Kabuli Balloons and Kandahari Bicycles: One Afghan’s Perspective on Foreign Aid

by Sunny in Kabul on 5/30/2013 · 7 comments

You may have heard that, last weekend, an American artist and Afghan volunteers handed out 10,000 pink balloons in Kabul. His “art” inspired a range of emotions, from those who thought this was a wonderful way to promote peace, to those that thought the whole thing was a big waste of time. In the “waste of time” camp was an independent Afghan journalist who goes by the pen name “Companero,” who asked me if I’d post his thoughts on the whole thing.

In 2006, when I was a student at Kabul Medical University, we were told that an American woman representing an aid organization was going to visit our university to discuss an important aid project that she planned to implement in Afghanistan. After she arrived, she came on the stage to talk about her “important” aid project. To our surprise she told us that she wanted to buy hundreds of bicycles and distribute them to women in Kandahar so that they could more easily get from one place to the next.

A lot of students got angry, and one of them, a Pashtun student from the south, stood up and told her that “Kandahari women don’t need your f***ing bicycles. They need food and clean drinking water!”

Obviously this woman didn’t have a clue about the conditions for women in Afghanistan in general, and especially in the southern city of Kandahar, where you rarely see any women at all in the bazaars.

For the last 12 years, foreigners who hardly know anything about my people, culture, and my country have been coming to Afghanistan. They bring their absurd project ideas, without consulting Afghans whether those projects are practical and without learning whether it will do any good for my people and my country.

Every year aid organizations spend millions on pointless projects, ranging from one-day workshops and seminars about human rights, womens’ rights and children rights’, to funding kite flying festivals, to fashion shows (where most of the audience are foreigners), to printing black and white portraits of Afghans and hanging them in the city.

Once example of this has been the Sound Central Festival. Over the last few years some foreign “artists” have organized a rock festival in Kabul where a couple of hundred people, most of them foreigners, show up for the music. These rock projects cost thousands of dollars. If such projects were doing any good, I would see their point, but they don’t. Why? First of all, the majority of us, of Afghans, have never heard of rock music. Secondly, we don’t know what they are singing about, since they mostly sing in English (even though some Afghan band sometimes sing in Dari). When many Afghans see rock musicians with all their fast and crazy moves, playing  that loud music, they just laugh at them.

I have had many arguments with foreigners, including my own friends, about the uselessness of these projects, and I have always been accused of being anti-art. That’s not it at all. I’m not against art. What I am against is stupid and useless projects.

This past Saturday, as Kabulis were trying to recover from the insurgent attack on the International Organization for Migration (IOM) the night before, they saw some Afghans distributing pink balloons as part of another “ art” project to promote peace in Afghanistan. As usual, the idea for the balloon project came from a New York based artist who hardly knows my culture and people. Backing him up, distributing balloons, were a bunch of young Afghans who think that Afghanistan starts in Shar-e Naw and ends  in Wazir Akbar Khan (two of the more expensive neighborhoods in the capital city).

Underscoring how uncertain life in Kabul can be, as the volunteers were distributing pink balloons in the city, another suicide bomber blew himself up when Kabul police surrounded his house.

The pink balloons were distributed to shopkeepers, vendors and beggars and were told that it was to promote peace. My Afghan reporter friends told me that most of the receivers of the pink balloons didn’t know why they got them in the first place. As for the beggars? They were confused why they were being given balloons instead of money or food.

When I pointed out the uselessness of the project on Twitter, I was told (by foreigners, not Afghans), that I was just  judgmental and naive.

After the collapse of the brutal Taliban regime in 2001, foreigners, without consulting Afghans, started delivering aid and implementing projects according to their own priorities. They never listened to us and never asked us what we wanted. Whatever they thought would be good for us was shoved down our collective throats without asking us whether we wanted or needed any of it in the first place. The result? Total failure.

I want to ask these foreigners if, after 11 years of absurd and unwanted projects like pink balloons, they ever stopped to ask the people they’re trying to help what they want. What do Afghans need? We need security, schools, universities, hospitals , roads, food, drinking water, and jobs. What we don’t need is 10,000 pink balloons.

Foreigners: instead of talking to the same Afghans who always tell what you want to hear, do us all a favor: find some Afghans who disagree with you once in a while. Let them explain things from a different point of view. Otherwise your good intentions will mean nothing and nothing will ever change for Afghans.

(Photo via AFP)

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Source: Sunny in Kabul

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This post was written by...

– author of 15 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Happily married, cynic, and I long to drink the Kool-Aid. Two tours in Iraq, once as an Infantry officer, once as a Civil Affairs officer supporting a PRT. Now it's civilian development work in Afghanistan since 2009. I want to believe, it's just that the lies are so laughable.

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hamdard May 31, 2013 at 9:15 am

I don’t understand how you can speak for all the Afghans, and be so sure that everyone feels the same way. I’m originally from Uzbekistan, and let me tell you that I for one enjoyed all those “stupid rock and whatnot concerts and gatherings”… You know why? Because, compared to all the Uzbek TV, Uzbek newspapers, and Uzbek concerts, those exchanges were different. As a young woman, these concerts and gatherings let me see things differently. I started questioning what I was always told – get married and pop out 3 kids in 5 years. They in fact empowered me.

I think you are just taking the most extreme cases and making big deal out of them. I agree there could be some crazy stuff, but I do not think that the majority of it is unjustified, lame and does not bring anything to people. So stop speaking on behalf of “your people and your culture.”

Also, I thought it was ironic of you to tell a story about your Pashtun pal’s getting angry at a person who came to get your opinion, and then complain that stupid foreigners would not want to listen to Afghans.

MK May 31, 2013 at 8:11 pm

I have no doubt that this is a sincere reflection of how you see things, but it is simply not accurate. While there have been plenty of ill-conceived projects, many had their origin in a request from an Afghan institution or community. Indeed, much of the ‘shadow governance’ that Karzai and various provincial governors complained about for years came about because PRTs and ISAF bypassed the government to go directly to communities, creating projects and spending money in uncoordinated and unsustainable ways.

The problems often arise because there aren’t systems in place to support the desired outcome (e.g. Ministry of Education support to staff and run a new school), or because the procurement or construction are vulnerable to corruption (both Afghan and international). And those problems are not all imposed from the outside – many are reflections of the reality of Afghan society after 30 years of war.

On this point I would ask why you don’t hold the Afghan government responsible for the billions in direct budget support it has squandered or stolen over the same period. It’s all well and good to blame the outsiders for being ignorant and out of touch, but what’s GIRoA’s excuse?

Also, I’m fascinated by your complete disdain for human rights education. I take it we should stop spending political capital on supporting the EVAW, too?

There’s plenty of blame to go around, and while the international community deserves a HUGE share, if Afghans aren’t willing to recognize their complicity in this fiasco nothing will ever change.

Sunny in Kabul June 6, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Quick question: what long-term good is the EVAW going to do? And whose “political capital” should we be expending to support this?

Barbara Murphy-Bridge June 3, 2013 at 6:20 am

Hmmmmm………I imagine a child’s face all smiles as she/he clutches a pink balloon and on the other hand a child who perhaps would have been better served with a bottle of water. BUT. Children and adults need a little whimsy in their lives , a little joy don’t you think ? So let’s do both in the future – the practical and the impractical . HOOPOE books in Dari-Pashto language, stories based on Afghan folktales by Idries Shah –
And if any Canadians are reading this excellent article check this link
and consider ‘adopt-a-student ‘ which enables men and women to attend classes at the Afghan-Canadian Community Center for English/Computer/ Business in Kandahar.
You can also give English lessons via Skype from your computer to the student’s computer in Kandahar.

Sunny in Kabul June 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm

I’m assuming HOOPOE is your example of the impractical, since they ship those books all the way from California in a container, versus sourcing it to an Afghan printer or publishing company. Or has this changed?

Barbara Murphy-Bridge June 10, 2013 at 3:08 am

My comment was badly phrased if it inferred that Hoopoe was an example of the impractical .

Hoopoe books are published in Kabul, Afghanistan .

John Jennings June 4, 2013 at 7:07 am

Dear Companero,
Now you see how it is – if you didn’t already.
A young feminist from somewhere else rubs your nose in your own ignorance, backwardness & stupidity. She mischaracterizes your bicycles story in strained effort to gin up ‘irony.’ Then she orders you — ORDERS you! — to ‘stop speaking on behalf of your people and your culture.’ Never mind that you plainly feel the problem is foreigners listening to the wrong Afghans. Indeed, you specifically encouraged foreigners to ‘find some Afghans who disagree with them once in a while.’
The next takes issue with arguments you never made. It’s not clear you would disagree; you might have made some of those points yourself, had that been your focus. S/he then insinuates that you are a thug, because you oppose ‘human rights education’ that wastes money, ‘educates’ nobody and improves nothing except the bank balances of the ‘humanitarians’ implementing it.
The third, and least objectionable comment defends aid money, collected coercively from foreign taxpayers, being spent on ‘whimsy’ & ‘joy.’ I gather there is some question whether Afghans will ever become self-sufficient in whimsy & joy, even if they achieve physical safety, clean drinking water & jobs.
This is what you’re up against, Companero. I hope you’re ready for a long fight. This mindset – if that’s not too grand a term – has been around longer than you or I. It survived the Cold War and the Taliban.
Critical thinking and tough choices aren’t the ‘humanitarian’ community’s [or even the West’s] strong suit. But as long as they are able to misspend other people’s money, they will keep doing so.

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