A Day in the Life

It’s early evening and we’ve finished another day of work, I’ve had dinner and in 25 minutes I will have my evening radio check. They’ve given us each a two-way radio (well, I guess all radios are two-way, it’s a hand-held walkie talkie thing) and I have a code-name, Zulu Golf 4. At the same time each evening they call up everyone who is registered with them. I sit and listen as they go through the list, and eventually it’s my turn. I hear the voice say “Zulu Golf 4 this is Alpha Bravo Charlie base, radio check, over” and I have to reply “Zulu Golf 4 to base, receiving you loud and clear, over”, then they say “roger that, receiving you loud and clear also, base out” and I say “Zulu Golf 4 out” and that’s it, I’m finished my nightly radio check.

The idea is simply to make sure we’re OK and in the same place as our radios. Last night I forgot to turn mine on and so missed the check. At 8.20 I got a phone call asking me if I was OK. So it’s kind of nice to know somebody cares. Pretty embarrassing, though, knowing that everyone else on the list knows I missed the ritual!

If I missed the radio check and then didn’t answer the phone, as once happened to another person I have met, then it gets serious. Other colleagues on your team are phoned, and if they haven’t seen you then a car is sent to look for you. I’m not sure what happens after that, if they don’t find you, and I don’t think I really want to kmow.

I would be wrong to say that there is no danger here. There is a constant state of threat, from all the things that we hear about in our media back home. People are kidnapped, there are robberies (or worse), bombs do go off. Every day the local newspaper has a page of horror stories, of IED attacks, of firefights between the Army and insurgents, and so on. Here in Kabul there are soldiers everywhere, and the streets have multiple checkpoints. Our vehicles are routinely stopped and we have to show our ID and explain who we are, where we are going, and why.

But I would also be wrong to say that this is a city in a state of fear. It is not. People are mad at the traffic, concerned about the state of the public education system, complaining about the health care offered by the hospitals, upset at the number of detours required because major roads are being repaved … just like cities everywhere, I think.

As we drive around or sit in a traffic jam for two hours, as happened a couple of days ago, I see people going about their business. People in suits are walking home from work, briefcases in hand. People are pouring out of their office blocks at the end of the day and lining up for buses. Women and children are walking along the sidewalks, talking, peering in windows, going into shops. Men are standing outside their shops, rearranging their display of pomegranates or apples. Younger men – boys, really – are spraying water on the road and pavement outside their shop, trying to keep the dust down, at least in their area. It is a busy city, sometimes a hectic city, but it is full of people who are living normal lives.

As am I, really. After the radio check I’ll spend a couple of hours writing up my notes for the day. I might do e-mail, or skype with home or my office at UPEI, and then go to bed. I usually wake up when the Imam does his call to prayer just before dawn. I go down to what the guest house calls a gym but I call a room with some weights and other stuff in it, and have a go on the stationary bike for half an hour or so. It’s not that I’m on a fitness kick or anything, it’s just that I know I’ll spend the rest of the day either in the car or in a meeting, and so this way at least I feel like I burned some calories at some point in the day!

After a shower I’m usually down to breakfast just before 7.00 and I have my cheese omelette, toast, and clear black tea. That’s what I asked for on my first morning, so that’s what I get every day. I don’t have the heart (or the nerve) to ask the cook for anything else. When the car comes to pick us up around 0830 we’re usually waiting in the car park, and after the security checks he arrives, we get in, and drive away. We’re at the office, or our first appointment, by 0900 and then the day evolves from there. I usually get back here around six, have supper, and then come back to my room to wait for the nightly radio check. And here I am.

So there you have it … a day in the life of an international consultant in Afghanistan! It’s not very exotic, really, except in the sense of where it’s happening. The work is the same as development work anywhere. You talk to people, you listen to people, you try and build relationships, you try and help them figure out what they need to do.

We often use the phrase “policy borrowing”, where one state implements something from another state. In my experience, this isn’t a good idea. A new system imposed from a foreign country is never going to work, for if it is not owned by the local state then it is not sustainable once the foreigners have gone. So I share my experiences and my knowledge of other systems, and describe a series of possible options. With my Afghan colleagues we discuss these options, mixing and matching the elements that they feel might work, trying to construct something that is grounded in the context of this country, not imported from another.

It is a long term process. There are no quick-fix solutions, no magic strategies that can be implemented overnight. Sometimes the slow pace of development causes frustrations, especially for donors who want to see “measurable outcomes” within clearly prescribed time lines. But if the work we do is to last beyond the life of the project, if it is to have an impact in the medium and long term, then it is important that we spend time on developing trust and making sure that expectations on all sides are clearly understood.

Tomorrow I shall continue that task.

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