In late 2008, I was a reporter for the Globe and Mail, preparing for my second assignment to Kandahar. I called up Lauryn Oates, a young aid worker who had spent years in Afghanistan, mainly training teachers.
Her work was generating buzz from journalists and Afghanistan watchers in British Columbia, where I was based. We met on a rainy December night in a fast-food restaurant and talked for three hours.
Two years earlier, I’d spent six weeks at the sprawling Kandahar Airfield Base in southern Afghanistan. Like most Canadian reporters, I visited forward operating bases, accompanied troops on foot patrols and watched soldiers train Afghan police.
It was a fascinating assignment, but offered a limited view of the country. For the most part, I was writing about military operations, though occasionally I would drive into Kandahar city with a translator to write about daily Afghan life.
Ms. Oates, by contrast, had travelled the entire country, training teachers, establishing schools and making contacts with officials involved in reconstructing the war torn country.
She said there were plenty of signs for hope. Record numbers of young women and girls were enrolled in schools and medical services were reaching rural regions. Tens of thousands of Diaspora were returning home.
But she also warned that corruption and mismanagement of donor funds were hindering the country’s reconstruction.
I vowed to return to Afghanistan to document the Afghanistan that Ms. Oates’ had seen. We began emailing periodically.
In late 2010, she wrote to me about her latest trip. She and other aid workers were worried about the future of Canadian aid projects once troops left in mid-2011.
I decided to apply for the Michener-Deacon fellowship to assess the impact of Canada’s aid initiatives. With the Canadian military and media poised to pull out, I thought the timing was apt.
By then, more than 150 Canadians – including a diplomat and journalist – had lost their lives in Afghanistan and hundreds of millions in taxpayers’ money had been spent. I wanted to know what Canada’s money had achieved.
The stakes were high. If, after a decade of involvement, Canada had faltered on these commitments, had its involvement been in vain?
I knew this kind of story required time and a travel budget. The Michener-Deacon Fellowship provided both, a rare gift these days for newspaper writers.
All told, the international community has spent about $57 billion in aid money to Afghanistan over the past decade, about $2 billion of which came from Canada.
I spent May and June travelling from my base in Toronto to Ottawa to interview the array of actors involved in delivering aid money abroad. They included officials with the Canadian International Development Agency, (CIDA), diplomats, retired bureaucrats and freelance aid evaluators.
Many were pessimistic. The optimism of the early years of the NATO-led invasion had waned. Some had grave misgivings about Canada’s decision to divert nearly half its aid money to Kandahar, where Canadian Forces were stationed. Many believed this decision was a mistake because the region was too dangerous to properly deliver aid. Nevertheless, Canada earmarked $200 million for three so-called signature projects: the Dahla Dam, 50 news schools and polio eradication.
My next stop was Afghanistan. In late June 2011, I flew to Kabul with Ms. Oates, who is a project director for a Canadian charity that trains teachers. Most of the group’s funds come from private donations, but CIDA provided money too. It was her 20th working trip to Afghanistan. It was my third. I had a lot of catching up to do.
I was struck by how rough Kabul looked compared to my first trip in 2006. Traffic was crippling, the blast walls were higher, and the stench from open sewers was overpowering in the summer heat. I saw firsthand the destabilizing effects of the so-called “aid juggernaut,” the term used to describe the tens of thousands of foreign aid workers, contractors and advisors who descended on the capital after 2001. Most of their work is conducted behind compound walls, and their interaction with ordinary Afghans was limited. Few travelled outside the capital.
Over the next two weeks, Ms. Oates introduced me to dozens of Afghans – from low-paid teachers in the countryside to senior cabinet ministers. We drove to one of the teacher-training centers in a village about 50 kilometres north of the city. There, she described how corrupt education officials tried to pocket portions of the teacher-training budget.
Corruption wasn’t the only problem hampering aid. There are hundreds of international NGOs operating in Afghanistan. Many provide overlapping services. Some leave the country when logistical and security problems become onerous, leaving programs unfinished.
Ms. Oates returned to Canada after two weeks. I stayed on for the rest of the summer. My biggest challenge from this point on was getting access to Canadian aid officials. Despite weekly efforts to arrange interviews, my requests, though not ignored, were postponed. I sent lists of questions, as requested. I wanted updates on Canada’s signature projects in Kandahar. I wanted to know if its aid goals had shifted in recent years. It wasn’t until the day before I left Afghanistan – in late August – that I was finally granted an interview with CIDA officials at the Canadian embassy.
As a result, I focused my efforts on interviewing Afghans. In late July, I travelled to Kandahar to speak to educators. Most were eager to talk to a Canadian journalist. For the most part, they were grateful for Canadian aid, worried about the impending military withdrawal and disillusioned that the money hadn’t made significant improvements in public services and the justice system.
Unlike U.S. aid programs, which focused on big-ticket capital projects, Canada channeled most of its aid money to Afghan national programs such as the National Solidarity Program, which funded small community projects in rural regions and the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, the main financing vehicle for Afghanistan development. The World Bank administers the fund, and Canada has contributed more than $500 million. Initially, I considered writing exclusively about these two programs: How they worked, how Canada’s funds were used and what they had achieved.
In the end, I chose a different tack. From the beginning, I wanted Afghans to feature prominently in the stories. I decided to tell the aid story through four characters: Ms. Oates, the aid worker; Mohammad Aqa, a senior Afghan finance official; Ehsan Ehsanullah, a Kandahar educator; and a young Kabuli businessman who’d won a lucrative military contract with the help of a Canadian non-governmental organization.
To me, their experiences were emblematic of what Canadian aid was capable of achieving, but also revealed where aid programs had faltered.
Ms. Oates’ teacher training program had educated nearly 2,000 teachers, but the programs were often compromised by bureaucratic delays. Mr. Ehsanullah founded and ran a flourishing vocational college, with help from Canada, but the centre was constantly on the brink of closing due to lack of funding.
Farhad Saafi was a young Kabul clothing manufacturer, who, with help from a Canadian non-governmental organization, won a multi-million dollar U.S. military contract to outfit the Afghan National Army with boots. The contract provided a boost to the local economy, but Mr. Saafi planned to close his plant once the U.S. contract expired.
And Mr. Aqa, a longtime finance official in the Afghan Treasury detailed the problems created when foreign technical assistants attempt to train Afghan public servants.
I left Afghanistan in late summer laden with 15 notebooks, stacks of aid reports and evaluations and two digital recorders filled with interviews. Back home in Canada, I met with the head of CIDA’s Afghanistan program, Bob Johnston, who filled in the blanks about Canada’s aid goals. As I suspected, he was disappointed that Afghanistan society hadn’t evolved more efficiently. But he defended Canada’s initiatives.
The result was a five-part series that ran in the National Post in late October.
I hope the series provided a window for Canadian readers into the complicated world of foreign aid delivery. I do think Canadian aid and diplomatic officials could have been more helpful on the ground in Afghanistan. Their reluctance to talk about the difficulties delivering aid in Kandahar gave the impression they had something to hide. I think this was unnecessary. I would have given them a wide berth. I too had trouble reaching the Dahla Dam area west of Kandahar city because of security concerns.
Since the series ran, I’ve received many emails from my contacts in Afghanistan. The spate of Kabul bombings last fall and a series of terrible domestic abuse were cause for despair. But they’re not without hope.
To me, the determination of ordinary Afghans is the main story of Afghanistan’s troubled reconstruction. I left the country thinking the best hope for Afghanistan’s future is its young people, those who came of age after the Taliban was ousted and who took advantage of the education and employment programs provided by the international community. I spent hours with these young men and women, in their offices and cafes, listening to their plans to rebuild their country. They are fluent in English, educated, digitally savvy and more committed, I believe, to building Afghan institutions than previous generations, many of whom were too traumatized by war.
In closing, I would quote Mr. Johnston, the head of CIDA’s task force for Afghanistan, who summed up Canada’s contribution to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. “Is it (life) better? Yes. Is it good enough? No.”
I wish to thank the Michener-Deacon fellowship volunteers who pore through these applications each year. As a freelancer, I would never have gathered the resources to spend two months in Afghanistan. I would strongly encourage journalists wanting to sink their teeth into a public-service issue to apply for the fellowship. I thank the foundation for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
2011 Michener-Deacon Fellow