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The Afghan Scene: The Culture of Aid in Afghanistan

Delving further into this occasional series on aid in Afghanistan, I thought I would do my own spiel on who comes here and why, and what they do when they get here.  Now, this has been done before (I think even the actual Afghan Scene got around to its own send up), but this is my take.  Essentially these are a number of personality types that people fall into, and they often move from one type into another (as I have); sometimes they overlap too.  An remember that people have to be fairly "interesting" to get here in the first place.  Generally living and working has remained tolerable thanks to what I call "the filter", it's exotic enough that it filters out people who just want to stay at home but also not violent enough that it filters out the craziest conflict junkies.  What ensues is enough solid people that you make some first-rate friendships and enough drama to fill the rest of the time rubbernecking and reminding yourself how sensible you are even though you too are drinking a G&T behind Hesco barriers.  I really encouraged comments and suggestions regarding this, maybe we can even make a definitive taxonomy.

The romantic.  You know this guy from numerous portrayals in pop-culture.  He loves the traditional, real, unsullied culture before the white man (yours truly) sullied it with 1960s urban planning schemes, communism, stinger missiles, new-fangled Islamism, and pavement.  This mindset has a lot in common with the hippy but overall has a more colonial era feel to it.  Also hippies tend to come from the US while romantics often hail from western Europe.  Romantics don't always take themselves seriously, but they have a tendency towards sepia-toned photographs of themselves near random derelict forts, high-priced nicknacks from Zardozi, and tea at Turquoise Mountain (yes I do like both organisations and have bought stuff there myself).  Many such individuals are the product of the western nationalism meme (everyone must have their own flag and national cuisine!) so sometimes its easier to accept the 21st century construction of Afghanistan with its ubiquitous qabili pulaw and creeping xenophobia that the real complex historical picture.

If the romantic is motivated enough by religion they might well fall into the missionary category, but often they don't simply stay romantics.  They often stay in Afghanistan and, having learned to take it with a wheelbarrow of salt become lifers or realists.  This probably best describes me when I arrived (read my initial posts!) with my obsession with the Persian language (still there but only acknowledging I'm an LA snob), occasionally wearing of kurta pijama (okay for South Asian weddings filled with women, booze, and good music), and willingness to abstain from alcohol.  Though if the romantic gets sufficiently jaded and cynical they are also good candidates for veering to the other extreme, the mercenary.

The missionary.  The distinguishing feature of the missionary is the religious motivation, and it applies to one religion in particular.  It's actually the most complex category because it encompasses both the best and worst instincts of people seeking to help Afghanistan.  On the one hand you have people who are honest and open about their faith and quietly use it as a motivation to do good things in competent ways, but on the other there are a few people who are way too certain in an uncertain environment.  Other big issues are the social isolation of missionaries and the fact that religious organisations add a layer of complexity to underlying political and cultural issues.

Some faith-based NGOs and individuals have had remarkable acceptance and longevity in Afghanistan.  I figure religion should and can be a positive force, even if I don't personally have time or interest for it.  And if religion is your deal, the best way to do it, then being open about it is the way to go.  People will make their own individual choice whether to deal or not.  I am annoyed that people have to complicate the picture with religion, because Afghans are particularly sensitive to the topic, but then again the major problem with Afghan society is xenophobia and the suspicion of different customs and lifestyles.  As a liberal, pluralistic Westerner that argues for rights in the West, I can't start making exceptions in Afghanistan.  Also development inherently involves a degree of proselytisation (usually to modernity and modernity-appropriate customs and mores), so pure and simple transparency and accountability go further to justifying aid and the aid community's presence.

On the other end you have the loonies, best exemplified by the group of Koreans that were taken hostage in Ghazni.  These individuals exercise the minimum amount of planning and cultural sensitivity, but here I would also argue that the religious loonies share common ground with the secular loonies; witness two Germans that were executed after they set up camp by a river in the mountains and decided to take a naked swim in the river.  Another annoying point is bringing in small children to Afghanistan.  This country doesn't have proper facilities for them so it's putting them at risk and it's unfair to minors.  People should be encouraged to come to places like Afghanistan, but ultimately when basic health is at issue they need to make that choice for themselves.

The missionaries then represent a microcosm of the aid community in general.  The real salient point, and where they fit into my taxonomy, is that they do keep separate from everyone else which means lessons are unnecessarily re-learned.  A large part of this tendency in turn is the result of the personality of people who tend to a) be attracted to religion and b) be motivated by said religion to come to Afghanistan.  They're quiet and they don't socialise a lot with others.  They don't go out to L'Atmosphere or La Cantina, and so they don't get to know the rest of us. Because aid coordination is already so limited we need all the social interaction we can get (of course I'm always annoyed by quiet, introverted people, but I can let that go).

The adventurer.  The adventurer's main attribute is the quest for adrenaline.  Adventurers have varying degrees of cultural sensitivity but are always motivated by excitement.  There are nature adventurers who like long journeys in remote places far from accoutrements and medical services.  Also in this category are conflict junkies, people who get excited for reasons correlating with or resulting from media attention.  Conflict junkies might be motivated by the appearance of badassness more than the actual adrenaline rush from putting oneself in a potentially harmful situation.  One should recognise that most people get a little bit of conflict junkie/adventurer in them after living in places like this.  After a while you get used to traded stories of near misses and Ben Gurion Airport shakedowns.

The lifer.  The lifer is destined to spend his or her life wandering from one conflict zone or third world country to the next.  They have a genuine interest in their work and living in such environment but often end up going from one ineffectual contract to the next, often because they either do not think of the big picture or don't feel compelled to do anything about it.  Some lifers are happy and have deep and profound specialisations in areas of development you never knew existed.  Others are emotionally stunted and have never come to terms the tradeoffs or requisite management skills necessarily juggle such a career with a fulfilling personal life.  Many journalists fall into the lifer category.  A lot of NGO workers are here too, going on as country directors and programme managers.  A hidden upside though is that many such people are refreshingly devoid of national attachments which clears away a lot of bullshit and can allow you to connect with them at that basic human level that I am so fond of.

The mercenary.  The mercenary is rather like the lifer, but here the work comes before the sorts of environment.  A mercenary is indifferent to whether they are in western Europe or Afghanistan, just so long as they do their job and get paid well for it. (the lifer will get bored in a place like Europe)  A lot of technical advisors fall into mercenary category as do meatheads.  Meatheads are often caricturised as their own group because they form such a distinct and visible presence (drunk and routy at conflict zone bars), but in reality they are no different than the hydrologist or Islamic finance expert, just trained in a specific area.  Private security company employees (to use their full name) are usually people with a military background who have discovered they can get paid obscenely more in the private.  The role of PSCs is an interesting one to watch in that they provide essential services (and usually more cheaply and effectively) that cumbersome nation-states and their armies cannot.  Where PSC employees differ from other "mercenaries" is in institutional culture.  A PSC will often follow a pattern of starting up with a small, competent, and close-nit network of individuals, who are highly effective and therefore attract a lot of business.  As a result the company will scale up, stop vetting so carefully, and take on all sorts of people, and this is where most of the corruption and abuse enters.  Some people who start out in the military/PSC realm eventually end up acquiring more of a humanitarian sensitivy and end up forging the middle route between humanitarian actors and belligerents, eventually bringing them into the realist camp.  Other "mercenaries" manage to get attached to the country (or at least its complexities) and end up staying on because accumulated knowledge and connections become more valuable and there's opportunity to fix even more things and earn more money.

The hippy.  Life used to be nasty, brutish, and short.  And for most Afghans it still is.  Yes, there are people who prove that a nobly savage utopia can be sought in even the most patriarchal society and still others who get stuck short of the Indian subcontinent whose citizens and customs most of their brethren end up benighting and making a mockery of.  Ah, but these Afghans live in small simple villages, work on the land, and have grounded spirituality, and celebrate the small things in life.  Many of them also have astoundingly rude and harmful notions about a lot of things in the world around them, and will have to change many or most of their received wisdom if their children are going to live past forty with a decent amount of teeth.

Such people differ from romantics in that whereas romantics see a specific intricate tapestry (which also doesn't exist), the hippy sees a simple universal tableau.  Frankly the hippy doesn't last long in Afghanistan due to the sheer weight of reality around them and are much better suited to places where the simple folk are more well off like Turkey or Iran.  But still you'll see a few here.

The realist.  When you understand that, yes Afghanistan is completely full of bullshit, as is the aid effort to help it, you have become a realist.  Maybe you also realise that the best you can do is contain the drama here from affecting other society that are willing to play ball; just create a space so that people can put it together when they stop beating each other over the head with gilded tissue boxes.  The realist also realises that the majority of the world's population live fairly comfortable middle-class lives and doesn't feel bad about a weekend of normalcy in Dubai.  I think all of start out as one of the above groups and go on to become realists at heart. Or we don't and move on to some other place more amenable to our lifestyles.  Of course missionaries and adventurers can always get their kicks (rockclimbing or Jesus) alongside a more hard-headed approach, but that's more difficult for the romantics and hippies.  Lifers and mercenaries have different goals altogether.  For me an example of a realist approach is that I don't bitch and moan about not being able to drink, but I damn well do so when I get the chance because there is nothing wrong with it and things won't be okay here until people have the freedom to do different things than other people.  I ask myself how long I can stay in this country as a realist without being, well, unrealistic about my goals for myself and my career, to which I respond that I need to go out and doing something else.

Reader Comments (1)

I think I'm a RomantoVentrerealist

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

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