By David Jepson, Bristol West CLP
There was considerable media coverage last month as the last few British soldiers climbed into a helicopter and flew out of Helmand in Afghanistan for the last time. There was much less media attention last week for a major conference which took place in London, co-hosted by the Afghan and British governments, with the aim of proving a platform for the international community to demonstrate their solidarity and support for Afghanistan following the military withdrawal.
In these hard times it may seem difficult to ask hard pressed British taxpayers and potential Labour voters to contribute even more expenditure to a “far away country” after all the money and the lives already committed. However, though a poor country now, Afghanistan is rich in mineral deposits and occupies an important spot on the map in both economic and strategic terms. Commercial links with China are developing rapidly, so surely the UK needs to position itself in the future global economy. On the other hand, if Afghanistan stays poor, instability, outmigration and other issues, will continue to be on-going problems for us here in the UK. And of course, the Labour Party is committed to global social justice and therefore it is right that we support development, not least because of our tangled role in the country’s history.
The conference confirmed that the reform programme produced by the Afghan government entitled “Realizing Self Reliance: Commitments to reform and renewed partnership” provided a credible framework for development of the country. It mostly says the right things about the need for improving security, political stability, economic and fiscal stabilisation, good governance, promoting the rule of law and human rights, especially in relation to women and girls, as well as fighting corruption and the illegal economy.
Labour’s approach should surely stress the key role of good governance at all levels and the important role of civic society. As the economy develops, it is important that the fruits of growth are widely shared, government and civil society can play a major role in attaining this. Huge numbers of international donors, NGOs, consultancies are active in the country causing a major challenge for coordination and control. It is important that not only the priorities but also the delivery mechanisms for the support offered reflect the needs of and are accountable to the government of Afghanistan.
Development needs to come from the bottom up. It is also important that the support is used to develop capability and to meet the needs of ordinary people on the ground across the country. At the end of the day, democratic governance and a functioning economy are built from the grass roots up. Using the skills and abilities of every community and individual is key and is also the best way of avoiding growth which simply benefits a small elite. This means avoiding large and complex programmes that are hard to access by smaller, locally based organisations and means controlling the use of major international contractors and providers. It also means multi-lateral and bilateral donors and agencies keeping overhead costs under control and ensuring scrutiny of their activities. International experts and consultants should only be used where bringing genuine expertise and commitment and not simply because programmes are so complicated to manage!
An illustration of what is happening on the ground is provided by one small Afghan NGO; the Organisation for the Promoting of Afghan Women’s Capabilities (OPAWC). It was established in 2003 by a group of women eager to do something proactive, concrete and achievable to empower Afghan women. They volunteered their time and expertise to affect lives in the short term, whilst building a framework for long term, sustainable opportunities for women to escape the vicious cycle of dependence and victimization in a male dominated and fundamentalist social structure. They function in three areas: literacy, practical wage earning skills and health. They realized that if a significant number of women could have access to these basic human rights they could have a foothold on the journey to achieve their constitutional right of equality and even address areas of redress yet to be written into law. Literacy for women is an essential tool not only for employment and economic development and for engagement with governance and civil society. Current priorities for OPAWC include additional seeking funding to extend literacy classes from Kabul to other provinces in the country. They also runs a health clinic for women in Farah which is one of the most remote and poor provinces in Afghanistan. There is an urgent need to provide a female gynaecologist for the clinic which will require a support to cover salary, transport, housing and security needs. OPAWC is just one of many grassroots organisations that can contribute to the future of the country, step by step.
As a last observation, it would have seemed appropriate, for such a long term issue, to have had a cross party approach and consensus over future support for Afghanistan. Yet whilst the Afghan government brought both President Ghani and his chief electoral opponent and now government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to London, there was no sign such an approach from the UK government, with David Cameron centre stage. Maybe Afghanistan has something to teach us too!