American Culture

Letters from Afghanistan: installment #10 (wrap-up)

Final thoughts on three months in Afghanistan

by Connor O’Steen

I’m sitting on the roof of a hotel in Istanbul, looking at the Hagia Sophia and thinking about my flight tomorrow (and the following day): Istanbul-Heathrow-Seattle-Chicago, at which point I drag myself to the University of Chicago on the Blue Line at 5:30 on the morning of the 23rd. Self-pity aside, I’m also thinking about an appropriate way to wrap up the summer.

Maybe this is the best place to go over some of my impressions about a few of Afghanistan’s problems. I can’t possibly claim these ideas as solely mine; Marnie (PARSA’s director) was tremendously patient going over what she’s learned from working there, and a lot of what I say here is something I’ve picked up from her.

There’s a common misconception, both in the international community and among many Afghans, that a number of Afghanistan’s problems have to do with money. There’s a different culprit depending on who you ask: some will say that consulting companies have drained up aid money with outrageous salaries and costs, and there’s some truth to this; others will claim that corruption among senior Afghan officials has ruined development programs, and again this is a legitimate concern.

Focusing exclusively on these problems masks a larger one, though, which is a lack of management and leadership skills. As a case in point, the two orphanages in Kabul care for about 400-450 kids depending on the time of year. Despite popular belief, the orphanages are spectacularly well funded: there are 300 employees on the payroll,  and the orphanages have received several million dollars over the past few years for upkeep and upgrades.

I’ve never seen more than than 20-25 employees at either orphanage at any given time. Do the extra employees exist only on paper so someone can pocket their paychecks? Probably not. It’s just that no one’s paying attention. If these people go into work, if they don’t, if they do good jobs, or if they just sit around and drink tea, it won’t affect the security of their jobs…they’ll get paid no matter what they do.

Another example, in three months I have never had to show a police officer my passport, despite the fact that every time I’m pulled over for a check I’m required by law to provide it. Instead I show them my Colorado driver’s license and they flag me through. Very rarely, I’m asked if I have my passport, but I always just say, “it’s in the Ministry,” and no one bothers with anything else. I can get away with this for two main reasons: either policemen don’t know the laws, or they don’t have any reason to enforce them. It’s the lack of oversight, and more importantly the lack of consequences for negative actions, that is a major drag on Afghanistan, more so than corruption or padded consultant fees.

The solution, then, is to create a top-down pressure for accountability. There’s a sense, particularly in government work, that a job is something you’re entitled to rather than something you possess conditionally based on good performance. It means that if someone fulfills all the appearances of work (being in the office, sitting at a desk, typing on the computer) while accomplishing nothing, he or she won’t be fired.

With proper management, with oversight of employees and measurable targets for their goals, these entitlement jobs of can become performance-based, but the pressure for change has to be initiated at a high level.

What applies to job performance applies to society in a broader sense. Flagrant abuses of the law, both small and major, are perpetrated across the country. The government, either through lack of interest, lack of ability, or fear isn’t capable of punishing these violations in a consistent manner. The result is that everyone does more or less exactly what they want to, and getting your way has nothing to do with right or wrong and everything to do with power, influence, and whether you’re caught or not.

Another thought, far more nebulous and without a direct solution, is the need to believe in a future. Among a number of people, there’s a sense of futility that’s very understandable; many have had friends or family members die from rocket attacks, bombs, famines, or generally as bystanders. It’s hard to work to improve conditions if people are convinced that everything they create will only be destroyed again. I don’t have an answer to this, nor have I begun to think of a solution. The only hope that I have, weak though it is, is that if aid programs continue, if progress can be demonstrated over a long-term period of time, then maybe this fatalism will abate.

But I’m not sure about this, and it’s very much speculation. Even if it were true, it doesn’t solve the problem of donor fatigue. The sad fact is that the large aid donors will probably leave Afghanistan before a lasting impact has been made. I would like to believe otherwise, but Afghanistan has a long history of being the center of attention and then being completely ignored. Perhaps we’ll buck the trend, but I’m not crossing my fingers.

In the end, I’m bittersweet about leaving. On one hand, the atmosphere of Kabul during Ramadan, and the grind of getting simple things done, has worn me down and made me look forward to coming back to the United States. On the other hand, being in Afghanistan has focused my ambitions, and all I really want to do is more work there. Going back to school doesn’t sound wholly appealing right now.

[Ed. note:  This concludes S&R’s series on Afghanistan.  If you haven’t read the previous letters, follow the links, below.]

Installment 1: Dogs, generals and orphans

Installment 2: The hard-working orphans of Chaghcharan

Installment 3: Nasim’s story: making and unmaking terrorists

Installment 4:  Afghanistan, Ghowr Province: an opium village

Installment 5:  Replying to questions and local democracy in Jawzareen

Installment 6:  Having visions with Mohammed

Installment 7: Poisoning dogs; orphan teamwork; getting poisoned

Installment 8: Back from Bamyan; the sewing program; village dominance

Installment 9:  What Afghanistan could be; fragile though it is

5 replies »

  1. Thanks again for writing these. I’ll miss ’em when they’re gone. A lot of people SAY they want to change the situation, but you actually went over there and tried…and then somehow found the time to keep us updated back here. Good luck back in the states.

  2. This has been an absolutely outstanding series, Connor. It’s been so eye-opening (about an area of the world I know way too little about) that I barely know how to say how helpful it’s been to me – and, I suspect, to our readers.

    Put this in your portfolio.

  3. Thanks so much for your feedback. I’m glad this has been worthwhile for you, writing these has certainly helped me make sense of my time there, and receiving your comments has shed light on new questions and ideas. All in all a very positive experience.

    I might (a big might, depending on a lot of factors) go back next summer with a source of funding and run my own program. I’ll certainly write again if that happens.

    Again, thanks, and best wishes.