Is there hope for Afghanistan? This is a question that has been asked innumerable times in the past 40 years: during Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, during the Civil War from 1996 to 2001, during the NATO intervention, and more recently, with the increasing aggravation of the conflict between Afghan insurgents and the western-backed Afghan government.
On 31 January 2017, a new exhibition in Paris, France held a roundtable discussion about the situation in Afghanistan. The opportunity emerged as a result of a series of photographs taken by artist Sandra Calligaro during her three-month visit in Afghanistan. She was provided the opportunity, under the guidance of several NGOs, to visit nine different provinces and interview various individuals. She then converted portions of the interviews and pictures of the individuals into a photographic essay entitled “Afghan stories – Waiting for Hope.” The exhibition was sponsored by the European Union (EU) agency for humanitarian aid (ECHO), as well as half a dozen other internationally-renowned NGOs that are supported by ECHO’s Emergency Response Mechanism (ERM). Calligaro has been working between France and Afghanistan for 10 years now. However, as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, her access to certain areas has become increasingly limited. As a result, she only has an hour and a half to interview each family.
There are many problems in modern-day Afghanistan. While violence seems to be the one that is capturing the most attention, endemic corruption may be the larger culprit for the crippling of the country in the long run. But even for those who manage to leave Afghanistan, the future does not necessarily look bright either. That was one of the major topics at the roundtable discussion: refugees and asylum-seekers being sent back to their home countries from Europe (as a result of a recent agreement between the EU and the Afghan government) and also Pakistan. The representative of the French NGO Action Contre La Faim stated, “[Afghanistan] is incapacitated to deal with this amount of people…most of which have never seen their homeland, being born in foreign countries as a result of previous wars, and have no roots, no land, no jobs, no access to healthcare and public education.” This statement was reiterated by an ECHO representative, who added that the distribution of land to returnees and the issuance of proper documents to access the already scarce public services was of the utmost importance. However, the representative also pointed out “a difficult political environment (multi-ethnic) in a war context” as a major impediment for a nationwide redistribution plan to ensure that returnees are provided with shelter.
And yet, one may ask, if the EU is aware of this issue, why does it send Afghan asylum-seekers back to a hostile environment? “Those decisions are not solely informed by humanitarian concerns, but also geopolitical and security issues” was the justification provided by Malta’s Ambassador H.E. Patrick Mifsud. This critical question never received a proper answer. Amnesty International’s claim that the EU and the Afghan government’s deal was linked to the EU’s financial aid was vehemently denied by the ECHO representative. An Afghan audience member called the Afghan government corrupt and illegitimate and inquired whether the financial aid provided by the EU was given to the Afghan government freely. ECHO quickly distanced itself from the Afghan government (it only supports NGOs working in the country to provide much-needed healthcare and other services) and claimed that anti-corruption mechanisms were already in place. Nonetheless, one remains with the impression that Afghanistan is mired in a paradox: there is too much aid, and too little (effective) aid.
The exhibition and roundtable discussion took place in a small but popular arts center in Paris called la Point Éphémère. From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that Afghanistan can still be considered a mobilizing force, engaging individuals in its goal of achieving a peaceful society. And yet, despite the amount of investment by the EU and other countries, the situation does not seem to be nearing an end, and a large portion of the population continues to lack access to basic services. During this time when Afghan refugees roam the Parisian streets because they lack roofs over their heads, or legal assistance to apply for asylum, it is tough to remain optimistic.
Perhaps the most relevant point regarding the situation in Afghanistan was raised by a representative of the NGO Solidarités Internationale: “Until we change the paradigm, we will be having roundtables like this fifteen years from now, about the poor suffering Afghan people.” He insisted that the large amount of aid provided to Afghanistan by the EU would probably have been better spent on promoting Afghan culture and education, a statement to which the audience applauded.
So, should Afghans remain hopeful? Some have endured, some have given up, some have risked leaving the country in an attempt to secure refugee status and assure themselves safer lives. It would also seem that the situation in Afghanistan is beginning to exhaust international attention, to the point of losing the protective status for refugees who most need it. Similar to Somalis in Dadaab, Kenya, it is not only western countries that have begun to shift their attention away from Afghanistan, but also Afghanistan’s neighbors, namely Iran and Pakistan, which currently host Afghan refugees.
Will Afghanistan become the shadow of a nation tormented by extremists, much like Somalia?
As the ECHO representative stated at the exhibition, “In these pictures I recognize the Afghanistan I saw while travelling…the courage, pride and strength of its people.” He claimed to have never seen such compassionate individuals, willing to take strangers into their homes, most of whom were returnees. How long this solidarity may last is not clear (by March 2018, over 600,000 more Afghan refugees are expected to be expelled from Pakistan). However, respect and admiration for the people of Afghanistan should prod us to “change the paradigm” and be smarter and more effective in providing aid to the country. We should continue to help fan the flame of hope that the Afghan people have been waiting for, and that was promised to them back in 2001 by the NATO coalition.
(A website featuring Sandra Calligaro’s exhibition is forthcoming.)