afghanistan foreign aid

Somewhere high in the dent of the shale grey mountains is a narrow water course. More than a stream, but not quite a river, it flows for four months of the year through the canyons of the various offshoot valleys towards the flat sandy vistas of the lower Panjshir River.

The river itself tracks a path from the high Hindu Kush range, near Badakshan, a five hour drive north from Kabul, along pockmarked and often precipitously narrow roads that pass bare orchards, goat herds and a litany of Soviet era war junk — tanks mainly, and rocket shells made into roofing struts.

'There were always problems getting water for our village', Sidiq Rawi says, eyes tracking towards the peaks he grew up under in the Panjshir Valley.

'See this stream, all these were dug by hand. They started right up there', he says, waving a Patu-draped arm. Four hours it takes to walk to where he points.  But 100 years ago, the locals thought nothing of digging the multi-tiered irrigation system to funnel water from the mountain to their crops.

'That wouldn't happen now', he says with a rueful smile. 'People just sit and wait for some aid organisation to come along and sort it out.'

It's a variation on a familiar theme in Afghanistan.

After twelve years of Western aid and more than US$100 billion poured over the country from America alone (with promises of $US16 billion more until 2017), some locals worry that donors have unwittingly fostered a welfare state, one which may not have the collective will, either at government or the individual level, to weather the withdrawal of troops and aid come December.

More than that, there are concerns aid delivery here has irreversibly altered certain cultural practices, although as many expat Afghans lament, the general work ethic hasn't been much to brag about since the civil war enshrined corruption and bureaucracy as the method du jour.

UN data suggests corruption has cost the country US$4 billion since 2009 (Afghanistan ranks with Somalia and North Korea as the most corrupt of 176 countries).

Nancy Hatch Dupree, the iconic American doyenne of Kabul, is less cynical about the future of her adopted country, but is scathing about aid and its dangers. Hatch Dupree arrived in the early 1960s as a US diplomat's wife and never left, preferring to stay and study the culture and ethnography of the country which still runs hot with tribal prejudice and infighting.

She recalls a region in the north, home to a series of villages each with little more than a few assorted extended families and their livestock. A couple of times a year, she says from her office at Kabul University, home to her education aid organisation, these villages would gather to build small dams or fix water channels that fed their land.

The day would be one of celebration and work, and would be planned and anticipated for weeks in advance. For many youngsters, it was their only chance to mingle with new people, and for families to scout potential partners.

That doesn't happen anymore. Aid organisations in their wisdom have created macro-managed water systems, monitored by Westerners in armored 4WDs, she says. It has killed the party.

Back under the snow dusted branches of a mulberry orchard in Rawi's old village, he laughs at how incomprehensible it is that Afghanistan could hoist itself up from warring nation to global participant, at least in the short term. Having lived in Australia for 26 years, he sees cultural flaws as a serious barrier to Afghan nation building.

He tells of programs to build wells, laughs that the internationals build them too deep, then bring in generators to pump the water; generators that are too expensive for locals to maintain, on the off chance the men nominated as caretakers don't dismantle them to sell for parts.

The question is whether Afghans themselves are ready for change and are willing to quell corruption. As an Irish colleague says of his own country, itself in the grip of a debilitating economic crisis and enmeshed corruption, it's about whether constituents themselves can walk with purpose to the juncture he calls 'the fed-up point'.

Hatch Dupree thinks they can, but only once the internationals have gone and left Afghanistan to fend for itself. The tough love principle may be all that's left if outgoing President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign an agreement to keep aid and NATO forces flowing after this year.

But if short term pain is the only route to long term gain for Afghanistan, what could be the resultant injuries: reemergence of the Taliban appealing to the downtrodden? Complete failure of the economy and consequent support for a new type of government from its eastern or western neighbours? Or the influx of the new superpower, China, to make a play for the country's rumored resource riches?

Unless the people of Afghanistan get to being truly fed up, it's likely that whatever change comes will be slow to help the water-starved farmers and the unemployed slummers.

Photo courtesy of the author.