Development possible if in Afghan hands
I returned to Afghanistan last December, travelling to Kabul, the Panjshir Valley, and Kandahar. It had been several years since my posting as the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the UN Mission for Afghanistan after 9/11 – and it was my first trip there as the head of UNICEF Canada. My goal was to evaluate the impact and sustainability of UNICEF programming in the country.
Despite the insecurity, my return only solidified the hope and optimism I have for Afghans. I saw for myself that it is possible for humanitarian, reconstruction and development work to proceed, even in this insecure environment.
Results in terms of increased school enrolments, extended health care coverage, immunization outreach, community water supply and other local development projects, prove the point.
However, it remains a fact that the general under-resourcing of reconstruction and development assistance is contributing to dissatisfaction and discontent among large segments of the Afghan population. They want to see more change in their communities, more progress.
A disconnect remains between many Afghan communities and the international community’s approach to reconstruction. If continued progress is to be made, it is crucial that international agencies support activities at an even more decentralized level with district development councils and community councils or “shuras,” which, for the majority of rural Afghans, still represent the governance structures that they know and trust the most.
International agencies should provide more decentralized, flexible resources to their regional and provincial offices, which should have the authority to plan and implement locally appropriate activities and allocations.
The word should be put out through regional and local assemblies or “jirgas,” and through community shuras, that such funds are available, and orientation provided on how to apply for and access these resources. This would build trust, strengthen agencies’ links to Afghan communities and build the “environment of consent” necessary for effective operations.
Frequent contact, discussion, negotiation and listening are needed at district and community levels. If security considerations limit formal personnel travels, “non-formal” means of outreach are essential – innovative or arms-length personnel contracting arrangements, travelling in private rather than agency vehicles, and without agency flag-waving.
Nothing can happen in districts and communities without prior consultation and assent. Outreach through Afghan staff or trusted local NGOs and contractors can be very effective.
It is useful to call together influential community leaders frequently at district and provincial levels for consultations through special assemblies. Transparency – about resources that are being provided, to whom and for what purpose – is the best way to ensure accountability at all levels.
While I was in Afghanistan, I attended a provincial jirga on education in Kandahar with the Minister of Education, Hanif Atmar. The focus was mostly on girls’ education. Several hundred district and community council leaders were in attendance. They were appreciative that a government minister had actually taken the time to come and consult with them – something, they said, that very rarely happens.
Leader after leader reiterated their commitment – and the desire of their communities – for the education of their children, both girls and boys.
Already so much success has been made in education in Afghanistan. Today, five million children are in school. Forty percent of those children enrolled in primary school are girls – an incredible achievement considering girls’ enrolment in state schools was forbidden during the Taliban era.
Despite tremendous progress, gender disparity in education remains a serious concern; the school completion rate for girls is low, while the literacy rate for young women is only 14 percent, compared to 50 percent for young men. These are among the serious issues that Afghan community leaders want addressed.
The leaders at the jirga in Kandahar have committed themselves to provide land for schools, but emphasized their need for additional resources for facilities, school materials and teacher training. They asked that resources be provided in an open and transparent way, for purposes discussed with community councils, to limit the kind of corruption they viewed as all too common.
Some interesting suggestions arose, too: for example, a delegation of community council leaders from Kandahar province be dispatched to Quetta to convince Taliban leadership not to attack schools where girls are learning.
Also in Kandahar, I attended a meeting of UNICEF, WHO and Afghan officials from the five southwestern provinces, among the most insecure in the country. The participants were planning the polio vaccination campaign that subsequently took place last December: over a million children vaccinated in the course of several days, by teams fanning out throughout those five provinces.
Development work is still very possible, even in insecure environments, when external agencies work closely with their Afghan provincial counterparts and with district and community shuras.
External development actors should give Afghans more credit for knowing what works in their country. Afghans should be given increasingly senior and responsible roles in the work of agencies and should be given more credit for knowing what expatriate skill sets are relevant or irrelevant to Afghanistan’s needs.
Afghanistan continues to be a work in progress – one can point to achievements in many spheres, yet, with the rates of insurgent or terrorist-related incidents increasing sharply over the last year, at no time since the fall of the Taliban has the threat to Afghanistan been so severe and the need for coherent international action so strong.
For the international community, to help meet the security challenge and stabilize Afghanistan, a strategy is desperately needed that takes into account in a concerted way military, political and security objectives, economic and humanitarian development, counter-narcotics and regional cooperation efforts.
UNICEF has been working continuously on the ground in Afghanistan since 1949, as a key partner of national authorities and local non-governmental organizations. In addition to helping more children go to school, UNICEF will continue its efforts to rebuild infrastructure in the country, and improve healthcare for Afghan women and children.
I hope that our own political leaders will unify around a shared Canadian vision and strategy for Afghanistan that accepts the necessity of our military role, as well as our roles in security sector reform, strengthening governance and further building development initiatives which benefit the poorest Afghans.
A former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, Nigel Fisher is president and CEO of UNICEF Canada.