“Their mistake was to treat Afghanistan like a blank slate. It wasn’t a blank slate.”

Fifteen years on, the optimism and idealism that characterised the post-9/11 US and NATO interventions in Afghanistan have long since faded.

“Afghan households are now worse off than 15 years ago,” said Adam Pain from the Swedish University of Agricultural Science (SLU) at a recent Overseas Development Institute event.

Learning the hard way that constructing a country from the ruins without sufficient knowledge of its context or social fabric is at best, flawed, and at worst, detrimental, the international development community, according to Ashley Jackson from the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC), must now face up to their failures.

The 5th October 2016 marks the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, to be attended by 70 countries and 30 international organisations, and aiming to support peace, reconciliation and prosperity for Afghans. But as with the past decade of such conferences, Ashley doesn’t hold high hopes.

“International strategy has been deeply contradictory: the institutions in place in Afghanistan either don’t exist or don’t function,” she said. “Despite great hope in 2001, interventions since have taken a very state-centric view, focusing on the upper levels of provincial government without addressing or understanding how they work on the ground.”

Ashley explained how the SLRC with their latest research have sought to gain an understanding of Afghanistan as seen by Afghans, not as outsiders perpetually have: “By looking at Afghanistan’s development, governance, and state-society relations from the village context, we have a better grasp of how development programmes have actually impacted in reality.”

Adam Pain from (SLU) pointed to the development strategies delivered in Afghanistan as based on models that are now “outdated and irrelevant to the context we find ourselves in.”

Brussels Conference on Afghanistan: 70 countries and 30 international organisations will meet in Brussels on 4-5 October 2016
Brussels Conference on Afghanistan: 70 countries and 30 international organisations will meet in Brussels on 4-5 October 2016

“The assumption of agrarian transformation is flawed – people cannot and will not be able to find work.” He stated that data consistent with World Bank figures show that in the last 15 years there’s been an increase in poverty, a decrease in employment and mass emigration due to a saturated market.

“Programming in Afghanistan has simply focused on efficiency and price. It’s completely ignored the social relationships that underpin exchange in the marketplace and household opportunities at village level – for example, women are systematically excluded.”

Despite this damning analysis of international involvement in Afghanistan’s development to-date, the resilience and efforts of ordinary Afghans to seek a better life for themselves was also celebrated. “There is hope, there are aspirations,” said Adam.

Rangina Hamidi, an Afghan women’s activist and businesswoman, was able to add colour to this fact through her knowledge and experience of living in Afghanistan and her work to support women develop businesses.

Kandahar Treasure: empowering women through enterprise
Kandahar Treasure: empowering women through enterprise

“I refused to accept the perception of Afghan women to be without a voice, the ability to move or think,” said Rangina, who has set up the first social enterprise in Kandahar run by women – Kandahar Treasure – which provides jobs and has achieved sales of $300k USD worth of goods.

Despite such strides, Rangina described the significant barriers that persist to growth and development, with not a single paved road in sight or having to convince men: “It’s okay for a woman to learn, a man does not bequeath his manhood.”

She was also critical of the approach of outside forces, with international interventions “making lions out of mice”, writing blank cheques without appropriate checks and balances, and a lack of accountability for how measures impacted people in reality.

Rangina believes establishing rule of law and addressing women’s rights are the crucial first steps needed to ensure positive change in Afghanistan. Indeed, an event: ‘Empowered women, prosperous Afghanistan‘, focusing on the political and human rights of Afghan women and their socio-economic situation, will take place in the margins of the Brussels conference, perhaps signalling a greater acknowledgement of the need to address these issues.

“Instead of investing in illiterate men – let’s empower  and give women a chance to lead our country,” Rangina said boldly. Let’s hope the Afghan government and the international community will listen.

Afghanistan on the brink? Panel discussion at ODI

Afghanistan on the brink took place at the Overseas Development Institute on 14th September with Paul Harvey, ODI, Ashley JacksonSecure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) Afghanistan and ODI, Rangina HamidiAfghan women’s activist and businesswoman and Adam PainSwedish University of Agricultural Science (SLU). The Brussels Conference on Afghanistan will meet on 4-5 October 2016. For more information and to access the reports discussed, visit the webpage here.