Smartcard scheme epitomises the flawed Afghan aid strategy
It must be one of the more crazy developments to emerge out of Afghanistan in the last year, which is saying quite a lot for a country not short of startling news.
The Afghan government announced last week that all citizens will be issued with electronic identity cards within the next five years at a cost of an amazing US$100 million (Dh367 million).
The smartcards are small enough to fit into a wallet and will be kitted with a chip that carries information about the holder's driver license, vehicle registration, a digital signature and whether he or she is registered to vote.
"We consider this a very important initiative for the development of Afghanistan," Amirzai Sangin, the minister of communications and information technology, told reporters at a news conference in Kabul.
In the future the government hopes to expand the card's capability to include an "e-passport" and "e-taxing", he added.
The programme will be paid for by the ministry of finance, which in turn is funded by American and European taxpayers.
The cards would mean fairer and more efficient elections in the future, Mr Sangin said. And this is the crucial point.
The programme may have been announced by the Afghan government but like pretty much everything else in Afghanistan, it reflects the priorities of the European and North American donor nations who are obsessed with the idea of establishing a western-style liberal democracy at any cost, which presumably would allow them to get out of the country as fast as possible.
Technology is meant to work a miracle and achieve what humans have not been able to. Defeat the Taliban and al Qa'eda one Tweet at a time, as it were.
The electronic identity card programme shows how disconnected the people who are supposed to be helping Afghanistan are from ordinary Afghans.
First of all, how will 29 million people be reached to issue the cards considering the appalling state of the roads?
More saliently, how will an identity card stop suicide bombers, provide electricity or improve the life of a woman whose nose and ears are cut off because she shamed her husband?
The basic needs of the Afghan people are incomprehensible to the armies of mostly well-meaning expatriates who have descended on the country over the last decade. The rebuilding of a rural, collectivist, insular and conservative culture is being overseen by people who have been raised in post-industrial, individualistic, capitalist cultures.
Policymakers, diplomats, advisors, consultants, development workers are almost always from countries lucky enough not to have seen any upheaval since the Second World War.
For years no one seemed concerned that the streets of Kabul were piled high with rubbish and its open gutters running with raw sewage, causing a terrible stink and damaging residents' health.
Cleaning up the streets would have been a common sense approach to improving the quality of life for the capital's residents and a wise use of international taxpayers' money, but the bright sparks in the capital always have their own ideas.
One major aid organisation that has been in Afghanistan for a long time last year recruited a "gender training consultant" whose role was to "establish the need to ensure gender equality as significant piece of an inclusive and sustainable 'nation building' process", according to the job vacancy announcement.
This is not to deny what women face in a battered and violent society. Yet men have also suffered the horrors of warfare. They bitterly feel the shame of not being able to provide food and security for their families, which is the first duty of an Afghan man. Do they really need to be shown a power point presentation on women's rights?
Can't we simply accept that equality will take a few generations and a society hungry for food and safety does not have the luxury to think about whether the term "chairman" is offensive? Afghans will change their society - at their own pace. They do not need to be condescended to by a gender training consultant.
In the September parliamentary elections a record number of women, 400 in total, stood for office, competing for the 68 seats reserved for them under Afghan law. The vote was tarred by mass fraud yet the fact that nearly half the population turned out to vote is an indication that people want a state responsive to their needs.
The focus of nation building should be on agriculture, which is an alien concept to urbanised expatriates raised on a diet of microwaved meals.
Approximately 75 per cent of Afghans live in rural areas and are dependent on subsistence farming to survive. Their lives are very similar to peasants in medieval Europe.
The land is littered with landmines and irrigation canals are destroyed because of heavy bombing. I've met plenty of farmers who have asked for help repairing the canals, dams, and the donation of a few shovels to build walls and fences.
The militaries are no better.
Recently, well-meaning Nato soldiers in the south were distributing to children footballs displaying the phrase "Allah uh Akbar", until it was pointed out that an object kicked by feet carrying such a religious phrase was offensive. That ended the football programme.
The waste would be laughable if the stakes were not so high.
The Kabul-based Afghan elite is to blame for terrible corruption, but the western donors are not much better.
From 2001 to 2010, the US spent about $336 billion on the Afghan mission and approximately $60 billion of that was marked for non-military projects, according to an October audit prepared for the US Congress by Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
But the reconstruction effort was hampered by lack of oversight, no one is sure how the money has been spent or whether any of the projects are sustainable, he wrote. Billions of dollars are unaccounted for.
The creation of a national police force is often cited as critical to making Afghans responsible for their own security but efforts to achieve this goal fall short. An American-sponsored $5.5-million project to build six police buildings in Helmand and Kandahar provinces was so badly executed that the offices were unusable and Mr Fields found they would probably collapse in the event of an earthquake.
Mindboggling amounts of cash are being thrown around on the international development merry-go-round and the value of the money seems to be lost. Most unfortunate of all is that not very much of it is seen by the people who actually need it.
No wonder Afghans are angry and fed up. And western taxpayers deserve better.
Hamida Ghafour is a former senior reporter for The National and author of The Sleeping Buddha - The Story of Afghanistan Through The Eyes of One Family.
Published: December 18, 2010 04:00 AM