York paves nation's road out of ruin

March 14, 2003

In rebuilding Afghanistan, Haneef Atmar, the minister charged with the task, will draw on the skills, ideas and shared experiences that he gained from a year at York University.

I was 11 years old when the war broke out in Afghanistan. My childhood memories were very nice, and I remember the beauty of Kabul and the surrounding country. But this was all to change. I left my city twice - the first time in the 1980s to join the resistance against the Russian occupation, the second time in 1994, when the fiercest fighting broke out and I fled with my family to Pakistan. I had been witness to the immense suffering of the Afghan people and horrible human rights abuses. That experience strongly influenced my decision to become a humanitarian worker.

Now I am back in Kabul as the minister responsible for rural rehabilitation and development.

Afghanistan has known little but war for almost three decades. I stepped into its aid community as a fairly inexperienced employee of Norwegian Church Aid. But I soon discovered that it required more than enthusiasm and commitment (important though these qualities are) to make a meaningful contribution. The importance of learning lessons from farther afield became apparent, so when the NCA nominated me for a place on the postwar recovery studies masters course at the University of York, I was eager to go.

The well-informed intellectual discussions I encountered in York in 1996-97 exposed me to the experiences of other nations and conflicts. That was extremely helpful in terms of my analysis of the situation in Afghanistan.

In the years immediately following the end of the cold war, the incidence of warfare around the world increased. But as more and more countries have entered a post-conflict period, it has become clear that simply replicating development projects tried elsewhere is not enough.

There is a need for a more nuanced understanding of the specialised strategies required to address the challenges of rehabilitation and reconstruction. When international assistance is given in the context of violent conflict or its aftermath, it becomes part of that context.

Ill-conceived aid programmes can reinforce, exacerbate, prolong or rekindle conflict; we have seen this in Afghanistan time and again. But when aid is delivered effectively, it can reduce tension and strengthen the capacity of local people to disengage from conflict. So it is vital that humanitarian actors, policy-makers and others are made aware of these issues and encouraged to apply learning gleaned from other postwar scenarios.

Growing up in the midst of war can be a very isolating experience. There is little exposure to new ideas and approaches. So the opportunity to look in depth at these and a host of other issues at York was a real eye-opener for me. I was struck by the many similarities between our situation in Afghanistan and countries elsewhere, and I was excited by the enormous potential for learning lessons from the successes and the mistakes of others. I learnt the importance of trying to understand the root causes of a conflict in order to deal effectively and appropriately with reconstruction and recovery. Frequently, this means placing much more emphasis on local knowledge and expertise and on the developmental aspects of ameliorative strategies, rather than on the presumed expertise of outsiders.

For me, one of the great bonuses of my time at York was the opportunity to study alongside people from a wide range of conflict-affected countries.

All of them contributed in different ways to my understanding. Some of my fellow students had experience of fieldwork in various parts of the world, others came from a more academic background. Considerable time and energy was invested in building trust and understanding between us. This is especially important when there are students from either side of a particular conflict in the same class.

Every student is encouraged to feel that his or her insights are of value, which can lead to an intensely personal and cathartic experience. In my own case, I lost a leg in a rocket attack in Kabul two years before coming to York. Discussions about security and risk management, landmines, disability policies, civilian vulnerability and so on take on a different complexion when academic rigour is informed by personal and practical realities. A great deal of learning took place during our debates, and I am still in contact with five of my nine classmates, one of whom, Drew Gilmore, is often my counterpart in the United Nations Development Programme in Afghanistan.

A memorable highlight of the course was a field visit to Iran, which included a comprehensive tour along the border with Iraq to look at eight years of postwar reconstruction. In those days, we didn't have a government in Afghanistan interested in reconstruction. A key lesson for me was that you need a state to support such efforts - I was interested in the role played by the Iranian government. But I also had a chance to meet with Afghan refugees who longed to return to their country. That left a deep impression on me.

The course also allowed me to undertake an invaluable two-month internship with an agency working in a conflict-affected country, which I spent with non-governmental organisations in Ireland and the Netherlands and with Christian Aid in the UK.

In June last year, I became a minister in Hamid Karzai's government. It is difficult to explain my feelings about this. I was extremely honoured to serve my nation and to be appointed by a man who was, for the first time in many years, a legitimate leader. But as I had only ever worked for non-governmental agencies, I was also quite concerned about whether I could be effective in this role. When I looked at my ministry's payroll, I noticed that I had more than 1,700 colleagues. It occurred to me that perhaps the most important challenge would be to mobilise this community of professionals. This was a unique opportunity for us Afghans to rebuild our nation. That first day, I set about getting some running water into the building I was to work from and finding desks and chairs for my colleagues.

I now work 18 to 20 hours a day and have no time to think of my family and friends. I justify this when I talk to my people. Last week, a group from Badakhshan, one of the most remote areas of Afghanistan, visited me. There, more than half a million people are cut off from the rest of the world for eight months a year. Only a footpath through cliffs on the banks of the Oxus River links them to the outside world. The people told me that route had been blocked by avalanches and that a number of people had lost their lives. They couldn't get back home and needed help.

They wanted me to reopen the footpath and perhaps expand it into a dirt road. What modest expectations our people have.

A few weeks ago, 250 children living in another district that used this path died from a preventable disease known as black cough. My only option was to fly medicine to that district, at a cost of £6,250. The government is too poor for such drastic measures to be sustainable, but my initial estimate of the cost of a road is about £7.5 million, and I obviously don't have that money. I hope to have £330,000 to help reopen the footpath. Then I will try to involve the people of Badakhshan in building their own road.

I will always acknowledge what I learnt during my stay in York, and I owe a great deal to Sultan Bakarat, my tutor and good friend, as well as to the faculty and my classmates. The challenge is formidable. The key problems that Afghans face are poverty, insecurity, accountability and good governance. But we have no option but to be optimistic. We have a united cabinet, a popular leader, and the support of the Afghan public and the international community.

Haneef Atmar is Afghanistan's minister for rural rehabilitation and development.

Laying a Firm foundation

There have been 101 graduates from York University's postwar reconstruction and development unit, and many of them have returned home to help rebuild their ravaged countries.

The unit, which is part of the university's department of politics, specialises in research and consultancy. It has been commissioned to work for many organisations, including the United Nations, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. Following its multidisciplinary ethos, it seeks to apply insights from a range of disciplines while harnessing the eagerness and ability of local communities to take responsibility for their own regeneration.

But it is the unit's one-year masters course in postwar recovery studies that is arguably having the most impact.

Students from 43 nations have completed the MA, which has taught them about the management and planning of postwar reconstruction, humanitarian intervention in complex political emergencies and peace-building. These practical and analytical skills are now being put into practice by the likes of Haneef Atmar and his counterparts around the world.


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