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Afghanistan: the importance of being there

Nicholas van Praag's picture

I spent a lot of time this week hanging out with my friend Edward Girardet. He’s in Washington, D.C. ahead of the launch of his book that traces the history of international engagement in Afghanistan over the past 30 years or so. 

Killing the Cranes is a deeply personal tale that includes Massoud and Girardetan account of Girardet’s brush with Osama Bin Laden before he (Osama) became a household name. He also describes trekking through the Hindu Kush to interview the leader of the United Front, Ahmed Shah Massoud, during the war against the Soviet Union. This photograph captures that encounter.

Girardet has reported on the region ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and has known three generations of aid workers.  I asked him if they had changed.

Sure, he said. When they are in theater they spend much of their time in meetings coordinating with each other behind blast proof walls.  Only rarely do they get into the ‘field’.  And as soon as they get time off, they take the first plane out—to Dubai or Bangkok.  

In the old days, says Girardet, they used to stick around, trekking, drinking tea with the locals, and generally getting to know the lie of the land, culturally and physically.

I guess you can’t blame them.  Security is a much bigger constraint now than it was even a few years ago. Trying to stay safe in a hostile environment has a major impact on the quality of life for aid workers—not to mention the locals.

R&R breaks in the Gulf are only one manifestation of the problem. Even when they are there, aid workers are not there long. Deployment of international staff in these tough neighborhoods is rarely more than a year. 

The result is that few of them acquire the local knowledge to pull their professional weight and support efforts to build a more resilient society.

An important finding in the World Bank’s World Development Report on conflict and security, which was published in April, is that international assistance must be sustained for at least 15 years to support most long-term institutional transformations in fragile states. While some bilateral and multilateral donors have started to adopt longer time frames, the same is not true for staff assignments.

I remember being in Sarajevo just after the Dayton Agreements with Rory O’Sullivan, the World Bank’s newly appointed country manager for Bosnia-Herzegovina.  He surprised Bosnians when he told them he planned to be there for the next three years.  And he was.

That’s not the norm for most organizations in southern central Asia.  An exception is the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).  For decades it has supported local initiatives in northern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and eastern Tajikistan. 

The AKDN bases its approach on earning peoples’ trust by demonstrating its long term commitment to these regions and its peoples.

That commitment is reflected in its staff: some 95 percent are nationals or regional expatriates who speak the local languages and work in beneficiary communities for many years. Girardet would approve


Submitted by Dennis Gallagher on
Just returned from two long assignments in Afghanistan and have worked in and around Afghanistan since the "refugee" days. I agree that the role of expats has changed and should have changed. In earlier times I spent much time in the "field". In these recent assignments I have not. This was deliberate not because of fear about security conditions or lack of interest to "get out there" but because it is time for foreigners to be more in the background and in support roles to Afghans. In my last assignment I had a staff of 300 plus working in more than 20 provinces and 100 districts. I was the only expat on the staff and I limited the role of outside "experts" to short and targeted assignments. Afghans cannot be led out of their problems but must lead themselves, can be supported in this regard and appreciate that support. It is especially important that Afghans see their government as relating to their interests and needs. The National Solidarity Program, in my view the most effective of efforts to connect with and support communities, is not understood by many to be, as it is, a program of the Afghan government but rather of the "facilitating partners" that support the program in the field, almost all of which are expat run organizations. It is not just Afghan individuals/staff who need to be pushed forward but the Afghan institutions (governmental and nongovernmental). In many cases these Afghan entities are weak and even corrupt but strengthening the capacity of not just Afghans but Afghan institutions to address the country's and people's problems is essential.

Submitted by Nick van Praag on
You are absolutely right: institutions (both formal and informal) are central--and the international community has an important role to play in nurturing their development. All coutries are subject to destabilizing stresses of one kind or another. What makes them more or less prone to violent conflict is the capability and legitimacy of their institutions to internediate and temper those stresses. The NSP program you mention is a great example of the kind of soft institutions that are key to preventing violent conflict.

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