Current rehabilitation and development rhetoric calls for listening to the Afghans and giving them the lead. Sadly, actions too often defy these wise words. The challenge is to make way for genuine in depth Afghan involvement at a time when the problems inherent in a lackluster government beset with corruption are so complex, and, particularly, when the aid-dispensing agencies so often disregard coordination and cooperation.
Politics within the prevailing environment of conflict imposes a sense of great urgency, no doubt, but many basic development principles are being set aside when they are most needed. Plans that rest on massive projects designed by outsiders lavishing too much money and demanding instant implementation are bound to be ineffective. Quick fixes never have worked. Throwing around money indiscriminately just compounds problems and raises new dilemmas. Sustained development, as has been established for decades, requires patient on the ground interactions over time.
The current swing toward agriculture and its affiliated components is welcome – if it results in better integrated multi-targeted planning linking local producers, processors, small industries, storage facilities and markets. Small dams built and maintained by the people themselves for irrigation and electricity to support small industries processing local produce make sense, for instance. The ultimate aim is to enable people to stay in their own areas enjoying their own social and cultural customs and ideals instead of joining the unhappy disoriented masses now crowding the cities. But this means much coordination and cooperation and sincere community involvement.
Such participatory activities will also avoid contributing to the sense of dependency that is fast undermining the ideals of self-sufficiency and independence that have always been sources of pride for Afghans. Communities traditionally came together to perform tasks for the common good. One example would be the repair of weirs that diverted water from rivers into irrigation channels. Building these weirs was the height of the summer’s excitements greatly enjoyed by each and every man, woman and child up and down the length of the irrigation channels. Thus was community cohesiveness strengthened. Nowadays villages too often wait for outsiders to perform the tasks they once so enjoyed. Similar dependency attitudes threaten to dominate minds in many sectors.
On another level, there are many skilled, talented, creatively motivated and dedicated young men and women in both private and government sectors that ought to be supported in developing decision-making authority. Not just for implementing projects, but in exerting genuine influence over policy, program design and resources. Initially specialists for guidance will be required, but inculcating a sense of ownership will build confidence and with confidence a regard for responsibility. Once a sense of ownership is present, mutual respect and trust will also grow and feelings of alienation will lessen. Deteriorating trust between foreigners and Afghans, Afghans and foreigners, and Afghans and Afghan is now of great concern. Little sustainable development can be accomplished without restoring an environment of trust.
Afghanistan’s youth need to be able to look to the future with confidence and trust. It is said that over half the population is under the age of 25. Their burgeoning pop culture devoted to mod fashions, electronic gadgets and enticing entertainment is exuberantly alive, not only in Kabul but all across the country. These young people thirst for knowledge. Universities and private learning institutions are packed yet jobs are hard to come by. The Ministry of Labor reports that young people account for 70% of Afghanistan’s 3 million unemployed. Neither are jobs available, nor decision-making roles within the still fragile democratic framework. Disillusioned, unemployed youth are a dangerous commodity in any society. All the more so when insurgents sit poised to lure them to their ranks.
Skills training and meaningful job creation related to the nation’s needs therefore become major priorities. Stop gap, short term unsustainable projects that serve merely as facades are not the answer. Expectations and aspirations are high among the youth, but these positive attitudes can easily turn to despair and lead to corruption, crime gangs, and an incipient drug culture, aside from militancy. One study estimates that the average age of suicide bombers is 23 and that 80% of those involved in terrorist activities are unemployed. Efforts to engage these potential leaders of tomorrow in satisfying, constructive nation-building can only strengthen stability and prosperity. A special emphasis on leadership development is crucial.
Now is an ideal time to initiate imaginative people-oriented programs in all sectors. The explosion in communications technology allows information to flow more easily at a time when the population at large is far more open to receive new ideas than they were before the war. Afghans are maximizers and will take to ideas they see as beneficial for themselves and their families. They have shown incredible resilience over these years of turmoil and have themselves devised all manner of coping mechanisms in the midst of conflict. Given access to knowledge that will enhance their livelihoods and give them confidence, they can, and will, by themselves, reach many eagerly sought development goals without needing to become dependent on outsiders. There is an emerging consensus among Afghans as to the need for good governance and a functional national economy buttressed by judicial reforms.
To ignore this new awareness is to court disaster.