Ashley Jackson

Two years in Afghanistan

“Life is incredibly difficult and precarious – even a poor harvest may trigger a crisis.”
Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson, Oxfam’s outgoing Head of Policy and Advocacy in Afghanistan, reflects on her experiences over the last two years in the country.

What is Oxfam doing in Afghanistan?

Oxfam has been working in Afghanistan for three decades and currently operates in 20 of the country’s 34 provinces, often through local partners. We work on long-term development projects, especially in the poorest and most remote areas of the country. Afghanistan is also affected by major disasters such as floods, drought and earthquakes. When they happen, we provide emergency humanitarian relief.

In my role as Head of Policy and Advocacy, I advocated on important issues that affect ordinary Afghans, like protection of civilians and improving the impact of international aid to ensure it reaches those who need it most. We need to make sure that in the middle of all the political and military debate, Afghan voices and concerns are still heard loud and clear.

What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the last two years?

The security situation has deteriorated dramatically. I’m based in Kabul where it is still relatively safe. But whereas when I first arrived I was able to travel quite easily – example – now it is more difficult. There are a number of areas that Oxfam, like other NGOs, can no longer travel to, or work in. And that makes it much more difficult to reach those who need our help.

Afghan farmer

Gul Agha plows the field with the help of his oxen. Sala Khan Khel, Parwan, Afganistan. 5 July 2010. Photo: Jason P. Howe/Oxfam

$18bn of development aid has poured into the country – so why are the people still so poor?

While aid has made a difference in the lives of many, far too little of it has reached those who need it most.  With the conflict getting worse, many countries are increasingly tying their aid to military objectives in the belief that they can “win hearts and minds.” The result is that many very poor areas don’t receive the aid they need because they are considered “secure” or don’t have international troops based there.

So, while it costs approximately $1 million a year to support the deployment of one US soldier in Afghanistan, an average of just $93 in development aid has been spent per Afghan per year over the past seven years.

What kind of aid projects do you think work best?

The most effective projects I’ve seen in my two years here are usually very simple. I’m thinking of local NGOs working at grassroots level on projects that are determined according to Afghan needs and often led and implemented by Afghans. Even if it’s just a simple water supply project or community-based school, I’ve seen some really impressive results that benefit an entire community.

And I’ve been impressed with the commitment of the people at these kinds of NGOs. They’re really hard-working and dedicated to what they do.

How is Oxfam helping the Afghan people?

Afghanistan is the second poorest country in the world, according to UN figures. Up to 80% of the people rely on agriculture and related trades to survive. So Oxfam is working hard to help the poorest people pull themselves out of poverty.

We do this in a number of ways. We offer training to farmers; we help to build schools, roads and latrines; we provide clean water; and we supply training and seed capital for small businesses. We are present in some of the poorest and most remote areas of the country, including Daikundi and Badakshan.

In Daikundi, there are no paved roads and just a few of the schools even have buildings in which to hold classes.  Because there is no conflict there, it also means that donors give very little aid.  Life is incredibly difficult and precarious, and one bad harvest can result in a crisis.  We do help out when there are food shortages or natural disasters, such as floods. But the bulk of our work focuses on helping them to address the underlying causes of poverty and ultimately reduce their vulnerability to these kinds of shocks.

Afghan girls collecting water from a fountain.

Zohal (left) and Nazanin collect water in the village of Baranchi, Paghman, Afganistan. 6 July 2010. Photo: Jason P. Howe/Oxfam

What are you most concerned about?

Millions of Afghans don’t have access to the most basic services that people in the west take for granted, like healthcare, education, clean water and sanitation. The situation is particularly bad in the south and southeast of Afghanistan – 53% of health clinics in the south are closed - but it’s getting worse across the whole country as insecurity spreads.

Afghan women are especially vulnerable – what is Oxfam doing to help them?

We believe women have an important role to play and should be placed at the heart of international efforts in Afghanistan.

We provide training and seed money for women to start small businesses so they can support themselves. But, equally importantly, we also try to use Oxfam’s voice to ensure that their concerns are heard.  Right now, we want to ensure they play a powerful role in any peace reconciliation and reintegration process. Like most women in Afghanistan, we don’t want to see the small but significant progress that has been made in the last nine years slip away.

We often only hear bad news stories about Afghanistan. But is that the whole story?

Not at all. There have been improvements in some areas. For instance, there are 2 million girls in school now compared to just a few thousand during when the Taliban was in power. But these good news stories are rare – and getting rarer as the country becomes more insecure. When one in five Afghan children die before the age of five and less than half  the population have access to electricity, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

What do you think will happen in 2011?

It’s difficult to predict events in a country like Afghanistan. But security is deteriorating rapidly across the country - 2010 was the deadliest year for civilians since the fall of the Taliban. While Kabul remains relatively secure, the conflict is spreading through areas of the country, particularly in the north and west, that were considered safe just a year ago. All signs indicate that the security situation will continue to worsen in 2011.

There’s a lot of talk of how NATO forces are preparing for ‘transition’. What is this?

The international military forces are now increasingly focused on “transition” – which means handing over responsibility for the security of the country to the Afghan government as they begin to withdraw troops.

I think that ultimately that is what most Afghans would like to see happen. But understandably, many are worried about how capable the Afghan security forces are – and, given the brutal history of conflict, ensure that they are accountable. Just 14% of Afghan forces can read or write, and the accountability mechanisms are extremely weak. We think this is crucial to avoid the possibility of the Afghan forces committing widespread human rights abuses, which is a real concern once the international troops leave.

What will be your enduring memory of Afghanistan?

My first trip outside of Kabul was to a remote area in the north of the country, where I visited a women’s literacy class. I remember talking to one woman, who must have been in her 50s, about what it was like to learn how to read so late in life. She said it was like being blind and then learning how to see. She was able to go to the market and buy things, as she could finally read the money and knew she wouldn’t be cheated. She said that the greatest joy she had as a grandmother was helping her grandchildren learn how to read as that was something that no one will be able to take away from them, no matter what happens in the future.

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