feel irritated at the fact that for 11 years, I had been fed details of a war through the filter of my television screen. When I mentioned my frustrations to a friend, she referred me to someone who is currently doing international development work in Afghanistan! This woman graciously agreed to be interviewed, but preferred to keep her identity and the identity of the company she works with anonymous. I hope that this can shed some insight on the unique challenges of working in development from someone who is actually working in Afghanistan, and what the possible future holds as the U.S. withdrawal looms closer.
Overlooking Kabul (photo courtesy of Max Becherer, The New York Times)
Q: So, can you provide some more background about what your role is, and what the goals of your development team are?
A: So basically, the team I’m working with is focusing on the development of the country’s private sector so we can improve the overall economic situation in the country. We’ve been there for over ten years, so we’re trying to stay on track for progress. I would say that the most important goal is to help the country be self-sufficient, in that they can become more self-reliant without international presence.
There are a variety of different players involved, but really the goal is to find local businesses and attractive opportunities, so the money we give can be spent towards promoting productive business growth to stimulate the economy.
Q: OK, so what would you outline as the main obstacles you’ve encountered while working in development in Afghanistan? Maybe we could start with some of the cultural challenges first?
A: Cultural context is crucial. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how much you read about the history and culture of the country you do work in, because in my opinion, you really need to be on the ground to understand the reality of the situation and what the risks are. I’ve spent a lot of time adapting to the environment and I definitely think you do better work here once you have a better understanding of the culture and are able to frame this notion of development within their (the Afghan people) terms.
On a day-to-day basis, there are smaller and larger challenges I’ve been faced with. For example, what I’ve experienced from the Afghanis we have worked with is that you can’t just jump into a meeting and start asking direct questions. That’s basically considered rude here. You have to allow a few minutes of familial conversation before you start business. And of course, even with the best translator, there runs a risk of misinterpretation, just because there are some phrases and words that can’t be perfectly translated, you know?
Q: And you’re a woman working in Afghanistan …
A: Yup, which offers its unique challenges, obviously. One of the first things I noticed is that you rarely see women outside, so there seems to be a confinement of women in the private/domestic sphere, though let me be clear that I am not speaking for the entire country, just where I am personally located. So as a woman, walking outside means getting stared at … a lot. And when I actually meet with men, I have to cover my arms otherwise I am perceived as being ‘too forward.’ It can get annoying to constantly have to monitor yourself, but I have to say, that for the most part, the Afghan people I work with have been really warm and welcoming. Of course, we’re working with the ones who are welcoming this idea of development in the first place, so the men I meet with are probably more open-minded to the idea of women from the West working in the public sphere.
Which brings me to another point. Just because some people are open to this idea of development, doesn’t mean that the relationship is completely harmonious and trusting. After all, this is a country that has experienced war for the last 30 years, and drastic changes in regime shifts. I mean first you had the Soviets in the 1980s, who were toppled by the American-backed mujahedeen that later branched out to the Taliban, and now, the current American invasion.
A market in Kabul. Almost 90% of Afghanistan’s national budget is financed by foreign governments.
And I think a lot of Americans forget that, both here and at home. There’s this attitude coming from our stakeholders sometimes of, ‘Why don’t they want help?’ and you really have to understand the history of international involvement in the country, and how there have been so many broken promises made. Even now, while I get to work with a lot of amazing stakeholders, there are some who are not always genuine, who are just trying to invest to add something to their company’s vita, you know? And so you have to be conscious of how things operate here, of how to best leverage your resources, and to make sure you are hooking up with the right people who are sensitive to the country’s unique cultural history and challenges.
Q: What about security?
A: The security situation is definitely limiting. You have to do a lot of coordination with logistics; you can’t just go out and see places.
Q: Do you feel that affects media coverage as well?
A: What I’ve gathered from the military officials I’ve talked to is that the relationship between the media and the military is um, pretty tense. The military claims they’re misquoted all the time …
Q: Right, but isn’t it difficult for journalists to get access to information? I remember a few years back Laura Logan gave an interview in response to criticisms from the Bush administration aimed at journalists that they weren’t giving the ‘whole story’ on Iraq. And her response was that due to security and logistical issues, it was difficult to move freely within the country. Have you ever seen the film Control Room? I couldn’t believe that the majority of reporting done from the CentCom (U.S. Central Command) base was located hundreds of miles from Baghdad …
A: I haven’t seen the movie, but I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if security issues placed restrictions on journalists as well.
Q: Not to mention that most media outlets are relying on AP reporters for their foreign news coverage, so it’s not like there’s a ton of journalists out there reporting on foreign affairs, even in Afghanistan.
A: Right, and I think that again drives home my main point. If you’re relying on the news for your media on Afghanistan, you’re just not getting the full story. Nothing compares to actually being on the ground and working with people here. And look, I’m not saying that I have full access to the country here, as I mentioned before. But even working here with the American government, I am still exposed in a way I never was before. Meeting with Afghan people and seeing the culture first-hand really changes your perspective.
Safety is still a concern for many women in Afghanistan (photo courtesy of Mauricio Lima)
Q: OK, now I want to ask you about the state of women in Afghanistan and it’s a two-part question. First of all, there seems to be a new focus on women’s education and empowerment in the developing world, because recent research has shown that there is an actual ‘net growth’ in economic development when girls are educated and women are given means of economic empowerment (like through microfinance). There is strong evidence that the education and empowerment of women creates a more educated, powerful community—their children are more educated, infant mortality decreases, and women who have access to the family’s finances are more likely to spend their money on the family’s health and nutrition then their husbands are.
So my first question is, how can development initiatives move forward successfully if Afghanistan is currently considered one of the worst places for women’s rights in the world?
And my second question is, even though there’s been a marked improvement in the education of girls, with over 2.4 million going to school, why do you think progress in other aspects of women’s development has been so slow?
A: Well I can’t speak to that specifically, because I don’t focus on women’s development, but I think there are several contributing factors, based on the conversations I’ve had with other people working here. First of all, just because you give aid to a country, doesn’t mean that it’s going to change cultural attitudes overnight. Even if girls go to school, they are still entrenched in deeply complex, patriarchal familial and societal relations. And of course safety is still an issue, and there are some who believe the military invasion has made the security situation more dangerous because of retaliatory threats by insurgents. But, there are also many who fear that when western forces withdraw, that instability might return and any gains made will be reversed.
One interesting aspect about women’s rights that I didn’t really consider before I came here was the huge gap in skill set. I mean, there were many women who attended university in Kabul in the 1960s and 70s …
Students at Kabul University, 1970s.
Q: I was going to ask you that! I recently screened a documentary film, Afghan Star, to my students for a section on how music can serve as a powerful tool for protest and change. And the movie follows these four contestants who are competing for a grand prize, and fans of each contestant ‘campaign’ for their favorite, in what the film argues is basically a first taste of democracy for many Afghanis. Anyway, they show flashbacks of Kabul in the 1970s, and it seemed to be kind of a hip, cultural mecca!
A: Yeah exactly. So you’ve got these people who are more educated, and then a lot of people who have been growing up during the war who are illiterate, and honestly, I just think it’s going to take time to bridge that gap, and a lot of patience.
A look back on the former ‘Paris of Central Asia’:
Q: So moving forward, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges Afghanistan faces with development?
A: Well first of all, we are currently having huge issues with inflation, because of all the aid that is being pumped into the country. Furthermore, since Afghanistan imports a lot of their products, the charges for customs are really high. They just can’t compete with countries like Iran, whose currency is really cheap, in that respect. And it’s going to take a while before the country has enough local businesses and ventures before they can compete with other industries. The argument is that when we withdraw out of the country and we invest less money, inflation will go down. But then if we don’t continue to support reconstruction aid, what will happen? Can we really accomplish all that needs to be done in the next two years? It’s something that those of us who are working in development, are still grappling with.
Q: OK, so here is my final question. Political pundits are always throwing around this notion that Afghanistan is impossible to keep stable, that it’s too tribal, too conservative a culture, too vast a region. But I recently read an article in the New York Times in which several Afghan scholars cited this viewpoint as condescending, as a reaction used whenever Americans do not want to engage in a conflict.
I mean, do they have a point? Sure the country’s been at war for 30 years, but it was only a few decades ago referred to as the ‘Paris of Central Asia …’
A: OK, let me say this in response to the ‘Afghanistan is tribal’ argument. I have met with different groups of people, from different ethnic tribes, Pashtuns, Hazaras, etc., and while there may be some cultural differences and tensions, most of the people we’ve met with seem to be on the same page of wanting to move forward with their business ventures, with progress in the country.
Can Afghanistan ever be stable? I can’t say for sure, but I will tell you there are concerns that Kabul might collapse as foreign aid and investment are withdrawn before 2014. It might just take a strong leader, and that’s why the next round of elections is so important. If they’re fraudulent, then I doubt the Afghan government will be able to assume responsibility for the security of the country.
But then, maybe change will come from the people themselves. My hope in the development work that I’m doing is that we can help to empower the Afghan citizens, and honestly, I’ve just been amazed at how innovative people are. Even if they don’t have formal schooling, many of them are self-taught artisans, are skilled in construction, agriculture, and different types of services. It’s really inspiring to me to see that despite these change of regimes, despite the oppression, the wars, the people here just do it. And that’s why personally, I have hope, even if I’m unsure as to whether everything can be stabilized in just two more years.
An Afghan woman at a one-day “stealth festival” called Sound Central, in Kabul October 1, 2011. The first music festival the country has seen since the Taliban regime. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmad Masood)
Please stay tuned for an upcoming interview with a Cultural Studies scholar from Kabul who has done extensive research on women in Afghanistan, the intersection of capitalism and development, and yes, even reality television shows like Afghan Star.
Afghan Star trailer … amazing film (and available on instant neflix!)
The documentary film Control Film: