26 April 2009
24 March 2009
"You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nation. You have that right -- but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilisation. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated capacity to build and create."
16 March 2009
13 March 2009
25 February 2009
It's a good story in terms of the basic level of reporting, but it lacks context and begs the question 'what next?' The story is about a poor village in the Farkhar Valley of Takhar Province, an area which I have been near myself. The story does well in capturing the basic conditions of the village, where people are cold, hungry, and not integrated into the modern economy. As the story goes on however, I noticed that the villagers themselves have actually seen a bit of personal attention from the aid effort.
There is mention of a small power plant. Yes it runs little else but light bulbs but that is a huge surplus in productivity in that people can work a few more hours in the day and it saves on fuel costs. A mobile clinic. It may come occasionally, but occasional is far better than never. The local roads have not been paved, but indeed the main Kunduz-Taluqan-Fayzabad road has been (some sections are not quite finished). That in itself was a titanic feat of engineering. What are the complaints? They are vaguer complaints about warlords and corruption. Also true, and although I want to emphasise the situation of this village, and many others is dire, it shows how people bitch about things.
The problem overall is how little money has been invested in Afghanistan relative to other post-conflict countries like Bosnia. Without the figures on hand it is something in the neighbourhood of $60 per person here compared to around $1,000 per person in Bosnia. Considering this and the extremely low baseline in terms of human development which we are starting from, the project mentioned in this story alone seem like a good return on investment.
So what's going wrong? It's the lack of attention and coordination. It's not enough just do follow through with projects, they have to be perceived to be beneficial as well. The problems are not individual persons or organisations for the most part, but structural issues that reach up to the top levels of the state system and the aid industry. The issues are both at the highest levels of politics and in basic approaches taken in Afghanistan. These will be the subjects of my next few posts. Up next: The Psychology of Aid.
16 February 2009
My time in Afghanistan has been wonderful, both in terms of friends and experiences, but like most good things it has an expiry date. At some point I determined that this would be the end of 2009. I've had a good range of experiences that fit into a coherent narrative for my future career goals and I've also think I will have reached the upward limit of what can be done (for me and Afghanistan) both in my current job and in general. ANSO's been really great in that sense, in that it has given me a top-down perspective on all the different levels and systems of operation in this country and I really need to shift to a higher gear to make things happen. Just being another programme director or country director, no matter how effective, just isn't satisfactory amongst this crumbling system. Another issue is that I don't wanna become a one-trick pony specialising in Afghanistan. Some people may truly love Afghanistan, or the romantic side of them may be infatuated with the noble savagery of it all. Spending time in a place like this is good for lots of us, but after a while we, like the Afghan social discourse, have to move on.
The first question was where to go next? No offence to east Asia, but my specialisation really doesn't extend there, so I left that out. This has left me with a narrow set of options in terms of cities that are acceptable bases of operation. The full starting list was Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay, Karachi, Dubai, Tehran, Beirut, Tel Aviv, London, New York, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Delhi and Bangalore are lovely but still a bit too small and constricting. Various political problems make Tehran (my citizenship) and Karachi (the state is collapsing) untenable. Beirut and Tel Aviv are cool, but that's the problem, just cool (I could add Istanbul here too, the 20th century population transfers made the place too homogenous even if it has remained cool). Los Angeles and San Francisco, while truly my favourite places, are just too far from anywhere. DC and NY have that old frumpy east-coast culture, which means they are both passé and not international enough. This left with Bombay, Dubai, and London. Bombay would require a lot of capital and Dubai I still think is wonderful and centrally located--it really is the world's natural hub. In India I like the local identity, Dubai I like because it's the only place that truly doesn't try to impress an identity on you and lets you be humid.
By process of elimination I was down to London, which was also attractive because I knew so little about it, having only seen it on two brief occasions (two nights of clubbing in 1999 and a 10-hour layover summer 2008). Thanks to my generous friend I got a great place to crash for three weeks and time to introduce myself to the city.
Weather: The weather is not so bad. The frequent rain is refreshing without being annoying, and the brilliant green (even in winter) helps you not notice how overcast the sky is.
Style: Don't listen to what people say, Londoners do not know how to dress and that is okay. Rather than have a general sense of style, they have three styles which are each done very well but in that leave little room for individual refinement. (By contrast in LA you are what you wear, if you just put on a normal three-piece suit you're lame because you're not being creative--if for some reason you wanna do that and still be cool you have to carry it over into the realm of self-conscientious kitsch.) The three styles are penguin (suits), modern (self-conscious alternative), and casual (jumpsuits warn on high street, yes).
Urban layout: London, like LA, has no proper centre. It has a bunch of little neighbourhoods which all compete for attention and have different places in different estimations of cool. Zone 1 is of course the centre, but it doesn't steal the cake. The problem with strong centres such as NY and DC have is that they ultimately suck in too much culture and stifle diversity.
Attitude and Culture: For a while I tried to get a sense of this for London and kept coming up empty. Then I realised, there is none! The oddity of meeting actual English person brought this point to the fore I think. London is not England, it's London. All sorts of different people doing different things. Maybe there are some stiff old-school Brits around somewhere, but they're social capital certainly isn't very high because I found that being my chatty self I could just start up conversations and make friends.
Opportunities: Here's where London really shined over DC. DC is stuck by being the political centre of a large and powerful state. In London the city is connected internationally by the legacy of empire, but the UK is too small of a state to overwhelm people's agendas. The short is that the city looks outward and provides opportunities in security and politics that no American place can and that India will still not be able to for some time.
So I like London, I'm sold on it, and it should be a good place for the next few years.
16 January 2009
It feels like a miracle, but I got out of Kabul and have had a wonderful day in Dubai. Miraculously this morning we took off on time as the clouds parted from their week-long barrage of snow (the plane that I took came from Dubai last night and only landed on its third attempt). This included the fifteen-minute delay created by NATO, which cleared airspace for military activity as they too were taking advantage of the break in the weather.
When I arrived in Dubai I received text message which informed me that Salang, despite the valiant efforts of the Afghan National Army, had finally been closed thanks to the combination of twelve hours of snow and avalanches (bummer those are).
Dubai is golden. I listen and nod politely when I hear the criticisms from those who are so fond of New York and Boston, but now I'm fighting back. It just feels normal to me and yet aspirational (probably has something to do with my personality) and for a person who gets tired of peculiarism, I get the strange sensation I can just be myself.
I came out of Terminal 2 with the crowd of Iranians (way too many blond highlights going on there, got to see one woman throw of a chador to reveal a tank top), and got on to the hotel. The best part was the weather, all the Philipino workers were complaining about the 24C weather, but not me!
Once settled in, I washed off the grime of Afghanistan and hailed a taxi to the Dubai Mall. The Dubai Mall (at the base of the Burj al-Arab, the world's tallest building), though still half-finished and with many of the stores set to open, actually manages to put the Mall of the Emirates to shame. I spent three hours just walking it not including stopping everywhere and couldn't help noting how much nicer it was than Kabul City Centre. Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts:
1) Maybe there can be too many Starbucks. After the fifth one (they really helped magnify the disorientation) a part of me felt like crouching down, crying, and yelling "please stop watching me"...not to mention the copious Starbucks clones such as Caribou Coffee, Barista, and Costa.
2) The wall of pork. In the gourmet supermarket on the basement floor there was a room entirely devoted to pork. It was a mighty selection, from chorizo from every Latin country to scores of Italian sausages to a wall of bacon. All the better was that not a single product therein was pork free. Pork-flavoured ice cream was all that seemed to be lacking.
3) Blank spaces should be covered in LED screens. Always.
4) The food court. Again, addressed to Americans: What the fuck is wrong with you? Why do you people not embrace the 21st century? And why do you so disdain the goodness of fast food? But Europeans have these problems too while at the same time defending decidely mediocre national cuisines. The food selection was dazzling, even in terms of American regional food. And that's saying something because Americans perform weakly in fast food offerings both in terms of taste and variety. The Great Kabab Factory of Delhi fame has started franchising too. After panicking over the shear variety of choice I gave up and went for a mix of traditionals...chhole bhature complemented with a few pieces of extra spicy from KFC.
Laden with a new pair of shoes (I came with old running shoes I've been running 10k in way too long and which felt immediately demodee on arrival to Dubai), I returned to the hotel and resolved to find a nice place to sit outdoors and drink a beer and finish Rashid's Descent into Chaos. Le Meridien has a big food court here and I settled on the Irish pub with many things on tap.
Of course I owed it to myself to stop by the large club in the middle of the courtyard--an inappropriately loud house party in the middle of one's hotel is never to be passed up, even if it is playing a mix of late 80s ami-pop, remixed Gugush, and too much Cheb Khalid. Plus it's furnishing consisted of throw pillows and it offered complimentary nargilas. I sidle up to the bar and start a conversation. This is one of those moments when contact with the real world (as opposed to Immoralistan aka Afghanistan) blows away any pre-conception of how civilised you thought you had kept yourself on the frontier. Moreover, for someone who spends his professional life thinking about things blowing up, stopping things from blowing up, who's blowing them up, and how to stop people from getting blown up with them, mixed with a large dose of constant political intrigue, normal conversations are difficult. I mean I'm behind, really behind. I just watched Om Shanti Om, the biggest movie of all time by every metric, a few days back--I actually booked Emirates so I could do nothing but watch film trailers all the way to London and be able to carry on a respectable conversation. By this time tomorrow I will know what Saif and Soha Ali Khan have been up too. But not yet.
After one Corona I leave the bar resolved to drink on my own a bit and enjoy the freshness of the tap. Sitting out in the warm evening (the air smells of plants--something one misses in Afghanistan where the environment has been crushed time and time again) and people watching I must admit I appreciate Dubai. It has the diversity and humanity, which Los Angeles excels at over New York, but so much more of it. I ended up at the Irish-themed pub hanging out a random mix of people interact on a normal basis and not being bothered by questions of nationality at all. Dubai is a never-ending construction site, has way too many roads and I see how an east-coaster would feel isolated, but it's so pretty and shiny and shows how consumerism is a force for good in our lives too by creating lively integrated spaces.
I didn't go for the Irish food (thought about cabbage and bacon with potatoes mash)...and instead opted for a nice fish curry even though I imagine that's all I'll be eating in the UK. Off to bed and on to the UK.
11 January 2009
The time has finally come to go on leave. The goal here is to obviate about four weeks of what it hopefully my last winter in Afghanistan. It's not that good a plan because I'm going to the bleaker environs of the UK, but at least they understand the concept of central heating there.
Getting out of Afghanistan in winter is always especially stressful (as it getting back into the country, but who cares if their return from leave is delayed?). In my case there will be two hurdles to contend with. The first involves crossing the 3500m pass of Salang and the second is the flight to Dubai. The weather is a great deal shittier and colder in Kabul than here...while we get 10-15C on many days, Kabul has considerable trouble peaking above freezing (mainly because we are at 300m while Kabul is at 2000). This means the weather on the Kabul side is often cloudy and snowy when it's just fine here in Mazar. That said, the authorities do a stellar job of keeping Salang open throughout all but the worst blizzards.
The departure from Kabul by plane is also traditionally stressful. It might be better now as the airport seems to have gotten better navigational facilities (planes can land at night now). The problem is planes landing in low visibility it seems--they don't need much to take off, just lift in the direction of the flight path and then pop above the cloud cover. So as long as the plane is already on the ground your chances are improved, as opposed to a plane coming from Delhi which might have to turn back before it can land. For this reason it's good to go with the local airlines, who will take off no matter what. Once those first 5 minutes are over and you're skybourne, it's smooth-sailing to Dubai and you relax and appreciate the well manicured Iranian countryside below you (lucky bastards with their fancy freeways and roadside foodcourts). It's also a good idea to have a few extra hundred dollars on you so you can buy a ticket on another (potentially less scupulous and safety-conscious) airline.
With all luck my next post will be from the UK, where I will be feverishly socialising and networking my way into the new year. Or else it could be a drunk poste from L'Atmosphere in Kabul!