“Well if they’re saying that we’re not doing anything – perhaps that’s a good thing. Our role, after all, is to prop up the government with as little visibility as possible,” Elizabeth told me on the car ride to Panjob – a remote district of Bamyan. She was half-joking, half-not. She’d worked in conflict zones for a long time, and had developed an almost biting sarcasm for the way foreign forces were perceived by the locals.
The problem, and Elizabeth knew this, was that most people I’d interviewed hadn’t articulated any faith in central, provincial, or district governments. The only kind of governance that elicited positive responses on a continual basis – was local governance.
After the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program helped to formalize local decisionmaking. Established in 2003, the NSP enables Afghans to choose and implement small-scale development projects in their communities. Communities elect councils (called Community Development Councils – CDCs) that decide what their communities need (literacy projects, bridges, generators, etc). CDCs are then given a grant to implement this project. There’s a cap on how much a community can get over a particular period of time – and the amount of money allocated per community depends on its size. The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation (the branch of the Afghan government that oversees this project) partners with NGOs all over Afghanistan to oversee CDCs during elections, project implementation, and monitoring.
The CDCs haven’t escaped criticism. There are accusations of corruption within councils, and with council elections. Some village elders are threatened by these councils, which challenge their traditional authority in their community. Several communities in Bamyan have CDCs for both men and women, and – in these communities – there are sometimes complaints of unequal power-sharing in decisionmaking and implementation. Ineffective or poor implementation of a project, once the grant has been given, is also a considerable problem.
But generally – the people I’d spoken with were pleased with the level of ownership they have over local development projects. They’re pleased that they have the opportunity to decide what is and what is not best for their community.
Aside from the CDCs, I’d met with any number of community-level associations/groups that were formed to lobby for and implement development projects. Business associations, cultural associations, social (?) associations. These associations generally weren’t successful at staying within their respective stovepipes. For instance you’d get a business association that conducted human rights workshops. Or a social association that trained in handicrafts. Or a cultural association that sought to provide literacy projects. And because there were so many of these associations – with somewhat ambiguous missions – they were difficult to coordinate, and lacked either the information or ability to secure the funds they needed.
I was en route to meet with such an association in Panjob – the Panjob Women’s Social and Cultural Association. Elizabeth was interested in my project and so she came along as well.
Hamid guided us into a school office. Three women in black jilbabs (essentially cloaks that leave the face uncovered) sat on wooden chairs waiting for us, with a tray of green tea in front of them. Black jilbabs seemed unusual for this part of the country, I thought. Blue and white burkhas were still pretty prevalent in Bamyan city – and less so as you ventured out further into the villages. Most women in the districts and in the main city wore bright, heavy, flowing skirts, sweaters, and headscarves.
The women greeted us as we sat down opposite them. I introduced myself, and asked them what the goal of their organization was.
“We would like to provide literacy projects. For our first year, we’d like to provide 25 literacy courses for women in Panjob.”
“Ok, that’s a great objective. And you said you’re interested in business as well? What businesses would you like to be involved with?” I asked.
“We’d like to do handicrafts training,” a woman responded.
“But there’s no market, nearby, to sell handicrafts in,” I replied. “So is there any other kind of business you’re interested in?”
The women paused for a moment, and then one said, “A factory.”
“A factory? A factory for what, specifically?” I’d received this odd response several times throughout the day.
“For… packaging our dairy products.”
I didn’t push that any further. I sensed that someone in the community had thought up this idea, to build a factory, and it had spread throughout the district like wildfire – despite the fact that it made no sense.
“We do not have any outside support, we are all volunteers. We ask that you help us. That the internationals help us.”
I was about to admit that I’m just a piddling researcher – a graduate student with no authority at all, when Elizabeth jumped in.
“First off, I’d like to thank you for your initiative in forming this association. It’s very impressive,” she said, with Hamid translating. “Let me explain our roles here. Afreen is a graduate student. She is doing research about women’s initiatives in Bamyan, and so she can’t provide you with any support. I’m with New Zealand Aid – but my focus is on teacher training projects and healthcare. So I can’t provide you with any assistance either. But I can tell you what you need to do to get the assistance you need.”
The women paused, looked at each other, and then one pulled out her notebook.
Elizabeth then methodically outlined what the women needed to do – which Ministry to register with, who to speak with for funding opportunities, etc.
She had, in fact, been doing that for all my interviews with the villagers. After I was done asking questions, she’d swoop in with her expertise and authority – attempt to temper expectations, point out flaws in logic (where possible), and provide precise, specific steps by which they could (hopefully) achieve a moderated version of their goal. She was very interesting to watch. She’d honed her diplomacy skills over the years, and in almost every single instance, she deferred authority to the government. “No I can’t help you with that,” she’d say, “you need to speak with your district governor”… or the head of the Department of Education in Panjob… or the Ministry of Women’s Affairs…
I’m sure those responses were frustrating to some villagers, particularly because governmental bureaucracies are so difficult to navigate and so time-intensive. The very prospect of having to deal with them – would (justifiably) be enough to thwart the goodwill of a group of women who wanted to teach other women how to read.
But, of course, that was the way it had to be.
The women of the Panjob Women’s Cultural and Social Association smiled and shook our hands as we left the office. They thanked Elizabeth for her guidance. I wondered if anything would come of it all.