New aid programs encourage Afghans to choose local development plans that suit rural areas where most live
Jul. 24, 2005. 01:00 AM

For centuries, people in the village of Sabzikhail went to bed with the setting of the sun.

There wasn’t much else to do after darkness fell in the lush green valley a two-hour drive north of Kabul. Only wealthy families could literally afford to burn the midnight oil.

But tonight, village council member Nadjibullah Bohaduri says he’ll be watching TV, most likely one of the Bollywood love stories popular with many Afghans, thanks to a micro-hydroelectric station built a year ago with Canadian financial assistance.

A generator on a dam the size of a backyard swimming pool, fed by a fast-flowing stream, lights up the 110 houses in the village, Bohaduri tells a group of visiting dignitaries from Kabul.

“Having light at night affects us mentally,” he says. “Now that we have light we can stay up later, watch TV, listen to the radio. Women can do their housework and students can do their homework with proper light.”

The burning light bulb is also a tangible sign that the government in Kabul is starting to extend its services and influence beyond the capital into the rural areas that are home to an estimated 70 per cent of Afghans.

And that is crucial for the success of the reforms initiated by the government of President Hamid Karzai, says Christopher Alexander, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, because the country’s future won’t be decided in Kabul or the provincial capitals.

“Reporters, diplomats, all come to Afghanistan and mostly spend their time in the cities. But Afghanistan is not about cities, it’s about villages.”

Mohammed Haneef Atmar, Afghanistan’s minister of rural rehabilitation and development, says foreign aid has been crucial in allowing the country to absorb serious economic and social shocks.

Thanks to reforms initiated by the Karzai government and a massive infusion of foreign aid, Atmar says, Afghanistan has experienced significant economic growth and has been able to cope with the return of 3 million refugees from Pakistan and the worst drought in recent history.

Atmar says two of the most successful programs — supported by donations from Canada, Japan and the European Union — are the National Solidarity Program (NSP) and Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan (MISFA).

The NSP program aims to promote good local governance and empower communities to implement their own development plans. MISFA focuses on the poorest and most vulnerable households to promote sustainable rural development.

Despite their successes, the programs face obstacles from bandits, the continuing insurgency and a boom in the growing of opium-producing poppies for the world’s heroin markets.

While bandits and insurgents are being countered by the fledgling Afghan National Army with the backing of coalition forces, opium production goes unchecked because there is no alternative crop that could generate profits similar to those for poppies, which account for more than 50 per cent of Afghanistan’s gross national product.

Atmar says poppy eradication won’t work without increased international aid to both communities that currently grow poppies and those that might be tempted to join the boom.

Under the NSP program, each village elects a village council to be trained by a designated non-governmental organization in basics of governance and administration.

Then, through a process of consultation within the community and with neighbouring villages, these councils decide on a list of priorities for local development.

“We are making history here,” says Atmar. “This is the first time in the history of Afghanistan that the government gives people the power to decide on their development priorities.”

Once a community comes up with a priority project, the government allocates money for its realization — usually about $30,000 per community, Atmar says. The money is paid in three instalments and the projects are audited to ensure that the money is well spent.

In the last 18 months, the government has allocated $144 million for the program, which covers 8,500 villages or one-quarter of Afghanistan’s rural communities, Atmar said.

With less than 20 per cent of rural Afghan communities having access to safe drinking water, about 45 per cent of villages invest their government grants in safe drinking water and irrigation projects.

About 21 per cent of NSP grants go to the construction of gravel roads that give isolated communities their first year-round access to markets, services and education.

“But more importantly,” Atmar notes, “these roads pave the way for their participation in the political process.”

About 20 per cent of NSP grants are spent on micro-hydro electricity projects. That’s the route Bohaduri’s village took, after it learned the grant money wouldn’t be enough to fund its first choice, a medical clinic.

Next on Sabzikhail’s priority list are a larger school and community hall, Bohaduri says.

Haider Ghulam, a development expert and an adviser to Atmar, says the NSP provides much more than the government-sponsored services most of the developed world takes for granted.

The individualism that has been the definitive coping mechanism for an Afghan society ravaged by 25 years of war is giving way to collective forms of governance that benefit all, says Ghulam.

“People are learning a tradition of getting together and working together. This will help us with national unity in the long term.”