Thank Your Government for Neglect

I was recently at a gathering on Afghanistan held at a DC think-tank. Much of the discussion was understandably focused around the two themes of “what went wrong?” and “what now?”. During the Q&A session somebody asked whether there were any plans to tackle the lack of electricity in most of the country and its unreliability in the capital. One of the panelists, a journalist who had recently travelled to Afghanistan, shared this intereting anecdote:

“In western parts of Kabul and many parts of the Central Highlands region, members of the Hazara ethnic community have started self-sufficient, micro-level electricity generation schemes. These are highly successful models of community participatory development that have taken place largely outside the purview of the government and the NGOs. In many of these areas, power availability is much more reliable when compared even with the capital region. Already a well-developed system of billing is in place whereby those moneyed businessmen who capitalize on the generators and their fuel collect money from the people in return for the service.”

I can personally corroborate this with anecdotes of my travels to Jaghori district of Ghazni province last summer, where many houses used electricity for lighting, and some even had televisions and satellite dishes. (In fact, I remember the bizzare episode of watching on CNN International the announcement of justice O’Conner’s resignation. I had to explain the reason for my sudden excitement.)

It would be nice to leave it at this. A nice and happy little success story. But I am itching to go on and put this in a historical context for further clarification. And because I am feeling mean and bitter tonight (which is when things suddenly begin to make a lot of sense.)

Let’s start with this bit: “These efforts have taken place largely outside the purview of the government and…”

But of course they are outside the purview of the government! In fact, they have sprung up because of government neglect -and centuries of it- and not despite of it. It is when people are subjected to long periods of systematic neglect, discrimination, and socio-economic marginalization that they learn to fend for themselves. For certain sectors of Afghanistan’s population, to the extent that there has ever existed a central state, its principal raison d’etre and functionality has remained limited to alternating bouts of exorbitant taxation and genocidal warmaking. Effective administration, development, and provision of services has never been a priority in these areas. (To be fair, these have not been much of a priority elsewhere either, but we are speaking in comparative terms here -so don’t pretend like you don’t see my point.)

This is reflected even today, for instance, in the staggering figures for infant and maternal mortality rates in the neglected Badakhshan province in the northeast, and official footdragging with the construction of a vital highway to the central province of Bamiyan -three years after the Italian government has pledged the funds specifically for the project! (I travelled along this road last year, and let’s just thank the Japanese for their dogged Land Cruisers. Even so, it is a bone-crushing experience. If anybody out there is thinking of it, I would caution and recommend the presidential means of transport- helicopter yourself to Bamiyan, or the breathe-taking Band-i Amir, or wherever else you want to sightsee for a day or two and campaign and make promises and out you go.)

So let’s not credit the Hazaras too much for their resourcefulness and self-reliance. They have had centuries to learn that -in the immortal word of the king of pop- : “They don’t really care about us.”

(Incidentally, this same hard-won lesson may place them in an advantageous position in an era where statist models are giving way to social entrepreneurship and civil society -driven growth… or am I getting ahead of myself talking about Afghanistan?)

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8 Responses to Thank Your Government for Neglect

  1. SE says:

    Actually, one thing that everyone concedes to very willingly is the resourcefulness and self-reliance of Hazaras. But it’s a good excuse for not doing anything in addressing their needs.

    However, what is neglected in this assessment is how these micro-enterprises are paid for. Half of Jaghori’s male population live and work in Australia and other Western nations. Foreign remittances (to the tune of a few millions of dollars) from these expats have helped raise the standard of living there. That’s really not an excuse for doing away with the government and absolving Mr. Karzai of his responsiblities.

    Lets not forget that it is also NATO’s guns that ensure the balance of security.

    The situation is much dire elsewhere in Hazarajat where people don’t have access to even basic health care.

  2. safrang says:

    Agreed, that the situation in most parts of rural Afghanistan, including Hazarajat remains dire along many indicators. And none of these self-sufficiency mechanisms absolves neither the current government’s neglect nor the historical wrongdoings.

    However, what I was getting at, was that unless we subscribe to some essentialist theory about Hazaras, or worse, believe in their genetic superiority, one would have to put some sort of a sociological explanation to their singular resourcefulness in this and many other instances. This was my shoddy attempt at doing that.

  3. safrang says:

    And by the way, speaking of Hazaras and government neglect, I am also reminded of a vitriolic Chris Rock stand up about low expectation m…f…ers among blacks who will make do with 2 when they are entitled to 4 (he put it much more colorfully, I think). I just thought that speaking as we are along these themes, the plague of low expectations is not something entirely unknown among Hazaras. But more on that later -when I feel mean and bitter again.

  4. Shaharzad says:

    Dear Safrang,
    I have always enjoyed reading your arguements, but don’t you think you have been a little just a little too emotional when talking about Government neglect? Doesn’t this neglect include other areas of Afghanistan too? Is it really a neglect?

  5. safrang says:

    Dear Shaharzad, Thanks for your visit and comment.

    If my remarks in this post seem to ignore the egregious neglect by the government of rural areas all over our country, then that has not been my intention. In specifying Badakhshan and Bamiyan, I merely wanted to point at just two instances of such neglect, and that too only because I have personally observed these or have heard friends talk about them. In no way this precludes the positive violence and passive neglect of vital social services in other parts of Afghanistan. Though I will still maintain that some areas have been subjected to a greater degree of such neglect than other -and I would be glad to back this up at any time with historical and empirical evidence.

    As to whether I am emotional, well, I can only say mea culpa. It has been a perennial weakness of mine to become indignant -and sometimes emotionally so- in the presence of injustice, and especially injustice with impunity. It pains me to see that -in my opinion- our new government is intent on pursuing the same historical pattern of governance as its notorious predecessors.

    And let’s not shy away from becoming emotionally involved in these matters as if that was some sort of weakness. I was deeply touched reading your emotionally charged comment on Cherik’s blog (http://asef.blogfa.com/) about the murder of a brilliant young activist in Kandahar (not to mention Asef’s post about the incident itself.)

  6. SE says:

    There need not be an essentialist argument here: when you exist on a thin wire for too long you better learn to balance or you never wake up to see the light of day. And it helped quite a bit that they were at the bottom of the ladder.

    But that does not preclude failure as individuals or nations. Their experience bears witness to this.

    Also, there is an insight that failures provide. To have success at every turn makes you uninteresting and frankly boring. It is sometimes these failures that save the soul of a nation when the triumphant ride it to the ground.

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