Monday, February 28, 2011

Sustainability | At War: An Aid Worker Writes | Sustainability

In Panjsher Province, just north of Kabul, on the riverbank tucked far below the steep green slopes of the surrounding mountains, is a micro-hydro power (MHP) station with the capacity to electrify two nearby villages of more than 2,000 families. But it has sat dysfunctional since it was built 10 years ago. The villagers once solicited the assistance of the Panjsheri mujahideen commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, but to no avail. (The tomb of Mr. Massoud, who was killed in September 2001, lies just around the bend from the plant.)
Numerous broken or empty promises from several donors over the years revealed that a key ingredient to successful infrastructure development had always been lacking: sustainability.
Provincial Reconstruction Team members

Sustainability is a trendy word right now in Afghanistan - a standard, on paper, for foreign-funded infrastructure development efforts and a crucial element for the success of projects. But in reality, "sustainable development" doesn't usually stand - literally.
There are countless stories of money wasted " schools and clinics built by foreign military forces that stand empty with no doctors or teachers to make them more than just a heap of concrete and brick; projects that were devoid of proper oversight or were subcontracted out numerous times, decreasing the quality of construction to the point that the structure caved in; projects that were operational for a few months but then fell into disrepair and were never fixed.

Sustainability is a process that requires patience and persistence, which is often overlooked by some international entities involved in development in Afghanistan. Measures must be taken from the beginning, throughout the construction, and after completion to increase the chances that the project will be functional for generations to come.
The common denominator for all phases of the sustainability process becomes obvious when considering the following: Where will the project be built? Who will build it? What type of project will it be? Who will operate it? Who will maintain it? Who will fix it if it breaks?
The answer to these questions provides the key to sustainability: the community members, the beneficiaries themselves. Whereas most local and regional government institutions are still too underequipped, unstable, or corrupt to meaningfully and actively assist in project implementation, the community remains the most stable and reliable entity.
International donors have the money and the administrative capacity it takes to get a project implemented, but the Afghan communities that will benefit from the project have everything else to make projects successful, meaningful, and long-lasting.
Afghan communities have patience, whereas most Western donors value speed and immediate productivity, especially in many international development agencies where success rates are synonymous with how much and how quickly money is spent, which is called the "burn" rate. Engaging and involving the community takes patience, mobility and communication " multiple visits to the village, mediating conflict, revisiting issues that you thought had been solved, fielding unrealistic requests, training individuals who sometimes don't know how to read or write. Surely, it may be easier and faster to work around the community instead of with it, but at the risk of producing a meaningless structure resented by the people it's meant to serve.
Take, for example, the case of the two joint villages in Panjsher Province mentioned above who had been awaiting the electricity from the hydropower plant for their homes, mosques and schools for the past 10 years. It had been a decade of obstacles from various international donors, including the provision by one foreign military donor of an unnecessarily large amount of financing to a construction company that made off with the money before laying a single brick.
Panjshir Valley
 With the aid of a community social worker on the ground in Panjsher to essentially hold the hand of the communities, the new approach has been to mobilize people, make them aware of the intentions of the new donor to rehabilitate the power plant, and then hold elections for a joint village Management Committee that will be responsible for representing the communities' input on the project. The goal is to mediate conflict when necessary and serve simultaneously as the donor's ears and the community's voice.
After several visits to these Pansheri villages to sit in on the village committee meetings, as well as management and monitoring trainings administered to the committee, and the constant presence of a social worker, the community has been able to be active in the decision-making process, including on such issues as electricity distribution and revenue collection. They are learning how to operate and repair the MHP and transmission lines, and have been trained to monitor the rehabilitation process themselves.
By spring, these villages should finally have electricity, and the MHP will be handed over to the ownership and management of the communities. "Light is a blessing from Allah," said a 30-year-old shopkeeper from one of the villages, when asked about the project. "We are happy that our plant has been repaired. It is something that will help us with our daily needs, like for the children at school."
While most key decisions about development in Afghanistan unfortunately often happen at the faraway desks of foreign aid officials or corporate development companies, the decisions that matter most should be made, or at least sincerely informed, by the community members, with the facilitation of outside organizations. While some international donors may be looking to check a project off their list or to disburse money to increase their "burn rate," Afghan communities are looking for a piece of infrastructure that can improve their quality of life and, more importantly, will be able to improve the lives of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
That is sustainability.

Lael Adams works in rural community development in Afghanistan. She has a master's degree in International Relations from Boston University. She wrote her thesis on sustainable development practices in Afghanistan.


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