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In fear of 2014

by Eleonore von Bothmer

In brief

Western donor representatives are a rare sight in market streets of Kabul: Seller of rice and lentils

Western donor representatives are a rare sight in market streets of Kabul: Seller of rice and lentils

Ten years after the Taliban were toppled, many people in Afghanistan say that their situation has considerably improved overall. At the same time, many await the withdrawal of international troops with anxiety.

Civil rights activist Aziz Rafiee is optimistic. “Afghanistan is doing better than ever before,” he says. Nonetheless, he considers it a big problem that “the political agenda of donors does not match the ideas that Afghanistan’s civil society is promoting”.

Despite his optimism, Rafiee agrees that much must still improve to become good. For instance, the war has traumatised almost all Afghans: “The social fabric has been destroyed, and no one trusts any­one else. The nation is suffering from an identity crisis.” In such circumstances, it is hard to establish strong systems for the long term. Therefore it matters that debates not only focus on politics. Decisionmakers must also take into account society and Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage.

“In the past decade, a lot has happened in Afghanistan,” says Soraya Sobhrang, a women’s rights officer at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). She points out that not only has a commission been created to protect human rights, but one of its focal points is women – at least on paper. She says that a lot of the progress made over the past few years is at risk of being rolled back for the lack of a clear strategy. In her view, the international community’s plans to withdraw are making the risks especially clear, with fear being widespread.

Indeed, the downsides seem to outweigh the achievements in Afghanistan. The international community’s intervention did not enable the country to establish an order that would allow civil society to cope without donor aid. International experts and human rights activists from Afghanistan agreed on this matter when they met at a conference conducted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin at the end of November to discuss the question: “Where does Afghanistan stand today?”

Rafiee says that donors’ lack of harmonisation is hurting his country. He complains that though there is a lot of money, there is no roadmap for using it. As a result, corruption is becoming institutionalised, and parallel structures are being set up.

No doubt, civil rights organisations are doing good work independently of donors. Nonetheless, political scientist Saghar Chopan says that the donors, who pursue a wide range of diverging agendas, largely control nongovernmental organisations: “We need to better address the needs of Afghans, and we need to discuss the relevant issues in their language.” She adds it is high time to move on “from donorship to ownership”.

For the past year, Toiko Kleppe has been working as an adviser at the Norwegian Embassy in Kabul. She says that foreign donor staff tend to only stay in the country for a short time, so they often fail to understand the big picture. Because of the strict security in Kabul, moreover, she argues that they live “in a bubble.”

According to journalist and civil rights activist Najiba Ayubi, one of the crucial mistakes was to not get the Afghan public involved. The people, she insists, “would certainly have been able to handle many more things.” In the meantime, she reports a feeling of helplessness when “we just think about what is going to happen after 2014”.

Despite such fears, civil society activist Rafiee is confident about his country’s future. “Afghan civil society wants democracy,“ he says.

Eleonore von Bothmer