Thursday, May 29, 2008

How NOT to improve the plight of the typical Afghan

Yesterday I was returning from a project in a village just outside Kabul when our convoy of Humvees came to a stream that bisected the road. It’s not unusual when traveling the roads around Kabul for the path to truncate at a ridge or field or waterway where a causeway has yet to be built. The water at this particular obstacle was still and lie at the bottom of a channel that was no match for my Humvee or its driver: she simply slipped the machine into low gear and plowed through the muck and liquid. We sank tire-deep into the soft bed of the stream as we drove through it, and when water splashed over the Humvee our cab filled with the smell of sewage. The innards of our vehicle stayed dry, thankfully.

The village next to that sewage stream lacks much more than proper plumbing. Not immediately next to the sewage flow, but still far too close to it, children pumped water from a manual well. None of the streets of the village are paved and tremendous clouds of dust and dirt trailed our Humvees. Most of the homes and buildings are constructed of mud bricks. The needs of that village are exemplary of the needs of most Afghans, and the needs are basic: clean water, proper sanitation, decent housing and all the other public health measures and protections that the United States developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Occasionally my office will get proposals from organizations that don’t seem to recognize that simple projects -- not high-tech, complicated initiatives -- are the endeavors appropriate for assisting most Afghanistan. Although I’m sure these people mean well, their proposals are often laughable as they clearly have no understanding of the lack of physical infrastructure and socioeconomic support here that would conspire together to ensure their projects failed.

The latest proposal I read this week (shortly after driving through the river of raw sewage) called for an initiative to create an electronics laboratory in Kabul that would enable Afghans, especially those injured and maimed from mines and other weapons, to develop electronic devices, software and computer-controlled machines. The organization proposing this lab has a greater mission: to bridge the “digital divide” in poor communities and to improve the “technoliteracy” of populations deprived of the latest advances in technology. I see more than a few problems with the proposal.

The lack of technoliteracy is certainly an issue in Afghanistan, but the lack of basic literacy is a much greater problem. I think I knew how to read and write my native tongue before, in junior high school, I tackled the Basic programming language of the Radio Shack Tandy computer, and then moved on to master the remarkable Commodore 64. Perhaps we need to ensure a quality primary education for Afghan children, including the girls, before we worry about producing a generation of software designers here. I can also guarantee that initiatives to further train Afghans in skills that presuppose literacy and a rudimentary education will only further separate the privileged from the poor, disadvantaged and neglected. Afghan society is supremely hierarchical, with a few wealthy and educated folks controlling most of the economic resources, social power and educational opportunities. Development and assistance efforts need not completely ignore that segment of the population, as it is highly influential and typically a social conduit for foreigners to all else Afghan; but initiatives need to be structured so that the needy, which comprise about 99.9% of the population, are served.

The “digital divide” is another stark contrast between the have and have-nots in our world, and the chasm that surrounds the typical Afghan is quite shocking to most of us accustomed to computers and software and all the other elements of the digital revolution that keep us pecking at our keyboards instead of conversing with our friends and families. But the village kids who run alongside our vehicles with one hand outstretched and the other gesturing toward their mouths are not pleading for a laptop computer: They are asking for bottles of clean water that they know we keep in our vehicles at all times. I don’t presume to speak for the population here, but I think a priority for most Afghans would be for us to assist them in bridging the clean water divide before we address the digital divide.

After pondering the digital divide, I quickly drafted a list of other divides that I think trump the shortfall of digital technology in Afghanistan. I ranked the divides according to priority after I compiled them:

Top Afghan Divides
1. Nutrition Divide
2. Clean Water Divide
3. Literacy Divide
4. Sanitation Divide
5. Healthcare Divide
6. Viable Shelter Divide
7. Human Right Divide
8. Hygiene Divide
9. Living Wage Divide
10. Modern Utility Divide

94. Applied Technology Divide
110. Digital Divide
125. Wireless Internet Access Divide
133. Bluetooth Divide

Another quick thought on the specter of the digital divide in Afghanistan: Efforts to advance digital technology likely presuppose a constant supply of reliable electricity. I propose a drastic improvement in the power plant capabilities of this country before we worry about installing wireless internet service. If I were a politician, I would promise a reliable light bulb in every home.

Finally, I think any development initiative that provides electronic skills to Afghans must consider that more than a few insurgents in this country are eager to acquire the knowledge necessary to create sophisticated explosive devices that typically kill and injure Afghans, not foreigners, when detonated. Today a suicide bomber in Kabul drove his vehicle of charges into an armored American military SUV. The Americans in the vehicle survived with minor injuries, but four Afghans on the street near the explosion died and three others were injured. The Associated Press reported that children’s’ shoes were seen strewn about the site. Most Afghans want peace and a secure livelihood, but a laboratory serving a segment of the population interested in learning about homemade electronics runs the risk of educating the local equivalent of the guy who enrolled in flight school with no interest in lifting or landing an airplane, only controlling it once in flight; and he used that training to fly a jet into the World Trade Center.


Fat Robbie said...

Let me guess--most of these 'proposals' floating across your desk come from US companies looking for war profit, with perhaps a board member or two connected to our current commander-in-chief. Am I off the mark?

sandra said...

sounds like a good place for my water treatment engineer husband.
btw, how much is gas per gallon there? hopefully less than here with those hummers

Jason said...

While I don't disagree with what you said, and I imagine that many of the proposed development projects would heartily benefit the donors more than the recipients, but I think that many people (like those at the One Laptop Per Child project) feel that technology can play a role in education and literacy. The idea goes that a human-powered laptop loaded up with textbooks and the tools to collaborate wirelessly with other students can create an educational environment where no other infrastructure exists. But it does seem criminal that basic needs aren't being met.