The UK Government has been supporting an Afghan Government programme to deliver basic services, including water, health, justice and education, in recently secured areas. The programme operates nationally, but the UK has been supporting efforts in Helmand Province.
The programme supports Afghans in taking the lead in the planning and budgeting process to decide what their communities need – a key pillar to ensuring a long term viable Afghan state. So we have agreed to provide £20m over the next three years. This will build on successes in Helmand and support a roll out in up to five other provinces.
I travelled to Nawa District in Helmand to see the project on the ground, and feed back to donor colleagues in Kabul the positive changes it is making. The day I was there the Government, in consultation with local community representatives were meeting to discuss their service delivery needs for next year.
Nawa is a beautiful district, and one of the benefits of travelling by helicopter is that you get an amazing view of the countryside. I was surprised at how green and lush it was, much more so than the capital Lashkar Gah, and it reminded me of Kent in the summer with abundant orchards of pears, pomegranates and grape vines.
On the first evening we shared Iftar with the District Governor. Iftar is the evening meal when Muslims break their fast during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan. After eating bland army ration packs for lunch my eyes and stomach feasted on the delicious food - rice, traditional Afghan bread and spicy chicken!
The next morning we rose early to assess what basic services were needed in Nawa which was led by officials from the Provincial Governor’s Office. They had travelled by road from Lashkar Gah – a testament to security improvements, and were joined by representatives of the different ministries from both the provincial and district level. Over 40 members from the District Community Council (DCC) also joined as local community representatives.
The DCC in Nawa was elected in October 2009, but sadly this does not include a single woman. The make up of the council is mostly middle aged men and reflects the respect given to elders in Afghan communities. One woman did turn up to vote at the elections but she said to us she would not encourage other women to vote. The only reason she could vote was because she had previously served in the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion in the '80s and was seen as an honorary male.
The day began with the government officials and the DCC splitting into groups to discuss the current state of basic services in the community, and what priority services they wanted for the coming year. Their local knowledge of the security situation was invaluable as it meant they knew where projects would be most effective.
The community council members were clearly focused on spending their funds wisely, and rejected requests by government officials for houses that would not benefit the whole community. By the end of the day, a unanimous decision on what projects would go ahead was decided.
The meeting was remarkable for two reasons – firstly it was Afghan-led and had active participation from the local government and the community. The role of donors (including myself) and military representatives was only to observe and clarify points, which left me an impression of real ownership by Afghans for improving their own communities and basic facilities.
Secondly, the day started at 9am and finished at 4pm, during which the Afghans drank or ate nothing while working in temperatures near 45°C. I was so impressed with their commitment to this project – after two hours I was keeling over and had to leave to get some water!
Afghans want the same things as us – good basic services and a right to determine their future. On this day they showed they are willing to put in the hard graft to get there – now that’s something to be proud of, and I am willing to help them get there.