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« The Afghan Scene: The Culture of Aid in Afghanistan | Main | Reflections on London »
Wednesday
Feb252009

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:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7879058.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/08/south_asia_the_remote_afghan_north/html/3.stm

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.

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