#15 responsibility
Arif Farahmand

Reconstructing Responsibility

The reconstruction of Afghanistan has created a culture of dependency. Only projects that delegate responsibility to the local population can be sustainable.

When the NATO military mission in Afghanistan ended and troops were withdrawn, Afghans experienced a reduction in the amount of development aid. Since development and reconstruction projects are still dependent on foreign donors, Afghans now suffer from unemployment, a shortage of funds, and few development projects.

The government is still dependent on foreign money.

If you take a short walk through some parts of Kabul, you may see luxurious and newly constructed buildings and houses. The streets in front of these palatial buildings are dusty, full of puddles and hardly passable though. If you ask the rich owners and residents why the streets are not paved, their answer is fairly simple: There is no foreign NGO or aid agency to fund the project. The government is still dependent on foreign money. This is in part the result of a decline in international engagement, and might also be attributable to billions of dollars having been poured into one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which has led to a mentality of dependency and a lack of responsibility among the population.

… after international troops withdrew and foreign financial aid dropped off, most of the construction and development projects came to a halt.

After the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was ousted by U.S. led international forces in 2011, Western countries and international organizations spent billions of dollars on reconstruction and other development projects. Improvements that affected the lives of many Afghans were made, especially in education, health care and the media sector. Unfortunately, after international troops withdrew and foreign financial aid dropped off, most of the construction and development projects came to a halt. Many were never completed or lost their utilities, and the people working on the projects lost their jobs.

In 2001 Afghanistan was in urgent need of development and reconstruction funds. The country had already experienced decades of war. Most parts of the capital city Kabul were nothing more than ruins. The international community responded to this urgency. The U.S. government alone, the biggest donor, has appropriated more than 100 billion dollars for the relief and reconstruction of Afghanistan over the past 13 years.

… a lot of the achievements have proven to be unsustainable.

There is no question that these foreign funds brought many changes to the lives of millions of Afghans, but a lot of the achievements have proven to be unsustainable. Furthermore, funding has changed the mentality of a lot of Afghans who now expect NGOs and foreign aid agencies to solve their problems regardless of their own economic abilities.

The strategy and the billions in aid spent have created a problem. When the international military mission started, civilian assistance was offered as a resource alongside the military campaign. The goal was to win the hearts and minds of people in order to prevent an insurgency. To achieve this goal, projects were mostly designed for short-term effect and sustainability was not a matter of high importance.

I watched as the National Solidarity Program (NSP) built an assembly hall, while people still did not have access to essential services like electricity or drinking water.

In some programs, projects were not designed based on facts or to meet people’s core needs. In my home village, I watched as the National Solidarity Program (NSP) built an assembly hall, while people still did not have access to essential services like electricity or drinking water. The construction of the assembly hall – initiated by the Afghanistan government and funded by international donors – was seen as one of the successful projects in village rehabilitation and development. Many people from the village felt that projects to provide electricity or water – such as a hydraulic dam – could have helped them better and been more sustainable.

A very successful example

Some people argue that the nature of a post-war country makes it almost impossible to implement sustainable development projects. But my personal experience has been somewhat different.

I attended schools that were not state-funded. My country was in the midst of a bloody civil war, which was followed by the barbarism of the Taliban. In the 1990s, there was no state-funded school in my village located in Ghazni Province’s Jaghori District in southern Afghanistan. But a sustainable and people-oriented educational project ensured that thousands of children had access to a school education.

The projects were different from state schools since they tried to involve local residents by transferring some of the responsibilities to locals from the very start.

The Shuhada Organization, a NGO founded by Dr Sima Samar, currently head of the Afghanistan Independence Human Rights Commission, started educational projects in some parts of Afghanistan, including our district, in the 1990s. The projects were different from state schools since they tried to involve local residents by transferring some of the responsibilities to locals from the very start. To build a school, for example, the organization bought the construction materials and locals had to provide the labour. Those who took part in constructing the building later took on responsibility for keeping the school running.

The people in our district were extremely poor and could not pay the teachers’ fees. So the Shuhada organization continued to fund the educational programs. During that time, the people whose livelihood was dependent on agriculture were paying 14 kilograms of wheat per student as a fee to the teacher each year. The other half of the teacher’s salary was paid by Shuhada. The commitment from both sides – the residents and the Shuhada organization – meant that children could reliably attend school, even the war generation. The cooperation of community members meant it was also possible for girls to attend schools during the Taliban regime.

Now as international funds are being reduced, Afghans are learning that reconstructing their country is their own responsibility.

This sustainable educational project did not end when the Taliban fell or students graduated. In 2001 when thousands of Afghans returned to school, Afghanistan faced a shortage of educated teachers, or at least teachers who had graduated from school themselves. In our district, sometimes a student who had graduated would serve as a teacher for one year in order to fulfil their commitment before going to university. Now as international funds are being reduced, Afghans are learning that reconstructing their country is their own responsibility. But development agencies should also rethink their strategies and open their projects to the involvement of the local population in order to make them more sustainable.

Photo: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA (Getty Images)

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