Finding the silver(ish) lining in Afghanistan's Emerald City

Ask Me Anything: Linda Norgrove

Too long ago for it to be polite, I received this tweet:

And I mean polite on my part in responding to this. Mainly because I was pretty blown away by the article they asked me to read and respond to. My apologies, and here goes.

I’ve reprinted that article in its entirety, because it’s worth a) the background, and b) responding to it by section:

In 2010 our daughter Linda, an aid worker, was abducted in eastern Afghanistan. She subsequently died during a rescue attempt by US special forces, killed by a US grenade. We refused to apportion blame to either the Taliban or the soldiers, preferring to start a charitable foundation to help women and children affected by the war.

Last week we travelled to Kabul and Jalalabad to meet Linda’s friends and our Afghan-based volunteers. We visited the children’s medical house where families from rural areas are accommodated while their kids undergo operations. We saw the fantastic Afghan Children’s Circus– it was great to see kids singing and dancing so carefree, escaping from battle-scarred neighbourhoods where razor wire tops every wall. We also visited a refuge where women on the run from murderous families, acid attack victims and others can receive respite and care.

Read the Linda Norgrove story: at the time I was working in conjunction with a military unit, and therefore heard about the results of the raid before it hit the press. Wrong place, wrong time, in what was an incredibly unfortunate series of events.

Afghans told us their main concerns are the corruption, day-to-day personal safety and protecting the fragile stability they currently have. Over here we tend to think of corrupt societies as morally bankrupt. But try considering the issue from an Afghan perspective. Morality is not only absolute, as in “it’s wrong to torture babies”, but also social.

Some of us are more ethical than others, but we all fudge our morality; would you shop someone you knew was taking cash payments and not declaring them for income tax? Most of us follow social norms.

Now look at the position of an Afghan family man. He has a large family, typically six children, with strong obligations towards his relations. His family honour is vitally important to him. If he runs out of money his family starve, and he can see others starving around him. Springing up all around him are ostentatious houses, funded from corruption and drug trading. Peace is an abstract concept he has never experienced and can’t reasonably expect in his foreseeable future. Corruption within the justice system means rich people are not detained, poor people remain in prison, and the whole system becomes another tax on the dispossessed.

I was already interested in the article, since Linda Norgrove is on a very short list of people I know over here who’ve really been a “true believer” in what they’re doing, and actually seemed to be doing something about it.

But this particular paragraph caught my eye specifically since this is a discussion I’ve had with people here on a regular basis: after some 40-odd years of civil war and general unrest, your average Afghan (for sake of argument an Afghan male of an age to have a family) is first a foremost a survivor.

If your only metric for personal success is tied to your survival, your morality quickly adapts to that kind of living, and you’re going to function within that system.

In this situation, where corruption is endemic, would you take bribes like everyone about you and stash them away for when the spending stops? Would you let yourself be strongly associated with the west, knowing how this would affect your chances when the west leaves?

Or would you hedge your bets and show nominal support for the Taliban – who are perceived to offer a more moral age, with security and an effective justice system – even if you don’t subscribe to their views? This might be a morality test for the Guardian reader; for an Afghan it’s a life-and-death decision.

I can not sum this up any better than the author has already. This is a choice Afghans, particularly those outside of Kabul, face on a daily basis. Even beyond the NATO vs. Taliban conundrum, Afghans at a certain level are having to figure out where the wind is blowing politically and make sure they’re on the winning team when that final whistle blows.

Until you see it, it’s difficult to appreciate the scale of the military operation in this country. In 2011 the cost of the war was $103bn and aid $15.7bn. This equates to around $20,000 per Afghan family per year in US spending alone. By contrast a teacher heading up this notional Afghan family might receive $20 a week, if he gets his pay at all. This imbalance inevitably exacerbates corruption.

Huge amounts of western money have been poured into Afghanistan, sometimes naively, often ineffectively. The system is frequently bureaucratic and managed by westerners, typically earning around $150,000 a year, tax free, and often locked up in secured compounds, relying on reports from Afghan employees. Can you imagine a system better designed to increase graft? How can this system align with the hopes and desires of the rural Afghan? He’s perfectly capable of seeing who’s benefiting most.

Full disclosure: I’m an idealist with a mortgage. I work in one of those jobs described above. I’m often locked up in a secure compound. It’s something I ponder on a semi-regular basis, since that’s the system I’ve been given, and how to be effective within those constraints?

I’ve done what I can when I can to actually deal with Afghans as, I dunno, people,  but if I’m being intellectually honest, I’m fully aware of the challenges built into the system here. So you sell your soul a little bit.

But we did come across dedicated individuals who live closer to the people, care deeply for them, and are prepared to take risks for their beliefs. These are the kind of people and projects we are trying to support. Small schemes, low overheads, visible results.

Freaking standing ovation. I’ve run into people like this: they are genuinely putting themselves at risk (physically and professionally in some cases) to do some good here. Those are the kind of people that need support from things like the Linda Norgrove Foundation.

Our daughter believed in Afghans. Following her abduction we contacted an experienced Afghan hand to ask: “Was she maybe a little too trusting and willing to take risks? We’ll never know whether she was being brave or foolhardy.”

Her response: “The salaries and prestige of working [for reconstruction organisations] attract people mostly concerned about a good salary and future. They do not leave their compounds … And billions of dollars in development money have been wasted here because of people like that just biding time and really making their fortunes. Linda had a deep appreciation for the Afghan people – a special connection – and she was working pretty much against the organisational culture, to make sure the Afghans were cared for.”

Afghanistan civil society was scarcely functioning before the west intervened, and clearly ingrained corruption will not disappear overnight when western troops leave. We can only hope that Afghanistan retains sufficient internal security to progress. This is what most Afghans want. Linda’s comment to whingeing colleagues was always: “You can leave if you want, Afghans can’t.”

I will pass no judgment on Norgrove’s actions, whether foolhardy or brave. Bad things happen here even when you’ve done all you can to prevent the bad.

But I will say this: the aid system as it’s currently being implemented is endemically doomed to complete and utter failure. All of us here in the Kabul bubble are at some level proponents of an aid and development system that at its best is mind numbingly ineffective, and at its worst is a gross collection of colonial behaviors so blatant I keep looking for my sedan chair and pith helmet.

We forget that Afghans are humans, actual human begins: the issues are not ones of cultural differences (although those do play a role), but of people working in humanitarian assistance work who don’t know the first thing about what it’s like to deal with actual humans.

People like Linda Norgrove, Karen Woo, and Carter Malkasian understood this probably better than all the rest of us combined.

Thanks, again, for sending me the link.

Go ahead, ask me anything.

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