On how not to help: Afghanistan

IMAGE: From boston.com 's The Big Picture feature. Photographer: Ahmad Masood/Reuters . I use this picture for the interesting caption that it appeared with on The Big Picture. These statements end up forming worldview on the country - Continuing conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combine to make Afghanistan a very dangerous place to be a woman," says Antonella Notari, head of Women Change Makers, a group that supports women social entrepreneurs around the world. A woman walks past riot police outside a gathering in Kabul's stadium, February 23, 2007.

IMAGE: From boston.com ‘s The Big Picture feature. Photographer: Ahmad Masood/Reuters . I use this picture for the interesting caption that it appeared with on The Big Picture. These statements end up forming worldview on the country – Continuing conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combine to make Afghanistan a very dangerous place to be a woman,” says Antonella Notari, head of Women Change Makers, a group that supports women social entrepreneurs around the world. A woman walks past riot police outside a gathering in Kabul’s stadium, February 23, 2007.

The manner in which Afghanistan’s women empowerment projects have gone wrong makes an extremely useful study for development sector and workers therein. If development studies at universities followed the case study method, then this should have been one of the first ones to be discussed. Because so much is just so messed up about western development workers trying to help Afghani women.

In NYT this morning, Bina Shah has a telling piece on the gender based development dynamics unfolding in Afghanistan. The reason her account merits attention is because it includes the voices of people from that very society. The author of the piece at NYT, though, is Karachi based, but Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan and the cultural overlaps are certainly more significant than a development worker parachuting from the northern hemisphere.  It isn’t some professor of women studies from the west or a gender development expert with years of experience in the region making observations on the situation of women in Afghanistan and their relationship with the men. These are Afghani women.

And as I understand from their views, the development workers have got it badly wrong. That the women are severely oppressed and are helpless against the oppression and violence inflicted by the men is not quite in line with the voices from within Afghanistan. Shah writes –

…the self-image of a great many Afghan women doesn’t match the victimhood awarded them by Western aid workers. They see themselves instead as brave, capable and strong. Islam is important to them, as is their honor. They want more freedoms, of course, but they want to be active participants in their own liberation and set their own pace for the struggle.

A few weeks back, in a discussion on aid and the UN setup in India, I remember the frustration I had with expats who occupy all the tier-I and tier-II position in UN organizations in the country. For instance, an overwhelming majority of “WASH Specialists” in India are foreign nationals with PhDs from B-grade schools of the west. That creates an adverse effect that the capable and talented Indian individuals opt out of such organizations and work elsewhere, preferably abroad.

A similar effect seems to be happening in Afghanistan. Shah reports –

…an Afghan filmmaker named Sahraa Karimi spoke in Karachi. She said development workers grew rich on “women’s empowerment projects” and “minority interest projects” while many female Afghan intellectuals left the country in a debilitating brain drain. It is just too hard for them to endure the dangerous working conditions and suffocating social environments outside Afghanistan’s fortified Western compounds.

That talent drain is likely to have a severe impact on Afghanistan with a limited pool of well-trained individuals.

The point is a simple one – that development sector needs a very strong active role from the host country’s own society. It does not work without it. Lessons from Afghanistan points to the same direction. Back here in India too I can count over a dozen instances of how the development sector (and the ‘experts’) get it awfully wrong, an awful lot of times.