Category Archives: USAID

The ugly Americans

American flag

It used to feel special to travel abroad with that blue passport. In my evolving world view, I had ample reason to feel pride in my country and its democratic ideals and in my conviction, that despite our many flaws and occasional deep hypocrisies, we truly meant well in the world. We cared about the plight of others, we were generous in our assistance to the less fortunate, and we held our allies in the highest regard.

That was then; this is now. I am much older, and as I travel first to India and now back in Uganda, the sordid, sorry news from the United States is never far away. Large screen monitors in airports and hotels expose the latest in what we’ve now come to accept will be an unending series of Trump media distractions (intentional?) achieved through egregious and unpresidential tweets, along with reprehensible political statements and policies that fly in the face of the ideals that I grew up thinking defined us as a people. “America First” is code for screw the rest of the world (nations, and the environment) – we don’t care and you don’t matter.

From my short-term perch in Kampala, I can tell you that indeed we do make a lot of noise in the world. The polarized, angry name-calling and lack of even basic civility that has come to define the United States in the era of Trump is heard regularly more than 10,000 miles away. More people than you can imagine around the world now know who Mika Brzezinski is. No surprise then that I encounter, every day, perplexed looks by the citizens I meet in these two countries as they ask their variation of the same question:

“What has happened to America?”

It’s depressing that I don’t have the words to answer that. It is too easy to blame the other side, when an insufficient number of liberal and progressive Americans failed to show up when it mattered the most – at the polls last November.  For the first time in my long life I feel shame for my country, and particularly for the leader and his many supporters who are committed to a boorish politics of unapologetic selfishness, who are sowing the seeds of deep discord and division within the United States and beyond, and who seem united in their utter rejection that the globe is now interdependent. “America First” is telling the people I meet abroad every day as I travel that they simply aren’t significant, unless they have a terrorist’s agenda. Then they will be crushed (along with innumerable civilians who just happen to be in the way, and desperate refugees fleeing such terrorism who simply long for a modicum of peace, stability, and hope). To people abroad, America is now perceived as an increasingly reclusive, isolationist, heavy-handed and uncaring country. Yes, we are respected as militarily strong and quick to punish those who would do us harm (at least when it is in the Trump team’s perceived national interest to do so, which is an unsettling thought). And sure, as a citizen of the United States and the daughter of a U.S. Marine, I am gratified that my security is a priority, even if I have deep questions as to the prevailing assumption in Republican circles that there is no such thing as too much defense spending. So what does it all add up to for America in the world?

An ugly truth – Americans are no longer nice. Continue reading The ugly Americans

Just one little word.

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Just one little word changes everything.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson observed, in a speech to his staff on May 3rd, that: “I think the real challenge many of us have as we think about constructing our policies and carrying out our policies is: How do we represent our values? And in some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests. If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests. It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over. We do.”

The word I am hung up about, of course, isn’t Tillerson’s missing adjective before “treatment”, although that does invite speculation. No, it is the possessive “our”. When it comes to human rights – this critically important framework of global peace and hope for the future – the “our” has no national boundaries. There is no “America First” in that “our”. Yet that is not what Secretary Tillerson is saying.

When did human rights, and the foundation of human dignity that such rights rest upon, lose the quality of being universal? Does Secretary Tillerson even notice its absence?

To be fair, Secretary Tillerson did reassure the Foreign Service Officers and other staff gathered before him that the State Department and USAID would continue to advocate for human dignity and freedom, yet he failed to state the reason why. Why ought they to do such advocacy? There is only one reason – because it is the right thing to do. We ought to do it – as a moral imperative – in a political world that has left practically no space open for moral deliberations based on universal ethical principles. In the vacuum left by the failure to deliberate the universal “ought” of foreign (and national) affairs, a very parochial “our” has taken over and left us all in fractured, polarized, hostile, and deeply contested spaces.

Every day, on social media and in political diatribes, in our social circles and even in our faith communities, we are frequently subjected to moralizing (i.e. “my way or the highway”) by the talking heads and tweeting/texting fingers of the extremes of the political and social spectrum. They tell us that their brand – and only their brand – of conservatism, or religion, or liberalism, militarism, progressivism, libertarianism, American socialism, or extreme “America First” jingoistic nationalism, is who we are and what we ought to be about.

Screw everyone else.

That “everyone else” includes some very decent, very vulnerable, very “human” people, but under the prevailing narrative we are supposed to forget about the likes of Amna and Meeno in Saudi Arabia. But more on them later. Continue reading Just one little word.

Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

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The day could not have been better positioned for a loud, unrestrained, guttural howl of outrage and indignation. And while I did indeed hear words of anger, disappointment, and deep concern, there wasn’t a single howl. Not one. Disappointing…

It was just last Thursday, March 16th, and early that morning President Trump released his new “Make America Great” budget. It was a “skinny budget”, lacking the detail and policy weight of a comprehensive federal budget document, but it had the attention of everyone in that room.

“That room” was the Helene D. Gayle Global Development Symposium, hosted by the wonderful organization CARE, and held in the Reserve Officers Association building’s conference room. We were convened just across Constitution Avenue from the U.S. Senate offices – where the real budget battle will soon be fought. The audience gathered there was almost entirely women, which aligned with the topic: the plight of women and girls around the world. Still, the idealist might be excused if he or she presumed that the topic of women and girls – half the population of the world – might reasonably attract the attention and concern of men who are active in the international development community, but no. As happens so often, we were mostly women talking to women about women, ironically in a room resplendent of the patriarchy with somber pictures on the walls of distinguished (male) military icons staring down sternly at the impudent female speakers.

The weight of that just-published budget set the mood, despite the stalwart efforts of many speakers to be upbeat and positive. It felt to me that all of us were hunkered down in an attitude of resignation; self-made victims of a disempowering capitulation to “the way things are”. Many speakers spoke in pragmatic and occasionally wistful tones about the usual obstacles and successes, and how we might best find a way ahead for facilitating a type of development that would truly address and engage women and girls as full human beings. But there was no fire in their bellies, and there were no howls. Continue reading Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

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It’s existential.

There’s a word that’s overused, often at the center of hyperbole. After all, existential means of, relating to, or affirming existence. In other words, it’s about being – and “being” is where everything ultimately comes down to. That’s a very big notion.

Is being transgender existential? After all, every human being is more than our gender, sex, or gender identity. Some of us are short, athletic, graceful, coordinated, musical – there are nearly innumerable attributes that might define or describe very important aspects of who we are – but these are not existential attributes. Our core identity will not collapse if a late burst of growth in our teen years catapults us from short to tall. We won’t cease to be ourselves if we lose our athleticism through aging or disability. We may grow less graceful, coordinated, or even less musical, but we are still ourselves.

Many cisgender (non-transgender) persons incorrectly view the transgender journey as a path toward a chosen set of attributes – in effect, the intentional construction of an alternative (or radical, or fringe, or delusional, or irrational, or…) lifestyle. For similar reasons, many cisgender folk will question the centrality of any decision, or self-identification, that some persons adopt which places them outside the gender binary – a binary that has defined humanity since time immemorial. To them, being transgender or being outside the gender binary (which are not necessarily the same thing), are at best  harmless, silly, or inconvenient contrivances. At worst, it’s immoral, sinful, an abomination to be rejected.

Take it from me: it’s existential.

Or, if you would rather look for further validation, consider the appallingly high attempted suicide rate that afflicts so many transgender persons. Reliable data places the rate of attempted suicides among the general U.S. population at 4.6 percent, but among transgender or gender non-conforming people this rate soars to 41 percent. For many, many transgender persons, life in the wrong gender is unsustainable. We simply can’t go on another day like that. It’s traumatic, and it’s existential.

Yesterday I spent the day in Baltimore, Maryland at a gathering of faith leaders (clergy, and others who play a leadership role in communities of faith) organized by Transfaith to build community, solidarity and share each others wisdom and strength in the healing work of helping transgender persons overcome trauma. Nearly all of us who gathered there were self-identified as transgender and/or gender non-conforming, and we each had found our various ways to survive the journey across (or beyond) the gender boundaries that had been imposed upon us at birth. We had survived, through coping skills and grit and resilience, and we continue to exist…we’ve moved toward lives of existential authenticity. We’d found support and affirmation among our own faith communities – as I had among the Quakers. Some of us however had been forced to find new communities of faith, having grown up in faith traditions that have no tolerance for us. Continue reading Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

Wrapped in the flag

 

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Following the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the prospects for a strengthening of universal respect for human dignity and human rights around the world are hardly sanguine.

There exists a long if occasionally erratic tradition of American leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, stretching back to 1919 when President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the Versailles conference, and later bolstered dramatically in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That legacy is threatened to fade into obscurity and irrelevance as this new Administration adopts an emphatically pro-American, self-interested stance in its foreign policy. We already know from the 2016 Republican Party platform that U.S. foreign aid is being construed first and foremost as a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests,” and that U.S. foreign aid must therefore serve U.S. strategic interests first. As for the plight of the impoverished and powerless people in countries where an authoritarian ruling elite has adopted an anti-American posture, Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” are likely to compound their suffering. The RNC’s platform does make a commitment to the integration of human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of American bilateral engagements, yet it remains unclear whether this view of human rights is strictly linked to tightly legalistic interpretations of international treaty commitments or whether the deeper moral principles of universal human dignity and human rights will be accessed and accentuated by the new Administration. We can but hope at this stage, yet the Republican Party’s stand on sexual orientation and gender identity certainly begs the question of whether Trump’s team will even consider LGBTI concerns as human rights issues, particularly whenever such concerns come into conflict with the priorities of certain influential faith-based groups.

There is even talk within the Washington rumor mill of transitioning the US Agency for International Development (USAID) directly into the US State Department, intentionally obscuring the institutional division between diplomacy and development. This division has been very important to date, as “development people” tend to view their mission as being first and foremost about fostering freedom and human well-being around the globe, recognizing that this is a long-term endeavor that ultimately serves the interests of the entire planet – which includes America. The diplomats carry out a different and also important role, looking after the strategic short-term interests of this country as we engage with other nations around the world in a wide variety of contexts. There’s significant overlap between these two international frameworks and their respective roles, but they are distinctive and they are different. Were we to lose that autonomous voice of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid entity championing human development, seeing it subsumed to a mere footnote in an American diplomacy focused only on “making America great again” in the short term, we would all be diminished.

Under such an institutional revamping in which the longer-term view is waved aside, the prospects for the world’s poorest people look particularly bleak. Continue reading Wrapped in the flag

Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist

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For years and years every Friday morning at 8am, a small group of international development folks of many nationalities would gather for an hour over coffee and fruit in a well-appointed if sunless conference room in the first basement level of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Whenever I was in Washington (i.e. when I wasn’t working overseas), I would take the opportunity to join them, which meant I was usually one of the regulars. Predominantly attended by World Bank staff, they were happy to include consultants and visitors like me in a common endeavor. In short, we talked values.

Sometimes “values” strayed into religion, or spirituality, or secular humanism. Often there was a guest presenter, and even I made a few presentations along the way.  I do remember some remarkably inspirational discussions…and 9am always came around too fast. We’d then return to our respective worlds of pragmatism, attending to the development “paradigm of the month” and the realities of the various institutional environments that shape how international “development” is supposed to happen.

Yet often I left the World Bank’s basement with the strong sentiment: “if only…”.

Over the years, and even long after the Friday Morning Group ceased (gray-haired regulars retired and younger people could not accommodate Friday meetings that early!), my “if only” list has only grown. Call me an optimist, an idealist, or even out-of-touch, although I would argue that the latter accusation is suspect given my more than 15 years based in developing countries, and more than twice that long doing development work. If you insist on disparaging me, then call me a wishful-thinker who views her world through those rose colored glasses that seem now to have fallen out of vogue. But don’t call me naïve, or a dreamer, or foolhardy…even if I do admit to one fundamental abnormality not shared by the majority of those who have given their careers to international development, poverty alleviation, humanitarian relief, or human rights activism: I am an unrepentant idealist.

Yes, I still believe in the basic goodness of people, and their potential to do the right thing…and for the right reason.

It’s a conviction that I’ve paid dearly for in terms of bucking the system and being an outsider. When I worked at a leading consulting firm and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) put out a comprehensive anti-corruption proposal some years ago, the terms of reference stipulated that all of the experts for the project ought to be economists. I pushed back, arguing that people are moved by many factors, and that we therefore instead ought to offer a balanced team of economists, political scientists, and development ethicists to capture more of the very human dynamics that truly define corruption (and integrity). The proposal was submitted accordingly and was promptly rejected by USAID; the competitor’s winning proposal took USAID at its word and provided only economists. Later at a different consulting firm, the donor’s terms of reference for a project on community-driven development completely ignored gender considerations, and in the draft proposal that I prepared I argued that we should showcase an approach that also featured the purposeful collaboration of men and women. I was told that this wasn’t the way the world (i.e. the patriarchy) worked, my draft of the proposal was rewritten to take out all of the references that I’d included that were based on gender equity, and the firm went on to win the project. My draft would clearly have failed. Continue reading Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist

Pride Month – a time for international leadership

 

Xulhaz Mannan

June is Pride Month, and it is now associated with marches and festivals that celebrate the progress made to date around the world in achieving a growing aspiration – to respect the universal dignity of all human beings – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I will be proud to march with members of my Quaker community in Washington’s own Pride Parade this Saturday. Yet amid the celebrations, there are also moments when we must take stock of the grievous sacrifices that have characterized this dignity journey so far.

Today was a stocktaking day for me, as I attended the special memorial service for Xulhaz Mannan that was held at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s headquarters in Washington. Xulhaz was a Foreign Service National – a local employee of USAID – who worked at the USAID Mission in his home country of Bangladesh. On April 25th of this year, Xulhaz and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were both hacked to death in his apartment by six members of an extremist group.

Xulhaz knew the risks of being openly gay in Bangladesh, but he was a man with a strong moral sense of mission. Besides his important work on democracy, human rights, and good governance programming for USAID in Bangladesh, Xulhaz also served as the editor of Roopbaan, that country’s first and only LGBTI magazine. Xulhaz was a committed LGBTI development activist, and he paid the price for his commitment in a country where diversity is culturally abhorred by many. I did not know Xulhaz personally, but having worked in Bangladesh, the reality of his tragic loss was particularly gripping.

Bangladeshi popular abhorrence notwithstanding, diversity happens.

Xulhaz’s bravery in owning his homosexuality was only part of a picture of a man who was a recognized champion on behalf of Bangladesh’s gay and transgender people. The speeches made at the USAID memorial service were eloquent, sincere, and moving in their praise of his generosity of spirit, his principled commitment to human rights, his remarkable sense of humor amid deeply challenging times in his country, and his many cherished friendships. For me, there were two particularly poignant moments in this memorial service. One was  when Xulhaz’s brother, Minhaz Mannan Emon, made a profoundly personal tribute to his lost brother. The second was when the USAID Administrator, Gayle Smith, fought back her tears to paint a vibrant picture of a man who was beloved and respected – and very, very human.

Bangladesh and many other countries afflicted by perverse intolerance for the inescapable (and wonderful) reality of human diversity constitute some of the most challenging battle lines in the struggle for human dignity. That awareness filled my heart as I went directly from the memorial service to a (previously arranged) USAID Pride Month event upstairs in the same building, where I joined former Congressman Barney Frank; the International Program Director of the Williams Institute at UCLA, Andrew Park; and USAID’s Senior Human Rights, LGBTI, and Social Inclusion Advisor Ajit Joshi as the fourth speaker to USAID staff gathered in the Nelson Mandela Room. Our topic: how international development efforts might best address the plight of LGBTI persons around the world – and what USAID’s optimal role should be in this context. Continue reading Pride Month – a time for international leadership

Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women)

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Almost from the outset, I realized my error. Once again my idealism had gotten the best of me, even if to me it had all seemed so clear and pressing. The eight or nine officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development who were seated around that conference table at USAID headquarters more than three years ago just before the Christmas break were all committed to the introduction of the political economy analysis (PEA) tool into USAID’s core set of analytical approaches. Yet my pitch (or was it a plea?) went flat. In that obscure meeting long ago, I was making the case that limiting our evaluation of what constitutes good, effective, and sustainable international development requires more than just the analysis and consideration of power and money, and more than just viewing democracy and governance as a competitive “political game”. People are complicated creatures, and sometimes we are motivated by other reasons…moral reasons. Sometimes people choose to collaborate instead of compete, or chose to care about others rather than use them.

Their facial expressions said it all. Some showed a glint of pity for my naïveté, others were more openly disdainful. How did I ever get to be a political appointee and senior advisor without appreciating what they each knew to be irrefutable and fundamental doctrine, that Homo economicus rules? My curious assertion was that many (I believe I said “most”) people in developing countries are also deeply moved in their aspirations, choices, character, and actions by a moral compass. I argued that while PEA was undoubtedly a useful tool for USAID, it could not be applied without at least some room at the edges for the influence of morality and ethics – but it was evident that my modest challenge to orthodoxy would be resisted.

Homo economicus is well described by Peter Ubel as a “creature of coldly calculated selfishness, dispassionately maximizing its best interests even if that comes at the expense of others”. And the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m writing about Homo economicus very, very early on a dark and quiet Christmas morning. My thoughts at this moment are also simultaneously drawn to that compelling historically unexpected alternative paradigm that was introduced to the world more than two millennia ago in the humility of a birth in a stable in Bethlehem.

I used to find Christmas in America nearly unbearable. The word “crass” doesn’t begin to capture the avaricious, manipulative, cynical view of humanity that has converted a celebration of one of human history’s most poignant examples of love, sacrifice, caring, and wisdom into an orgy at which Homo economicus presides and exalts. Fortunately I have moved on and now have found my own ways to ignore the crassness. I have learned how to center down on Christmas. And while I am a Christian, I would think that the story of Jesus that had its start in that manger is one that transcends any religion, with his life and message of love, humility, peace, and caring offering a profound challenge to the earthly rule of Homo economicus.

Homo economicus has no use for love or peace, except as sentiments to be exploited for commercial gain. The articles of faith of the doctrine of Power and Money haven’t built their vast financial empires or victorious armies on the virtues of caring, gentleness, or humility. There’s no trace of love in the arrogant smirks or in the manipulative, condescending words of the most successful (i.e. wealthy and powerful) exemplars of power and money. Homo economicus is all too real, and USAID is right – we ought to take him (and occasionally her) seriously. He is regularly embodied now and throughout history in a never ceasing cavalcade of “successful” people who are distinguished by (or loathed for) their limitless greed, self-centeredness, cruelty, bluster, arrogance, and disdain for lesser mortals. Donald Trump is but the latest variation along this theme, yet like Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler, or innumerable other tycoons or despots, somehow this type of person always attracts a devoted following.

Why do we make disproportionate room in our lives for power and money, but seem to relegate love to the edges? Why do we build our media and news around stories of extreme violence, sensational greed, and the callous lives of the unthinking, uncaring wealthy elites and self-absorbed celebrities, with very little room for genuine “good news” stories? Why do we get so exercised about those who prosper through avarice and corruption, while entirely forgetting to recognize those who quietly but steadfastly pursue lives of remarkable integrity? Why do we honor experience (with no moral denominator) and ignore wisdom? Why do we say so little about (and fund so minimally) such extraordinarily successful examples of peacebuilding such as the Peace Corps, yet complain endlessly about government dysfunction? Why do we think of human rights only as a list of grievous violations, instead of as an agenda that – if actively promoted – leads inexorably to the universal recognition of human dignity? Why do we fail to recognize the hard and selfless work of human rights activists and civil society folk around the world, who make extraordinary sacrifices in their quest for making our world just a little better? Continue reading Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women)

It has to stop. Now.

 

Beyonce

As someone who has been in love with Uganda since my first visit there 33 years ago, it is troubling that many people around the world now associate that country primarily for its extreme intolerance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons. I have lived and worked in Uganda, and am a frequent visitor there. I am blessed with many Ugandan friends, and I know that there’s much to love and respect about this country. Yet as much of the rest of the world begins to mature into a greater recognition that human beings are by nature complicated and diverse – and that “normal” now needs to be redefined to embrace universal human dignity regardless of varying sexual orientations and non-conforming gender identities – Uganda sadly stands out as one prominent exception.

Uganda has indeed earned its status as a global pariah of homophobic intolerance, with almost all of its leaders and the vast majority of its population clinging tightly to these bigoted convictions. Yet Uganda is also a proxy for many other countries who share a similar lack of recognition of the dignity that each and every person ought to be distinguished by and respected for, regardless of their diversity. There are far too many “Ugandas” throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union, but (for reasons that ought to concern all of us much more) they do not attract equivalent or warranted media attention or the opprobrium that is their due.

It was therefore with deep heartache and particular dismay that I just received yet more troubling news from Uganda.

On October 21st my dear Ugandan friend, Beyoncé Karungi, was attacked and severely beaten by five men. Only the intervention of a courageous friend saved her from even worse injuries or death. Beyoncé was targeted because she is transgender, and this isn’t the first time she has suffered violence at the hands of her countrymen. But Beyoncé is also a leader among human rights activists, the founder of Transgender Equality Uganda (TEU), and a very generous woman who has taken many young and highly vulnerable Ugandan transgender women into her care. Being evicted from their homes at an early age is not uncommon for Ugandan transgender persons, but through the kindness and concern of Beyoncé some have found at least temporary refuge in her modest home or in other “safe homes”. Following this recent attack and Beyoncé’s temporary incapacitation, these young transwomen are left particularly vulnerable at a time when vicious attacks on Ugandan transgender women and transgender men are sharply on the rise. Within the past month, we now know that at least two transmen and three transwomen (including Beyoncé) have been assaulted.

Ugandan LGBTI civil society has been the principle bulwark protecting LGBTI Ugandans against hatred and violence arising from a vicious and manipulative political culture and from homophobic incitement having its roots in certain perverse forms of Christian evangelism. Transgender Ugandans have largely been understood simply to be “gay” (even though many are heterosexual), but the transgender phenomenon isn’t well understood in Uganda. It’s still too early to say whether the recent upsurge in transphobic violence is specifically taking aim at gender nonconforming people in their own context as transgender persons, or whether this is but another bout of undifferentiated gay-bashing. In either case, Uganda’s police care little about this type of persecution and do even less to intervene to protect Uganda’s LGBTI citizens. Indicative of this, Beyoncé took almost no time to conclude that making a complaint to the police about her attack would be both useless and counter-productive. Continue reading It has to stop. Now.

Awkward but obvious questions from Kabul

 

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I really wasn’t pondering the obvious question. Instead, I was absorbed with watching the muscular, handsome Afghan man standing there with his luggage cart. He was heavily bearded and tall, with intense but kindly eyes. Dressed in t-shirt and jeans, he and his young son were being welcomed by two elderly men – relatives no doubt – who each sported traditional Afghan Pashtun attire. We were all among the throng of people who waited in the arrivals hall for the “all clear” after the truck bomb’s powerful explosion just 30 minutes earlier at the main gate to Kabul Airport. Oddly, no one in the arrivals hall seemed particularly anxious or distressed; the three Afghan men were entirely focused on the antics of the young toddler perched on the cart. It was a tender family scene, in a country now much better known for the type of intense brutality and violence that had just claimed the lives of five people only a short distance away.

The question awaited an answer. Why was I here? Officially I’d come to Kabul to assist as a senior policy advisor, to work alongside a multinational team of engineers on the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s transportation sector. Given Afghanistan’s widespread insecurity it seemed an ambitious venture at best, although there was little doubt that without roads, rail, and air transportation, Afghanistan’s development prospects would continue to remain mostly theoretical. Yet “development” is elusive in Afghanistan, a predicament shared with all countries afflicted by terrorism and instability. My effectiveness as a foreign advisor raised many troubling questions in such circumstances.

Once the airport reopened, my security team helped me don a heavy Kevlar vest and installed me in an armored Land Cruiser for the relatively short drive through some of Kabul’s most dangerous streets, to the hotel. Actually “hotel” is an inadequate descriptor; once past the crude and unremarkable metal gate in the small street I entered a high-walled maze of security checks and screenings, finally arriving at the heart of a fortified compound more reminiscent of a medieval fortress than a hotel. Everywhere I looked, there were European, North American, even Gurkha men each equipped with weaponry sufficient to blow away a small village.  Their nonchalance and casual manner made it clear that “normal” now had to be redefined.

The fortified compound was as much my prison as my safe haven. A pleasant enough prison to be sure in the circumstances – with rose beds and gardens, a pool and a gym, and basic but comfortably furnished air conditioned rooms. Yet I wouldn’t be able to leave this compound without the armored vehicles that brought me here. The upper slopes of the surrounding jagged lunar-grey mountains were visible above the high walls, but I would see very little of Kabul from this location. That also meant that connecting with Afghan people – civil society, government officials, women, ordinary folk – would be nearly impossible.

That separation is corrosive. While international development practitioners do possess experience and skills honed by project assignments around the world, our ability to support and sustain positive change rests entirely with the quality of the relationships we forge with our local counterparts. While a few Afghan staff do endure the intrusive daily security screenings to come to work with me and my team each day, the notion of broad engagement with the Afghan public on development issues was an absurdity. A debilitating absurdity too; it would be nearly impossible to learn about Afghan culture, values, aspirations, and history from behind my fortified walls. Continue reading Awkward but obvious questions from Kabul