Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Patient? Surviving

Updates on Afghanistan from NATO and from the U.S. military paint a glowing picture of societal and military success. The country is brimming with opportunities for its people. Children are finally being educated. Women are free to be themselves, to stroll outside their homes, to acquire jobs, free from persecution.

The country is being ably administered by a democratic government. NATO is training the national police and the military and conscripts are growing in numbers and doing very well.

Corruption is endemic, seen in every walk of life, a reflection of the situation is in the government itself. But this is traditional, and Afghanistan is on its way to recovering its pride and its dignity and will deal with such irrelevancies in due time.

Except that the political opposition in the country feels that the corrupt voting that confirmed Hamid Karzai firmly back as president with former war lords back in parliament represents a signal failure. Abdullah Abdullah knows what democracy should look like, and it should not be a corrupt organ of a corrupt government.

All is not exactly how it seems, evidently. Families in Afghanistan are in fact less well off economically than they were years ago; they are struggling to access elemental needs. 42% of the Afghan population live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is near 40%, but indigent foreign workers are brought in by international organizations to work (for them) as food servers, guards and cleaners.

Billions in foreign aid were spent in the country yet accountability is somehow not there. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found poor construction methods used on building sites due to corruption, or incomplete structures. For all the children who are being educated, far more will never see the interior of a classroom. Child mortality rates remain high.

Young girls of twelve are still arranged into marriages with old men. And those who manage to survive childbirth will soon take on the mantles of old women, worn down by bearing children, caring for them, burying them, and working tirelessly in the home. Their young male counterparts will continue to answer the appeal of the Taliban for there are no other jobs available.

Government infrastructure, authority and security does not extend beyond the large provincial cities. Threats and violence, intimidation and obedience to the Taliban are imposed without intervention. Fear ensures that villagers remain complicit with the Taliban for fear of vicious reprisals. Violence is rising and there seems no end in sight.

When NATO departs the scene the niggling question of how a country as poverty-stricken as Afghanistan will ever be enabled to pay for its own security needs will present itself as a problem. The cost to the U.S. government alone yearly for its security presence in Afghanistan stands at $113-billion. According to World Bank estimates Afghanistan's GDP is $12-billion.

The much-vaunted value of provincial reconstruction teams that makes NATO members feel so proud of themselves for establishing model villages has ensured that the teams have a feeling of accomplishment, but the impact on institution building reflecting Afghan government involvement is absolutely nil.

These are all some of the conclusions sadly reached by Nipa Banerjee, one-time head of Canada's Kabul aid program from 2003 to 2006, who frequently returns to Afghanistan, and writes in Policy Options magazine, while teaching international development at the University of Ottawa.

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