Afghans Frustrated by Slow Pace of Development Since the Taliban was ousted in 2001, billions of dollars in foreign aid have poured into Afghanistan. Yet despite progress in cities such as Kabul, much of the country looks the same today as it did seven years ago — and many Afghans feel helpless.
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Afghans Frustrated by Slow Pace of Development

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Afghans Frustrated by Slow Pace of Development

Afghans Frustrated by Slow Pace of Development

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After six years of reconstruction and billions of dollars spent, much of Afghanistan looks just about the same as it did in 2001. Granted, some things have changed. If you wanted to take a highway anywhere at the end of 2001 after the Taliban fell, you'd probably have to dodge bomb craters and burned-out tanks. The country was connected by a tunnel that was partly blasted shut. You could only walk through, and after hours of travel you might reach a city that was devastated. That was 2001.

Since then, the United States and other nations have stepped in with pledges to rebuild Afghanistan, and the new government has called it a jihad, holy war of reconstruction. Yet despite progress in cities like Kabul, much of Afghanistan hasn't changed.

This week, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports on the challenges of rebuilding. And in this first report, she talks with Afghans about their growing frustrations over the pace of development.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Afghan Governor Arsala Jamal is in a bind. He wants to build a gate between two walled compounds that house a girls' school here in Khost. That way, the girls won't need to walk outside and risk attack in this volatile province southeast of Kabul. But in Afghanistan, he's forced to go hat in hand to a local American military team.

So the governor invites Navy Commander Erika Sauer to the school. She is the new commander of the U.S. provincial reconstruction team, or PRT.

Mr. ARSALA JAMAL (Governor, Afghanistan): This was a very small one. We have the next building, and we were thinking that having a gate there.

NELSON: The governor is a tad nervous as he gets to the point.

Mr. JAMAL: There is a need for the gate, so having - specially if you send (unintelligible) or somebody to look at the (unintelligible) requirements. This is a very easy fixture. Then I can show you some of the...

NELSON: Jamal says he's embarrassed to have to ask Sauer for something as simple as a gate, but he says he has no choice, given he is not provided a single dollar for development by his own government or anyone else. He adds that getting funds for the gate from the Afghan education ministry in Kabul would take years.

Mr. JAMAL: Yeah, (unintelligible) bringing the PRT commander. They are, of course, working with her just to tell her that we need a gate here. And this gate will cost everything, if they do, everything - if they'd listen to me - it will cost them $3,000-4,000 - everything. Yeah, we have a long way to go.

NELSON: Still, this province is one of the luckier ones. Khost, a former Taliban stronghold that for a time was home to Osama bin Laden, is booming with American construction. Roads are being paved, government centers are springing up, even in remote areas along the border with Pakistan. Fifty-three schools will be built in Khost this year.

The United Arab Emirates also funded a sprawling new university campus here. A couple hundred miles to the north, Habiba Surabi envies the attention Khost gets. She is the governor of Bamiyan, one of the most peaceful of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. It is also one of the most impoverished and underdeveloped. Surabi says many of the children in Bamiyan still attend school outdoors, in tents if they are lucky.

Of the roads that crisscross this mountainous province, only one mile is paved. Work on connecting her province to Kabul via neighboring Wardak province is going nowhere. She says Khost, on the other hand, is getting a $60 million road to connect it to neighboring Paktia Province.

Ms. HABIBA SURABI (Governor, Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan): And that road will be built within 18 months. But this is two years that we are talking about, the road between (unintelligible) Wardak and Bamiyan. And the people of Bamiyan and the provincial council have requested that the Ministry of Public Work or donor agency could have started from Bamiyan site. They promised that they will do, but we didn't see anything.

NELSON: Based on three months of interviews, ranging from ministers in Kabul to villagers living in remote areas, it's clear this type of frustration is rampant across Afghanistan. Everyone knows money is pouring in. The United States alone has pledged $6 billion in aid here since 2002. But the problem, Afghans say, is that there are too many people making decisions on how and where the money should be spent.

Donor countries, non-governmental organizations, even foreign nations' militaries, some consult with the government in Kabul, others with local leaders. But there's not enough coordination. No one here or abroad can say with certainty what all the projects in Afghanistan are or where they are or how much money has been spent.

Even Afghan ministries don't share information with each other, and are widely accused of corruption. But Afghan officials' biggest beef seem to be with foreign donors. Officials in Kabul complain that they've had too little say in where foreign aid goes, even though the government's ability to handle that aid has grown exponentially in recent years.

Mohammad Ehsan Zia is the head of the ministry of rural rehabilitation and development. He estimates only a quarter of the aid coming into Afghanistan is channeled through his government.

Mr. MOHAMMAD EHSAN ZIA (Head, Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development): The problem is that we need to take people of Afghanistan into confidence. And the only entity that can take people into confidence is their government.

NELSON: And the lack of Afghan confidence in her government is growing. Sayed Muzafar owns a small construction supply shop in Bamiyan City.

Mr. SAYED MUZAFAR (Owner, Construction Supply Shop): (Through translator) They come here, the Parliament members and ministers. They promise they'll bring electricity and roads, but nothing comes of it. Maybe it's that we're the wrong tribe or we don't have terrorists destroying everything. It doesn't pay to be peaceful.

NELSON: That sentiment worries Governor Surabi, who fears her people might be driven to civil unrest if things don't change. She says it's hard not to feel angry when they see where the aid goes. Much of the foreign development is concentrated on war-torn areas in the south. The contracts are often let to foreign companies, who in turn subcontract with other foreigner Afghan builders.

Yet such projects often languish because it's too unsafe to work, like the Kajaki Dam here in the southern province of Helmand.

(Soundbite of water rushing)

NELSON: American engineers are trying to rebuild the half-century-old U.S.-built dam and power plant in what is the heart of Taliban country. It's a $16 million project that would provide power to more than a million households. But their repair work was suspended for months because of Taliban attacks. It has since resumed, by the engineers say it'll take more than a year to finish -that is, if there are no further delays.

Mohammad Hashim Mayar worries that time is running out to get the development strategy right. He is deputy director of ACBAR, a non-governmental organization in Kabul that drafted a recent report about problems with foreign aid here. Mayad says it's clear Afghans are impatient.

Mr. MOHAMMAD HASHIM MAYAR (Deputy Director, ACBAR): Have these construction changed the life of the poor people? No. Seventy-five percent of our people are living in the villages - I mean, in the rural areas. Little work has been done for them.

NELSON: Government ministers in Kabul say they are working to change that. They hope to gain more control over foreign aid with a five-year strategy they will unveil to donors at a conference in Paris next month.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue our investigation of Afghan reconstruction on MORNING EDITION tomorrow. Some of the most expensive rebuilding plans have brought limited results, yet a few small military teams have had dramatic success with hardly any funding.

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