News & CommentaryArchive
Dec 21, 2009
Recently I was listening to Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, the story of his walk across Afghanistan. Near the end of the book Stewart turns his attention to the aid agencies, public and private that had come rushing into Afghanistan. His observations are worthwhile reading for anyone interested in making international aid more effective, so I’m excerpting them here:
Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a 19th century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and conducted countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t’ their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly the population would mutiny.
Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression.
Perhaps it is because no on requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan
Policy makers did not have the time, structures or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.
In a seminar in Kabul I heard Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights say, “Afghans have been fighting for their human rights for twenty-five years. We don’t need to tell them what their rights are.” Then the head of a major food agency added privately, “Villagers are not interested in human rights. They are like poor people all over the world. All they think about is where the next meal is coming from.” To which the head of an Afghan NGO providing counseling responded, “The only thing to know about these people is that they are suffering form PTSD.”
Without the time, imagination and persistence needed to understand Afghans diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change it.