25 February 2009

Aid in Afghanistan: The trouble with reporting

A BBC story published just a few minutes ago gives me an excellent opportunity to outline some of the problems I see in reporting from this country. Check out the story and the associated "in pictures" feature:


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

Reflections on London

My last leave wrapped up successfully and I know find myself back in Mazar. The break was relaxing and envigorating because, rather than sitting back on a beach, I went on a networking binge and made some progress towards shaping my exit strategy from Afghanistan.

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.