Tales From Afghanistan
By Drew Tulchin
January 7, 2008
Tales From Afghanistan
Drew Tulchin was in Afghanistan in 2007 for his second time. He was working for the DC based Making Cents on a USAID project with DAI. The project was called Alternatives Livelihood Project / East (ALP/E). The project was to a Train the Trainers (ToT) to enable high school teachers to train young people in how to start and run businesses.
Many thanks for your inquiries to my welfare and progress in Afghanistan. I am safe and sound. I apologize to those to whom I’ve given only the briefest of information. Here’s more.
Why I’m in Afghanistan: I am on a Business Skills Development Project. I am leading a two-week training of trainers (ToT) with 12 participants. The 8 teachers and 4 university students will in turn teach young people about starting and running small businesses. I was hired by a great DC based company called Making Cents (www.makingcents.com) that does innovative projects. They are themselves consulting to DAI, a large DC firm implementing USAID’s Alternative Livelihood Project – Eastern Region (ALP/E), alternative to poppy. Afghanistan Physically: It is an interesting country, long a part of trade routes throughout Asia. Historically, this isn’t the richest area, as people were quite nomadic. The country is highly diverse in terrain, although dry - arable land is only 15% of the country. From the airplane, this region is brown, rocky and mountainous, except where irrigation is present – there you can clearly see the green. Vast mountains, particularly ringing Kabul and East of Jalalabad, are white this time of year.
Afghanistan Physically: It is an interesting country, long a part of trade routes throughout Asia. Historically, this isn’t the richest area, as people were quite nomadic. The country is highly diverse in terrain, although dry - arable land is only 15% of the country. From the airplane, this region is brown, rocky and mountainous, except where irrigation is present – there you can clearly see the green. Vast mountains, particularly ringing Kabul and East of Jalalabad, are white this time of year.
Afghanistan Facts: 647,500 sq km in area (the size of Kenya or the Ukraine) 26 million people. 41 people / sq km, density 150th out of 230 3 million are estimated to be refugees; 60% of those children
The Eastern Region: Jalalabad is a low level valley with lots of agriculture. It is a bread basket with 2 and 3 planting seasons in a year. Lots of stuff grows here, including poppy, with temperatures in the summer that can reach a reported 50 degrees centigrade (really, really hot). It is a dry heat, like Arizona, which supposedly makes it more palatable, but when I was here 3 years ago, it was suffering. Is it dangerous? Jalalabad itself is relatively safe. There are lots of people with guns, which doesn’t make one exactly calm. However, MOST attacks are directed at military targets or (sadly) when civilians are caught around such violence. Jalalabad itself has a reputation for being quiet, with the governor keeping it that way. The outlying areas of the Eastern Region include the Pakistani border, tribal areas with no roads, and poppy growing areas, so things are harder there. I am not exposed enough to get into much trouble. I spend my entire day indoors on a compound behind high walls. We go everywhere with armed guards, even to walk the 100 yards from one building to another. When a bombing does take place, it is unreasonable to damn the entire country. That is like saying all of the State of New York is dangerous after hearing about a murder in the Bronx. Nationalism and Identity: These terms are diverse and entangled in this part of the world. Half the country speaks Dari (Persian) and half Pashto. There are five ethnicities, mostly regional, with little diversity except in Kabul. Many people around here in the East actually live in Peshawa, the largest city in Western Pakistan. Nearly 3 million people have refugee status, 200,000 crossing the border daily between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Peshawa is really the capital of this region, which makes sense given that for years, reaching Kabul was more dangerous. The UN is encouraging people to permanently move back. People have lived in Pakistan for decades. Economic factors, historical perspective of insecurity, and lack of infrastructure restrict returns. But, it calls into question national borders, identity, and place.
Historical Context: People have been killing each other for hundreds of years here. The place was nominally British in colonial times, but they never really controlled much. After achieving independence, local leadership killed each other every other year for a generation from the 1960s. Communists with Soviet help tried to bring the area under one roof in the ‘70s, ‘80s – with no real success. Then, the Taliban rule, although authoritarian, was actually secure for the region (accept in the North) with reduced crime, little poppy, and stability. Now, it had a cost: guys had to have beards, women were confined to very traditional roles (in the house, no school), strict Islamic law was enforced, and TV banned. But, people weren’t killing each other as much.
Development Here: The development industry is huge. It hires lots of people. It fosters an environment to learn English, use computers, provide opportunities for women, and increase training/education. However, it certainly isn’t sustainable. What would these people do if the aid money went away? Programs provide subsidizes, such as paying people to show up for trainings. My 12 attendees get $15 a day: $3 for lunch, $1 for transportation each direction, and $3 for a substitute for their school, leaving them $7 for the day; higher than their teacher salaries. Compared with 3 Years Ago: I was in Afghanistan before, in the very same town. I don’t have the best perspective, but it appears the region is prospering. There is lots of construction going on with new houses (large palatial looking things); the market is active with lots of merchandise; there are lots of cars / vehicles. The highway to Kabul is newly paved. What took 6 hours (and most uncomfortably) now takes 3. But, there are still only 2 banks in town and no electricity, except for generators. The security situation for American development workers is silly, and in my opinion, counter-productive. We live in a bubble confined to houses; we walk with armed guards; we don’t learn the language (they all learn English). The Europeans aren’t as militarized. It is my individual opinion that this furthers barriers, not reduces them. Outlook for the Future: The Afghanis are a very proud, and nationalistic people. They have overcome incredible hardships. They deserve our, indeed everyone’s, support for a chance to peacefully build their lives. The situation today overall there is a sense of less security and more guarded optimism than 3 years ago. Change is slow. Welfare for the individual is improving erratically. The rich and educated are doing very well. The poor and rural populations, less so.
There is a lot of donor money, but the climate is not supportive of private investment. The civil sector, particularly at the national level, is suspect. It is always a challenge how to foster actual development. Some of the best and brightest (at least in theory) are involved in helping this country. However, billions is being spent, most on the military, with less obvious results. With a country of 26 million people, would they be better off writing $1,000 checks to every man, woman, and child instead of what has done in the last five years?
Let’s keep our fingers crossed and remember to look at the successes. Also, let’s hope that enough opportunity can give hope to the next generation, 60% of the country’s population. It may take 20 years, but – if it can be done – would still be a victory for all.
Feel free to send your thoughts and comments. Drew Tulchin Social Enterprise Associates firstname.lastname@example.org www.socialenterprise.net
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