Friday, December 02, 2005

Moments of Clarity...Through Fogs of Diesel Fumes

They keep on happening, moments of clarity, and they are truly appreciated here. One of the pristine moments happens daily. Right around 2 pm, as the post-lunch coma clears, and I’m done spending an hour of the workday reading the web and IMing. The sun directly above this elevated city seems to clear the fog, and somehow the diesel fumes aren’t as suffocating. The day is warmer at this hour, balmy this time of year. So I go make a cup of tea and pace around our office courtyard with a warm cup in one hand, a cigarette in the other. A moment—as I start to wake up and try to wrap my head around this mess.

Most of the time, despite life not being terribly hectic here, my head feels like it’s spinning. Partly this is due to the newness of this all—a new job, a new career field, a new technology, a new industry, a new, new, new. I remember reading, on another aid worker’s blog from here, that Kabul and Afghanistan is ripe with contradictions. Not to say that the U.S. and developed world isn’t, we just hide our social and cultural contradictions so well. We mask them with a barrage of free press and ready information. We bury them with layers upon layers of transparency to the point where everything becomes opaque. Here contradictions are as clear as the midday sun from the surrounding peaks. Here it’s hard to be oblivious to the contradictions. This is especially true, I believe, while trying to do development work. The pace of the development and the state of things on the ground simply serve to add to the difficulty of navigating the contradictions.

Contradictions abound at every level from the trivial to the indefensible. After dinner today, while sitting on the couch in our well-heated TV room, I remarked to two of my colleagues that we were sitting there watching highlights of a South African table soccer tournament. We’re not oblivious, but we are completely removed from the world around us. Though that is quite saddening on its own, how removed we are at times, the pitiful part was that we left the channel on for a few minutes after we all acknowledged having reached a new level in idiot box watching. That was a new low in my life.

The indefensible level of the contradictions come mainly in the form of corruption and complications in doing work at the higher levels here; always inexcusable, but especially so in the context here. And it’s not just the Afghanis that are doing the fleecing here. The Americans, of course, operate at the opaque levels. I have no personal experience, but I do get to hear stories of ministers and companies and warlords and drug kingpins all playing the corruption scheme here.

I got a bit of insight into the newly re-fledgling justice system here. I met w/ a friend of a friend who is working here. (Got to go out to a nice French restaurant and have duck breast...Ok, nice by my readjusted standards.) He’s here working on developing the public defender system. Amazing work done by him and moreover the locals that actually are serving as the PDs. Much of the fatalism of Islamic culture flies in the face of the American ideals underpinning the PD system, i.e. everything is in God’s hands and if you’re innocent and executed by a toppled wall of bricks (that no longer happens here, officially as far as I know, w/ the Taliban removed from power), eh, you have paradise awaiting you. So don’t worry so much about this finite and temporal life we live. The moment of clarity on this front came during the conversation that night. My dinner companion said that his definition of a client here was someone who couldn’t afford to pay a bribe, no condescension in his voice. A few moments later, in somewhat of an adulatory tone, he said that the judges were really good about following the letter of the law and procedure, and that with that, they have a very high success rate, relatively speaking I believe. Moments of inspiration and hope abound here, side-by-side an acceptance of the situation and daunting circumstances. A contradiction in itself, yet contradictions and clarity seem to be twinned here.

There is a great article from WaPo, published two Sundays ago. The accompanying online chat (linked in the sidebar on the article’s webpage) briefly mentions the company and project I’m working on, complaining that an 8A company is ill equipped to do the work here. But as the article points out, a very large US company seems to be failing in simply putting up schools and clinics, not even staffing or running them. I’m not in the right position to decide the quality of work of the company I’m working for, my junior status and bias and all. But I do know that everything here seems difficult, slow and riddled with contradictions. My insight is nothing new or revelatory here. I know the same is true if you’re building a clinic or roads or an oil refinery in many parts of the world, let alone in the donor nations.

Here it seems, that no matter how or how much you grease the tracks, it doesn’t make a lick of difference. They were destroyed over the past 20 years, the tracks. They are all torn up, at best. Often, they aren’t even on the ground anymore.


Shannon said...

"A client is someone who couldn't afford to pay a bribe."

I'm not sure what to say. That's a very insightful comment.

Why does it seem that in the "developped" world we assume that things like "democracy" and "development" and "civil ociety" happen overnight?

Anonymous said...

Exactly right, Shannon -- if I guess one insightful comment (QA's) deserves another (yours)!

So easily we forget that, while we can (and do) provide knowledge of the law, fiscal resources, and raw manpower, there is little we can do but wait for the locals to become mentally and morally prepared for democracy and civility. It takes a long time to raise a collection of people up from acting only on unmediated desire, violence, and instinct to being a considering, rational, moral, and decent society.

- Andrew M.

Q. A. Shah said...

Hey Andrew and Shannon,
So I was typing a response to both of your comments, and realized it was turning out quite long. And I promised a friend another post over the weekend. So I'm posting my reply on the main page.


Elizabeth said...

From "inside" Afghanistan, I would like to say that there's a hell of a lot more tracks than many expats working here would like to think. Don't give up now, Q.A. Read AREU's work on the sub-national administration and then come back to us. There is a society here, there are norms, there are tracks... they are not our tracks, they do not make our lives easier, but they are here and this is an established culture, society, country, people.

What we see are the money-grubbers who have risen to the top to get money, while the "real" Afghans stay close to the ground to do their duty to their fellow man. We don't meet the good ones or hear about them in the news. But they are there. You have to go out and find them.

Q. A. Shah said...

I had posted a comment before. It's gone now, damn blogger. Even had a mid-sentence link and

I wont give up yet. I'll wait till march--contract is up then. But, you are right about there being a society, culture and norms here. Ones that work well. Our companies big boss has been visiting here, and the other night we were discussing and explaining the hawala system to the other americans here. the big boss is originally from india, and is just generally really knowledgable. But that system still runs here, and runs well. Its a perfect example of what you are talking about. A well run system one based on a lot more trust than you'll find in western societies. But it's not how we do business and makes our lives no easier. I'd love to find out if any NGOs have utilized the system from their base countries.

My perspective, of course, is shaped by my circumstances here. I've met many wonderful afghanis, and can't say that i've met any that i really dislike. I just also get to hear first-hand stories about money-grubers. Of course, headlines and stories are always about the exceptions, not the norm. To be frank, i have more decent "real" people here than i have in pakistan. i see more reasons to have hope in afghanistan than in pakistan, where much of the population seems to have lost their dignity and humanity. Good people are here, and you don't have to go to far out to find them...probably just a few steps away from the ritzy offices in walled off compounds. Thank you for the reminder.


Elizabeth said...

Use of the hawala system in Afghanistan nowadays is discouraged because it is widely acknowledged to be a means of money-laundering for drug lords, who are of course also warlords.

They wanted to use it for NSP but people kind of blanched...

Q. A. Shah said...

The paperless system is advantageous for illicit purposes. But I still think it's terrible that they are trying to break down the system. I don't know the going rates, but for expats from local and muslim countries (and other developing countries too?) in a lot of the western countries, it's still used to get money back to places where modern "conveniences" don't exist or are probably too expensive.

Do the locals up in your parts support the efforts to dismantle it? And how much of the pressure is coming from the US in "anti-terrorism" efforts? I remember there being a lot of talk about linking it to the method terrorist orgs fund themselves.

And lastly, whats NSP?