Failure to identify agents of change — what went wrong with Aid in Afghanistan

What went wrong for Afghanistan’s women? by Madeleine Bunting summarizes a key point oh how aid in Afghanistan has made some gains, but has fundamentally failed to support agents of change.

The biggest achievement has been in education, with 2.4 million girls in school, although there is still a high drop-out rate and the numbers going on to secondary school are small. But the fact is that the conservative nature of rural Afghanistan has not changed fundamentally. Over the past 10 years a colossal $57 bn has been spent in aid in Afghanistan, but it has not had any impact on the entrenched attitudes shaping women’s lives.

It’s time we take a serious look at why women like Hamida Barmaki, a lawyer and human rights activist was killed with her family in an attack at a grocery store which was supposedly targeting a Blackwater Security executive. If we fail to protect women like Hamida, then what hope for the future does Afghanistan have? $57 bn in aid certainly hasn’t been leading the transformation we need to see. Maybe it’s time we re-think what a successful society means, and what kind of support is necessary. It brings up a larger suggestion of the systemic role of failed states, the way they suck up resources globally, and the way global interventions are — so far — failing to support the real agents of change. Here’s a brief summary of this discussion we recently had at the Balaton Group.

Two months ago in Kabul, 40 young women took the streets to protest street harassment against women. My friend Heidi Carrubba was there to document.

Protesting against street harassment against women in Kabul, July 2011. Photo: Heidi Carrubba

Inevitably, after 10 years of huge investment and such a patchy record of achievement, next month’s anniversary will provoke a lot of soul searching in aid agencies about what went wrong in Afghanistan.

Perhaps one of the most complex aspects of the conflict has been the blurring of boundaries between development and military occupation. The coalition’s provincial reconstruction teams have been involved in building schools and clinics, reducing the neutral humanitarian “space” in which NGOs can work.

But there is an equally important and complex issue surrounding how a western NGO can effect change in entrenched social attitudes. There are success stories from other parts of the world. Oxfam points to itssupport for a coalition of grassroots organisations in India and Bangladesh which has campaigned against domestic violence and helped shift the popular understanding of what is acceptable. But the key requirement for any success is that both women and men have to see the advantage of change. In Afghanistan, this model of change has failed. Attempts to develop a comparable campaign around honour killing have petered out.

Many NGOs now fear that, after western forces withdraw, it will become almost impossible to work in the country. Ten years on, the anniversary of the invasion is likely to be a sombre event, and it is very unlikely to talk much about women. Used as a rationale for invasion, the plight of women’s rights is increasingly an embarrassing failure.

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One Response to Failure to identify agents of change — what went wrong with Aid in Afghanistan

  1. Pingback: Escaping the Inferno « Jamila the Lorax’s Blog

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