International development minister Josee Verner’s surprise visit to Afghanistan on the weekend had exactly the opposite effect as was intended.
Instead of showcasing CIDA’s reconstruction efforts in the country that is now our major aid recipient, it underscored how uncertain progress has been. Verner was apparently unable to visit any of her department’s ongoing projects, due to security concerns and awkward timing. Her trip coincided with Eid, a major celebration in the Muslim world, and a holiday even for aid workers.
Norine MacDonald, a Canadian aid worker who has been in Kandahar the last six months with the Senlis Council, an international development think- tank, was appalled at the lack of foresight: “ It’s like showing up on Christmas Day and expecting people to come into work to see you.”
In the end, the minister was confined to heavily guarded premises in Kabul and a staged photo- op with selected girls who were handed new school bags by the minister. This was meant to symbolize Canada’s commitment to the education of girls, but it looked more like bad advance work and tokenism.
Nor did it answer the question: What is CIDA doing in Afghanistan? We know that close to $ 1 billion in development assistance has been committed over 10 years ( an amount still dwarfed by the military budget). Senior foreign affairs officials summoned journalists recently for a PowerPoint presentation, replete with colourful charts, laying out Canada’s development efforts — everything from bridge building to providing microcredit to supporting community governance to polio eradication. There is no doubt that plans exist on paper, but it is harder to find evidence of concrete results.
Khorshied Samad, an Americanborn journalist who is married to Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada, insists that CIDA is doing good work in Kabul and elsewhere, and expressed surprise that the minister couldn’t get to some of these projects. She used to work in Kabul as bureau chief for Fox News and says 90 per cent of the country “ is in a peaceful situation, there is progress and people are going about their lives.” But the media focuses on the other 10 per cent, the war- torn southern region, “ so it’s making the country sound like it’s going to hell in a handbasket.”
That said, Samad worries that the money CIDA allocates isn’t getting to places that need it quickly enough. “ That is very frustrating to the Afghan people because their situation is ‘ I need it yesterday.’ ” She says the West, too, is impatient for results, but the problems are so immense that it will take a generation to repair Afghanistan. As for aid, “ a lot of money has gone into the wrong pockets and that’s regrettable,” but the majority of Afghans, she says, are honest and desperate for change.
The Harper government frequently cites women’s equality as one ratio- nale for Canada’s mission. Samad believes “ their hearts are in the right place,” but notes that CIDA has only earmarked $ 2 million of its total funding directly for Afghan women.
For MacDonald, the immediate problem is displaced Afghan civilians who are starving in makeshift camps in the south, one of them 15 minutes from the main Canadian base in Kandahar. She doesn’t accept that neither CIDA nor the military can get food and medical help to these people, who have been displaced by bombing raids, drought or poverty brought on by the destruction of their poppy farms. “ I don’t want to hear from CIDA any more about why they can’t ( deliver aid). That’s what the taxpayers are paying them to do.”
Besides responding to a humanitarian crisis, emergency aid might win Canada friends in the area — and greater security for our soldiers, she says. Her organization wants Prime Minister Harper to push our NATO allies to organize emergency food relief, to appoint a special envoy — someone with a forceful personality — to get turf- conscious agencies working together. If the military has to deliver food, she says, why not? “ We’re at a tipping point and there is no way the Canadian government is being upfront with the Canadian people,” says MacDonald, who has been working in Afghanistan since 2005. “( Kandahar) is a complete war zone.” And the Taliban is winning militarily and in the battle for hearts and minds.
However, the last thing she wants is a withdrawal of troops: that, she says, would be abandoning the country to al- Qaeda and the Taliban. But rebuilding efforts have to be more immediate, more visible, more widespread. That is what Samad wants, too. It is what everyone says they want, including Verner. It is still not clear that is really happening.