Our city, our future, in our hands

January 23, 2003

The Taliban is out and western aid agencies have flooded in. But are they there to help Afghans or to pursue their own homegrown agendas? Leonard Stone reports.

The 8.30am flight from Dubai to Kabul took two-and-half hours on Afghanistan's Ariana Airlines (known locally to non-governmental organisation representatives as "Scariana"). The bombed-out and dilapidated remains of planes to the right of the runway was my first view of Afghanistan. A short ride in a minibus took me to Kabul's one remaining residential area - Wazir Akbar Khan; here I would reside for most of my stay in Kabul where I had been invited to advise civil servants.

I knew that Afghanistan was struggling. When I got there, however, the scale of the problems soon became evident. About a quarter of urban housing has been seriously damaged or destroyed. Street lighting is almost non-existent. Many public buildings remain bombed out and in serious states of disrepair. Safe water and sanitation facilities are limited - only 20 per cent of Kabul's population has access to piped water, and many provincial and secondary towns have no networked services. Waterborne diseases are a major cause of the prevailing high child mortality rates; about 85,000 children under five die annually from diarrhoeal diseases.

In 1997, sanitation coverage was estimated to reach 23 per cent of the urban population and 8 per cent of the rural population. NGOs and United Nations agencies continue to play an important role in the provision of clean water. In the capital city, solid waste is almost exclusively managed by NGOs. Only about 6 per cent of the population is reported to have access to electricity.

On my first visit to Kabul University, on November 10, I talked to a group of Afghan undergraduate English students, both men and women - many of the latter still in burkas. They seemed enthusiastic to be back at university - women had been banned from higher education under the Taliban.

Later that evening I switched on BBC World and saw a demonstration of students at Kabul University being shot at by the police. Two students died. There were rumours that other students had been killed and their bodies kept in the basement of a building. The government blamed the unrest on a few al-Qaida/"fundamentalist" agitators. There may be an element of truth in this, but the primary reason given by students was economic - no food for Iftar (the evening meal during Ramadan) and the dilapidated state of the freezing dormitories.

Afghanistan's infrastructure has been seriously degraded or destroyed; its human and environmental resources severely depleted; and its social capital eroded. State institutions are, moreover, quite dysfunctional, and the economy and society have become increasingly fragmented. An estimated 7 million people are vulnerable to famine and dependent on food aid for survival. Women and children have been hit particularly hard. There is an acute lack of basic services. Afghanistan, in short, faces an acute humanitarian emergency, not to mention political and security problems, and it requires massive reconstruction and development.

The years of war have not only devastated the country's existing structure but have also hindered new investment. On the ground, reconstruction focuses on basic priorities, for example repairing urban piped water. There is a lack of skilled local government managers, and refuse collection in Kabul is restricted because of a shortage of refuse managers.

Many Afghans believe that UN agency and NGO representatives are focused only on the threat from warlords, al-Qaida and opportunistic crime, and not on the looming potential threat from ordinary Afghan citizens in Kabul and elsewhere. In short, Kabulites are seething over the interim government's perceived ineffectiveness to tackle acute economic problems. NGOs are singled out primarily for operating their own homegrown agendas, rather than taking sufficient account of the contingencies on the ground and, indeed, for paying their Afghan workers too little.

One academic told me in the most acerbic tone that NGO representatives come primarily to build up their careers. Moreover, they have "little inclination to come to grips with the local culture, except for an inept and crude understanding of the basics of Islam".

An Afghan ministry worker in western dress commented that he was fed up with the somewhat hidden internal debate among UN agency and NGO representatives, between those who want to empower Afghans as soon as possible and those who prefer a more gradual approach, citing professional ineptitude among Afghans as a major reason for caution.

If the economic situation in the capital and elsewhere deteriorates further, demonstrations could occur right across Kabul. A city-wide demonstration, similar in intensity to the one that took place at the university, will see the barricades on the streets again.

UN agency and NGO workers, including western educational representatives, have to deliver the aid that has been promised for reconstruction more quickly. They should promote projects that empower citizens more rapidly, such as teacher training. Afghans need to take control of their own country as soon as possible, rather than take a prolonged, overcautious approach that envisages a greater long-term western say in the running of Afghanistan's internal affairs.

Leonard Stone is a lecturer in world politics and is doing research on Islam and world politics on behalf of CyberSalon at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

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