Monday, March 17, 2008

In the beginning, there is disbelief

A healthy percentage of people coming from developed countries to work in Afghanistan quickly find themselves in disbelief at the living standards facing the typical Afghan, even in an urban area such as Kabul. A report from the Rand Corporation entitled "Documenting Health" states that what data experts can gather on the country "clearly place Afghanistan at or near the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator used to measure human and economic progress." The social stagnation permeates every sector of both private and public life: most people suffer horrible sanitation and lack clean drinking water; women, especially the young females, are usually looked upon as chattel; the government often seems lacking, incapable or corrupt; good schooling is a luxury; most people could not even tell you what decent healthcare should provide; the country's infrastructure remains crumbled and crumbling due to war and neglect.

The country needs a continued infusion of donor intellect, money, and expertise to partner with the Afghan people and resources that are available and capable of transforming their society on virtually every front. The changes have to be accepted and ultimately directed by Afghans. But this partnering is difficult. Afghans have a culture and history quite distinct from most of the foreign nationals here to assist them, and Afghan priorities and decisions are sometimes befuddling. Progress comes very, very slowly here, even when Afghans and foreign development workers are working well together.

After the initial feelings of disbelief fade, frustration often sets in. Many of my coworkers have been here for six months or more (a relatively short time when you talk about nation-building projects), and they can spew endless tales of education and development projects sidetracked by forces beyond their control. Two senior corpsmen in my office are charged with implementing a combat medic course for the Afghan Army. One lesson focused on the placement of a tourniquet to prevent exsanguination if a limb is amputated. They demonstrated the tourniquet's facility in the classroom by placing it on a leg. In a subsequent practical exercise, the hypothetical victim suffered an amputated arm; but instead of addressing the severed limb, the Afghan soldiers placed the tourniquet on the victim's leg, as they had learned in class. Clearly, these soldiers had no working knowledge of basic physiology. Many of them were illiterate. How could they possibly know about the flow of blood through the body's vascular channels if no one had ever taught them? Western medical experts really didn't understand the basics of the circulatory system until the late 1800s. The Afghans' failure to place the tourniquet properly illustrates the cruel result of youth denied a fundamental education. And the frustrated corpsmen are struggling to overcome this educational deficit as they try to teach basic first aid.

I spent my pre-deployment training with an engineer who went this week to inspect a new building constructed for the Ministry of Interior. He was dumbfounded by some of what he saw. A few of the toilets were clogged or broken as Afghans, after defecating in them, used rocks to clean themselves and then flushed the stones along with their waste. They weren't vandalizing: many of them probably had never seen toilet paper before (or the paper dispener next to the commode was empty) and they routinely used rocks for such ablution. The new, industrial-sized kitchen in the facility was still spotless, which led my engineer friend to inquire if any cooking was being done there. "Oh, no. We cook out here," some Afghans told him as they led him through a back door to a yard where pots hung over improvised wood fire pits. I wonder if anyone had bothered to show these Afghans how to work a modern stove.

Hearing these stories, it is easy to conclude that Afghans are stupid and uninterested in changing. But the knowledge and technological savvy that Westerners possess are the result of learning -- we've been instructed on how to function in the modern world since we were toddlers. Our sophistication is not innate. We were taught to use a modern commode (although many of us rebelled against that instruction). Safe driving, operating kitchen appliances, the fundamentals of democracy such as voting and responsible political representation, the value of good hygiene -- all of these things, and many more, we learned because we grew up privileged. And we not only learned the lessons, but we learned that by applying the lessons in our everyday lives, we were much more physically comfortable and oftentimes emotionally better pff. The Afghans will learn these lessons, just as we did, but it will take time. You cannot expect to compress several generations of education and experience into a decade of development work.

Today I imagined myself in 1984, at age 18, sitting down to a computer with a Microsoft Windows operating system and internet connectivity equivalent to today's standards. I would have looked pretty stupid trying to operate the thing.


Alan ElĂ­as said...

Good luck in Afghanistan.

Fat Robbie said...

I would only add that we need to ask a few questions first: do Afghanis want to be Westernized? Did they ask us for that? What was the original mission, and what is our military exit strategy?