October 22, 2010
GPFA in the NY Times
NY Times‘ Nicholas Kristof has posted Executive Director Roger Hardister’s letter on working in insecure areas to his blog. He also mentioned GPFA in his October 20th column as an example of an organization successfully alleviating poverty despite the country’s many challenges.
Roger Hardister wrote:
I think the following strategies are key to GPFA’s success:
We provide services that deliver immediate results. Long-term development projects are of course important and critical to the future stability of the country, and GPFA has several longer-term initiatives. But short-term projects that immediately benefit individuals and communities financially can create an environment for longer-term planning and larger assistance efforts to take place. This is the only way to get buy-in from local people for projects where the pay-off is in the future.
Our projects engage individuals and communities, not just institutions. We recognize that working with local institutions is important, and we do, but many institutions are corrupt or, at best, ineffective. This means a dispiriting lack of progress on the ground and little incentive for people to participate, particularly in areas where insurgents are active and their participation makes locals a target. Locals will not risk a relationship with outsiders if they don’t perceive an immediate benefit. GPFA’s experience shows that if we deliver results, they involve themselves in spite of considerable risks. We have also learned that security is improved if individuals and communities are engaged in larger clusters. Insurgents are less likely to oppose projects in which large numbers of people are invested.
Sometimes, we have to work with less than ideal partners to reach the people in greatest need. As you know from your reporting, there are moderate Talibs (almost exclusively Afghans not Pakistanis) who are concerned about the welfare of their communities. We have been approached by their intermediaries and promised safety if we agree to help these communities in need. I think it is critical to consider these request; they allow us into conflict areas where poverty is more persistent and the need is greatest, and where many others can’t or won’t go. And rather than strengthen the image of the insurgents among the local villages, our experience shows that providing rural Afghans with the means to achieve greater financial stability serves as a bulwark against continuing dependence on insurgents. The US military recognizes this dynamic and often provides GPFA with support for this work.
Small is good. It is an open secret in Afghanistan that many large agencies with projects worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars are just not as flexible and able to respond to opportunities as smaller, more nimble groups. This is even more the case in unstable provinces. Often it is because large agency staff, who travel in attention-getting convoys with prominent security details, simply cannot go out in the field without attracting insurgents or criminals. GPFA staff, almost exclusively Afghan, are less dependent on high profile security precautions, and are therefore less conspicuous. They are also part of local social networks, which provides a measure of support and security. They know the people and communities and can get to the field and make things happen.
I would also underscore the importance of hiring and training Afghan nationals, which larger agencies, because of their complexity and size, often cannot do. Local Afghans, while increasingly capable, simply lack the experience of working in large bureaucracies and managing information and technical systems, so larger organizations must turn to expats. Coming from places such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines and even Tibet, these expats are often viewed with skepticism by rural people. They are also often less successful at negotiating with locals than their Afghan counterparts, missing the nuances and social cues that are critical to effective negotiations. And while I would not challenge their commitment and abilities, they often add little value to conditions on the ground. Smaller organizations can grow from within, gradually training Afghans to tackle progressively more challenging work and building systems that Afghans can manage as the work grows and develops.
One last point I’d like to make doesn’t really relate to areas of conflict but I think is important to development groups working in either unstable or relatively peaceful regions. As you know, great importance is given to elders in Afghan culture and many organizations tend to establish relationships exclusively with them. I think this misses a critical piece of the development puzzle. Young people, who are often better educated and have been exposed to a broader range of ideas than their elders, are full of drive and desperately want to help both themselves and their country. GPFA works to give opportunities to this next generation. We of course work closely with village elders in all aspects of our work, but I can’t imagine any sort of sustained success without the younger generation. After all, it is they and all the Afghan people, not we, who will decide the fate of the country.