Answer to Steven.

My old, good friend Steven read the last post here and commented: ‘I’d value your current insights; questions that others might like to ask too:

So, do you want Kabul to be like Perth or Dubai? If so, how? 

If not, why not?

Is Perth poor?  If so, how?  

What are the Kabulites teaching you? Are they rich in other ways? 

What do you want Kabul to look like when it is ‘finished’?’

Good questions, and it is true that it is easier to criticise than to find solutions, so here is my attempt:

So, do you want Kabul to be like Perth or Dubai?

Kabul, I think, doesn’t know what it wants to be. It lost 30 years to war, and the reconstruction process has been driven by expatriate Afghans and foreign advisors, who have imposed a hybrid Middle Eastern/ Western/ American persona on the city. It is a poor graft. I suppose I would like Kabul to become like Delhi; with a preserved and functional old city, and a new area where the business and political sector can function. But the old city is largely already destroyed, such heritage has little currency in Afghan eyes.

If not, why not?

I don’t want Kabul to emulate Dubai. Dubai is Babylon, the city that defies everything and attempts to show that money and engineering can overcome any environmental limitations and natural constraints. There is a saying in Arabic: ‘My grandfather rode a donkey; my father drove a car; I fly a plane. My son will ride a donkey.’ Something like that. They recognise themselves, at one level, their lifestyle is utterly, foolishly excessive and unsustainable. When the energy crisis comes, UAE will rupture. And they are doing nothing to build longevity into their culture: Arabs themselves do nothing in the UAE; all labour and technocratic work is done by Philippinos, Pakistanis, Indians and Europeans.

Is Perth poor?  If so, how? 

Yep. We have become almost completely a nation of aspirational materialists. Sadly, a globalised world has taken from us the chance to develop, slowly, our own culture; instead we have bought into a US model of society, based around consumption and the car. We preserve nothing of our own (post colonial) heritage (I mean at a personal level; not the corporate preservation of colonial era buildings), small though it is. We break down and build anew, history means little. We pay tiny, grudging reference to our Indigenous history and have anyway reduced it to smoking ceremonies and the Aboriginal tri-colour.

What are the Kabulites teaching you? 

That’s harder. My encounters with poor Afghans make me reflect on my own wealth and power. My encounters with powerful Afghans (police, officials), make me aware of the corruptibility of any person. My encounters will small boys remind me of the mischievousness and hope of youth. My wife’s encounters with young men teach her that young men are pretty much the same anywhere, when it comes to women. Her encounters with Afghan women are mixed: some welcoming, some not. My encounters with Afghan women? I don’t have any. But what is real in all this? There is still so much pure survival going on here, though, that the best of the Afghan person is often not revealed, and such strong currents of fear, hostility, uncertainty that the public person is more a reflection of Afghanistan’s own chaos. I fear that by the time we are past survival, Afghans themselves will have lost something key to their identity, at least those in the big cities.

Are they rich in other ways? 

I don’t know. I used to be greeted with wonderful hospitality in villages. I am less present in villages these days but I suspect this reverence for the guest is still strong, despite the latent, growing anger at Western military and social imperialism. It is hard for village people to be so welcoming when their last encounter with foreigners was from the wrong end of an M16.

In Kabul these days, most Afghans want little to do with foreigners, at least at a social level.  We rarely get the invites to funerals, weddings, circumcisions, that we used to get: too close an association with foreigners now, in Kabul, will see you reported to the local Taliban, and lead to an interrogation, a threat, a visit. There is still great thrift, inventiveness and skill; but that is not unique to Afghanistan; rather it is pretty much common to most places that have been decimated in conflict.

What do you want Kabul to look like when it is ‘finished’?’

I don’t know. I find that sort of question difficult to answer these days. I feel little hope when I look at the big picture. I draw hope mainly from the small, lasting, positive changes our work brings. Mere tweaks at the edge of things, perhaps. But in a sea of poor quality work, bad development decisions, and careless spending, they are good things.

A trip to the North West

I have to go to Maimana. I am, to be honest, not keen. It is hard on my family when I travel; it is freezing, and it will be colder in Maimana; I have a cold coming on and I have a ton of work that has kept me up till 1.00am the last week.

I arise at 4.00am, and by 6.00 we are at the airport. The pilot tells us the weather is foggy in Maimana, with 8cm of slush on the runway. Secretly, I hope that the flight is cancelled. The pilot suggests we board, and see how things are when we land in Bamiyan. 20% chance, he tells us.

 Bamiyan is -16˚ and when I stagger off the airstrip to take a leak, I am disappointed not to see my pee freeze. The pilot advises we try for Maimana, as the fog is lifting.
40mins later we land in Maimana, the airstrip clean and clear, not a wisp of fog in sight. The air traffic controller, it turns out, has a grudge against aircraft.

Unsurprisingly, I am very pleased once we actually get there. It is the travelling I find hard, not the being. Kabul is so toxic, so restrictive, so insulating, that to get out to the real Afghanistan is a tonic.

This is a hill just out side the office. It collapsed in the recent rains, obliterating several houses. One of our staff now lives in permanent terror of the rest of the hill falling on him and his family.

We travel out to visit one of our community development projects. Since the security crapped out a few years ago, we have been forced to work much closer to the town than we would want: the really poor people are a days travel away, but Taliban control those areas now. We can only work in safely within an hours drive of the town centre. Still, in a place like Maimana, there is no shortage of work. This town is after all, little more than a large village, with all the problems of a remote area: no proper latrines and open defecation, poor water supply, no understanding of safe birth practice, low literacy, rudimentary animal care and horticulture, only the most basic education, and only for boys: I could go on and on. 

This is the expat advisor to the project. He is raised on a farm, holds a Masters degree in development. A thinker, a practical person, sensitive to the culture, considered in his application, persistent in the effort. His wife is built of the same quality. I wish we had 10 men and women like them.

Here, we have trialled improved orchards. You can see the saplings in the background. Tree spacing, pesticides, pruning, consistent fertilising. The plot is given to us for three years by a wealthier landowner, on condition that the people have free access to the orchard to learn better techniques. After three years, the orchard and it’s yield becomes his. As we drive home, A, the advisor wonders, ‘Is this the best approach? Should we benefit the wealthy further? But the poor can rarely afford to give us land to use for risky orchard trials. What about the middle people? Maybe we can work with them.’

I appreciate thinkers like this.


Charm-gari village. The leatherworker’s village.

And here it is: on a breathtakingly cold morning, they are still there, scraping the hides, breaking the ice off the pits where the skins will be tanned, hanging the leather to cure.

I ask, ‘Is it a high profession or a low one, leather working?’

The answer comes quickly, ‘Oh it is a high profession. But the market is ruined now. They cannot sell anything. Now, everything comes from China. Their leather is so much cheaper.’

I am grateful to be able to spend some time in Maimana.

Images from villages in Faryab

I had to travel up to Maimana, in Faryab province at short notice this week. While the timing was not good, the trip was. It is great to get out of Kabul.

I spend hours talking to the team the first night, and the next day, we travel out to a village, where the local TV station is filming the opening of a water tank built through our development team’s facilitation. I am pushed to the front to say a few words for the camera, and then we cut the ribbon. Later we visit a nearby school, where a large grape trellis has been built in memory of Fay, a worker with our agency who died in Kabul early last year. It was not a violent death, but terribly sad nonetheless.

At this same school, the development team has helped install water filters. I know this is probably quite a dull photo in terms of content, but the significance of it is immeasurable. These blue filters you can see are bio-sand filters: no cost to run, they function indefinitely, and with periodic cleaning, they provide 99.8% pure water. The water fills the yellow plastic tubs, which are then poured into the steel tank, from which a series of taps provide water to the 600 students. These girls now have clean water. Out of frame are a group of toilets, and in the homes of these students, more filters. It is such in insignificant thing to us, who are used to pure water. To them, it is a huge step towards full life.


The headmaster then treats us to watermelon and green peaches under the shade of the trees in the school garden. He is intensely proud of his school, and once he realises I am the Big Boss From Kabul, he spends a lot of time haranguing me for more assistance. He is not likely to get it from us, but I appreciate his fervour. God grant that there were 1000 headmasters and mistresses across this country, who cared so much about their schools and students.

Further on we inspect a work in progress: a deep well is being replaced by an electric pump, again facilitated by our staff. The original well was dug and the hand pump installed in 2007, but the water is more than 60m deep, and hand pumps cannot really operate at that depth: it failed regularly. I comment that DACAAR, the implementing partner at the time, should have known better. Mark,who consults in the project corrects me: at that time, there was no electricity, and so no alternative. Sure, the pump broke regularly, but it could be fixed. It is only in the last year that electricity is reliably available, and so an electric pump and storage tank possible. I am chastened.

As we drive out, I see a wonderful contrast (but badly photographed as the exposure was way too high…): a man hauling a new chest freezer on a donkey. 

The next day and a half are spent in meetings with the team, and I fly home the day after Rabbani’s assassination.

Getting to the point of development.

When I started this job, my office was a desk in the vestibule. There was no privacy or place for my co-worker and so the enterprising support staff enclosed a veranda, put in carpet and windows and made me an office. It has a beautiful view out to the trees, it is very light and spacious. It is also very poorly sheltered from the weather, so it is currently rather like a solar oven. The same capable support staff then offered to install an air-conditioner. We generally don’t use these, as they don’t fit with our lean operational mentality, but given the location and un-usableness of my office, we agreed.

Well I remember the moment when Z finished installing the AC. He looked at me and said, ‘There, it is installed. Of course, you can’t use it though.’

‘Eh? what do you mean?’

‘We don’t have enough power in the office to run it. If you use it, it will blow all the fuses.”

‘Did you know this when before you installed it?’

‘Yes, but I was told to install it.’

Sure enough, we turned it on and five minutes later, the fuses all blew. I started wondering how this could have transpired, and worked out that it was possible only because of a kind of fragmented thinking, that says, ‘My job is installing X. The point of my job is to install X, not to achieve outcome Y. Outcome Y is someone else’s problem, not really connected to my role.’

Of course, the point of putting in an AC is to cool a room. The point is not its neat installation, but the outcome of a cool room. A well installed air conditioner is pointless, if it cannot be used. Of course, a poorly installed air conditioner may not work also, but the ultimate test of the activity is that the goal be fully reached.

This incident reminded me of when I worked in development projects in the North of Afghanistan. The UN gave a contract to an NGO to dig 50 or so wells in a district. Their engineers had determined that there was water at 40m, so the terms of the contract allowed for drilling the wells to 40m, and all the related costs of pumps, shafts, cement etc.

It soon became clear to the NGO that there was no water at 40m – such surveys have to be done at the right time of year – ie, at the end of summer – September or October, before the rains and the snow-melt. Otherwise you get false high water table readings. The NGO went back to the UN and said, ‘There is no water at 40m, we need to drill to 60m’. The UN staffer (not an Afghan), astonishingly, said, ‘No, the contract you have is to drill and install wells at 40m. That is what you are contracted to do.’

It is exactly the same thinking as occurred around the installing of my air conditioner. The point, according to the UN, was the installation. And logically, if this project had gone ahead on those terms, at the end, a report could be written that would confirm that 50 wells had been drilled to 40m depth and pumps installed, etc. But the real point of a well, is permanent, clean, accessible water. If you don’t have that, you have nothing. Or, you have worse than nothing, you have material waste and deepening cynicism.

The NGO went away and drilled a few more wells to 40m and then couldn’t abide this foolishness and idiocy, stopped, and then from its own budget, made up the difference to drill the wells down to 60m, or however deep was required. They also ensured that the water was useable – not salty or bitter or contaminated. I think they also undertook to do some WASH education and well maintenance amongst the population, something that was also not part of the UN plan.

This story is bad enough that it could be fiction, but it is not. I know the people involved, I know the NGO and a year after that I worked in the UN, and saw how such disconnected, wrong-heading thinking and planning could occur.

So at one level, I have a nicely installed, but pointless AC. In a district in Northern Afghanistan, they almost had nicely installed, pointless wells. And all over this country, I see similarly projects being implemented disconnected from the larger goals of development. The goal of a school is that education take place, but this country has many schools that are well built, but poorly located, and consequently, empty. The goal of job training, is a job, but in Uruzgan, the Australian army has built a wonderful trade school, where local men are being trained as plumbers, carpenters and electricians. There is, however, no market for their skills anywhere in the province. In some of the development projects I manage, there is an assumption that health education activities will lead to improved health, with nothing else needed. Or that building nice latrines means people will use them, and that disease vectors will therefore reduce. Such simplistic, disconnected thinking may apply in some kind of utopian settings, but not in complex environments like this.

Where this occurs, people of initiative find their own solutions. If you travel through the Hazarajat, you can see empty school buildings, and children being taught under a mulberry tree, close to their homes and their families. I leave the doors and windows open, use a small Pakistani fan and sweat.

Images of beauty and despair

On the last day I am in Herat, we go out to Bagh-e Shaheed, the Garden of the Martyrs. The office is throwing a picnic for all the staff, and there are nearly 60 of us. The garden is built around a spring, and is filled with tall pines, mulberry, cypress and plane trees. New trees are also growing – mimosa and what they call Russian oaks. The spring has been funnelled into water canals, and these filter through the trees, irrigating the rose gardens. It is almost beautiful. Almost, because sadly, the canals are choked with wrappers, bottles, cans and the detritus of a thousand picnics.

Within a few minutes of arriving, carpets are spread, tea is poured, and card games start. The women gather in their own area, chatting and strolling. A colleague from the Mental Health Clinic has a wind-piano and plays melancholic tunes.

I sketch, walk about the gardens and enjoy the peace. To the edge of the gardens are some old ruins, which I am drawn to explore; but on arriving at the broken-down door, the ripe odour of turds strikes me. I retreat, abandoning my idea of discovering relics. Further up, near the mouth of the spring, men are gathering mulberries from the trees. These are the white mulberries – juicy,but not sweet.

Around the mouth of the spring has been built a kind of concrete wall, which I suppose is a hammam, for washing in prior to prayers. I look closer, and it is a hamman, and it is also something else: a series of latrines. This one is built so that a line of sitters can release themselves, directly into the clean, fast flowing water below.

Now this is just staggering. I understand people crapping in the ruins. I understand that in remote villages, people often defecate near water sources: they then use the water for cleaning. And I understand a child accidentally relieving themselves by a river, when he should know better.
But this effort here before me has been intentional, it is the deliberate expense of money and effort, to create well-built toilet facilities. It has required a real commitment, in fact, to not think about the consequences, for the latrines are right on the water source, not at the end, but at the mouth. You cannot not be aware of the reality that less than 50m downstream, men are washing in the water, rinsing their hair and their mouths, children are swimming, women are washing dishes: but you can, I suppose choose to ignore this. And this, in Herat, Afghanistan’s most cultured and educated city.

I ask the mulberry pickers who built the latrines, and they shrug. ‘But people are drinking this water. It is filthy – they are drinking what people have just made unclean’. Dari allows for quite delicate construction of such matters. The mulberry men shrug again, smiling at my anxieties. ‘The water is sweet’, one says. I throw off the delicate constructions. ‘Look – people have crapped here. This is shit-water. And they are drinking it. Who did such a thing? Why? Can you see this is wrong, is dangerous?’

One man has gone back to picking mulberries. The other looks at me, and grins. I am bemusing to him. ‘Afghanistan be-pursan ast’. ‘In Afghanistan, we don’t ask questions.’

I leave him, and walk back to our group, murmuring his response to myself. ‘In Afghanistan, we don’t ask questions’.