Afghans left out of their own rebuilding

President Karzai discussed reconstruction during his White House visit Monday.

Along a construction detour for the new highway between Kabul and Jalalabad, four unemployed Afghans stare out as trucks struggle up a dusty hill. The men are angry that the two Chinese firms in charge of the paving project haven't employed them or many of their compatriots.

"The Chinese are not hiring, and there are other organizations building schools, and they do not hire us, either," says one, Gula Jan.

After years of depending on the international community for help, Afghans are frustrated that they are not more involved in the rebuilding of their own country.

Yet road projects like this one underline a critical dilemma: Most Afghans still lack the skills needed to take over this work, even as the government begins modest efforts to try to train engineers. The short-term need to provide tangible improvements like a newly paved road often trumps the long-term work of training workers within Afghan ministries and the private sector.

"Do you do something very quickly in the absence of capacity so that you get some demonstrable results, or do you take the slow road and face a real danger of a reversion to conflict?" asks Ameerah Haq with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, arguing that development work cannot be kept on hold for training. "People in rural areas will say, 'My life is no better. Nothing has happened for me.' "

Land Cruisers in Kabul

Yet the reliance on foreign skilled labor has not gone unnoticed by ordinary Afghans, many of whom resent the economic disparities in Kabul. The streets of the capital are packed with Land Cruisers taking foreigners to modern offices with high-speed Internet hookups. Foreigners risking their lives to come here also require higher salaries and more security, all of which drives up costs for redevelopment work.

In a dilapidated Soviet-era building, W.M. Rasooli, deputy minister for public works, says that most foreign road builders charge $250,000 to $500,000 per mile, but his ministry could build roads for less than half that price. Currently, only 23 percent of Afghanistan's budget for development actually goes through the government treasury; the remainder flows entirely outside.

"We have 60 to 70 percent capability to do this work ourselves. The remaining 30 percent is language and computer skills, because all the documentation must be done electronically in English," says Mr. Rasooli.

He argues that contracts should go directly to his office, which would allow the 60 engineers in his department to learn new standards, as well as provide higher salaries needed to woo better Afghan engineers away from other work. As it is, he says, "Engineers come and tell me that it is better to go work in the bazaar."

A new reform law aims in part to rectify this by preventing nonprofit nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from bidding for construction contracts in Afghanistan.

"If NGOs don't participate in construction work, some [skilled Afghans] may go back to government. Some may go to the private sector, which is something we want to develop as well," says Umer Daudzai, chief of staff for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was in Washington discussing reconstruction with President Bush Monday.

The Kabul-Jalalabad road, like most big road projects here, went through a competitive-bidding process and was awarded to private international firms.

But one of the subcontractors was an Afghan NGO that was found to be a for-profit enterprise - another problem that the new reform law hopes to eliminate. More than 2,000 local NGOs operate here, most of them for-profit enterprises set up under earlier weak governments. Under the new NGO reform legislation, all NGOs will have to reregister, and many of these "fake" NGOs are expected to be weeded out.

Several officials, however, in donor agencies suggested that neither Afghan construction companies nor the ministry of public works would become competitive bidders on international contracts anytime soon because they are still incapable of carrying out such projects.

The European Commission (EC), a major donor for the new highway, did not make hiring and training of Afghans a priority for this project, though it does have others aimed at building capacity.

"The decision was made that this important road to Pakistan should be done quickly," says Harold Paul, press officer for the EC in Kabul. The road connects the Afghan capital to Towr Kham, in Pakistan, via the Khyber Pass, a crucial trading route traveled by 5,000 to 6,000 trucks a day. "The ministry at the moment doesn't have the capacity to do it properly and do it now," he says.

The Chinese contractor didn't have much success finding employable Afghan engineers. The lack of skilled local engineers for the top jobs on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway boxed out Afghans from some of the less-skilled jobs as well.

"I recommended hiring local staff. And [site managers] employed some of them after a test. But later on, the Chinese technicians and engineers complained about the language barrier and the level of skills," says Mu Naisheng, an assistant manager for SinoHydro, one of the two Chinese firms.

New courses for engineers

Given the high stakes in road building, the donor community has opted instead to pursue construction projects and capacity building in parallel. Rasooli says the Ministry of Public Works has received money from the EC, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank for such efforts. Programs include a new series of courses for the engineers at the ministry, as well as money to hire international engineers to team up with Afghans on projects.

"I hope that after two years our engineers will be ready to design roads ourselves, and everything will be done by our engineers," says Rasooli.

That vision isn't universal, even within the Afghan government, however. Several members of Mr. Karzai's Cabinet say that ministries should stick to quality control and monitoring, leaving implementation to the fledgling private sector.

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