Keeping the Promise

Holistic and Inclusive Solutions for Sustainability and Community Ownership

December 12, 2022

Community members presenting letter of appreciation to UNDP Afghanistan's Senior Deputy Resident Representative, Surayo Buzurukova

Photo by Arvind Kumar

Last week I visited two villages in the Southeast region of Afghanistan: Qala village in Khost Province and Yousufkhel village in Paktika Province. On 22 June this year at 1:24 am, the region was hit with a 5.9 magnitude earthquake. According to OCHA over 1,100 people were killed, and 6,000 injured, and around 10,000 homes were destroyed - around 70% of the housing stock in some areas - leaving many survivors without even basic shelter. In a region which is prone to earthquakes, this was the deadliest in 20 years.

In situations like this, especially in a country with weak institutions like Afghanistan, it is mainly the international organisations, including United Nations agencies, who provide the emergency first response, including food, medicine, first aid and temporary shelter. Humanitarian aid is vital to save lives in the early stages of a crisis and can stop a disaster turning into a full-blown catastrophe. However, experience has shown that unless more development work is done at the early stages to help disaster-affected populations to recover, they may still be experiencing the fallout months or even years later and may still be dependent on aid to get by. If a population is without work for 12 months, they may become deskilled, leading to long-term unemployment, or they may resort to unsafe forms of work or debt bondage. If we wait six months before bringing education services online after a disaster, that is half a year’s education lost for children, with serious ramifications for their future. What is more, populations that have not begun a sustainable recovery are more vulnerable to future crises, such as the next earthquake.

Construction of house for earthquake affected communicates in south-eastern province of Paktika province, Afghanistan

Photo by Arvind Kumar

An alternative approach, that taken by the United Nations’ Humanitarian-Development Nexus, is to inject development in every stage of the crisis - start the humanitarian and long-term development work simultaneously from day one of an emergency response. This approach means developing long-term, ‘durable’ solutions to communities in crisis, which in practical terms means shelter, basic services, and a sustainable economy that is not dependent on aid. In these earthquake-affected villages, UNDP is implementing its ABADEI programme (Area-Based Approach for Development Emergency Initiatives). ABADEI is UNDP’s area-based integrated programming approach to support basic human needs which complements short-term humanitarian life-saving assistance by protecting livelihoods and strengthening communities. ABADEI interventions are centered around addressing worsening poverty and vulnerability, supporting community resilience and social cohesion, and enabling the rehabilitation of small-scale infrastructure vital for basic human needs, such as health and education.

In the villages which I visited; it was an opportunity to see this approach in action and see how well it is working. In Qala village, the work has involved supporting 56 households with a cash grant to rebuild or reconstruct houses affected by the earthquake and training community masons on earthquake-resistant construction. Work had started in July and is finishing in December, before the harsh Afghan winter sets in. In Yousufkhel village, the work included building a flood protection wall and an irrigation canal to support water management and replanting 10,000 almond trees to promote agriculture and food security. An additional 100 homes were constructed in the Paktiya district.

These achievements are impressive. However, what I have seen developing in the last few months in these villages is not just a change in circumstances, but also a change in the mindset of the people living here. People not simply looking to their next meal but looking for market opportunities to grow their prosperity. They are not simply living hand to mouth but are thinking about how to ensure their children have a better life. In a word, they have hope. What are the tools that make this shift in mindset possible? We believe that the unique approach of the ABADEI programme, which goes beyond the basic nexus approach, is responsible. This approach is based on several guiding principles.

The first is community engagement. Experience has shown that where communities are involved in decision making early in the process, interventions are more likely to be sustainable and relevant in the long term. ABADEI interventions have been community led from day one, with the goal of making these communities self-reliant as soon as possible, and ensuring interventions are tailored to specific local priorities and needs. Our message is: we will provide the support, and some of the tools, but you will envision and build your future lives. An example is our 'owner driven reconstruction' process for building or rebuilding houses after the earthquake. In this process, people not only engage with, but lead their own housing process, by making decisions about design, materials, labour, construction and costs, while UNDP and its NGO partner on the ground, CARE, facilitate through financial assistance, technical guidance on hazard resistant features, training and a quality assurance service.

The second important concept is an integrated, holistic approach to rebuilding communities. In Afghanistan, many crisis-hit communities are in hard-to-reach rural areas. For 40 years, the regions hit by the June earthquake had been no-go areas due to the lack of security. The challenge is how to reach these communities and provide support on the scale that they need. Using an integrated approach, however, this challenge becomes an opportunity – to build skills, increase ownership and sustainability and promote cohesion and equal participation in the community. For an outside agency, providing the manpower and materials to build infrastructure such as flood walls, irrigation canals and houses in a remote community would be a severe logistical and financial challenge. Under ABADEI, infrastructure was built by local workers through temporary employment schemes and UNDP provided cash grants to people to build their own houses. We also taught these workers the skills they needed to achieve this, skills which they can continue to use in the workforce in the future. The houses are also built using earthquake resistant, local technology - indigenous techniques that have been handed down through generations, using local resources such as locally sourced stone, mud, and timber. Keeping the indigenous technology of the community intact also promotes ownership and self-reliance.

The third important concept behind ABDAEI is inclusion. In keeping with the United Nations mantra: ‘leave no one behind’ we ensure that the ABADEI programme includes all members of the community. When a disaster, such as an earthquake strikes, it does not differentiate between rich and poor, young, and old, male and female. It hits all sections of the community without fear or favour. When I visited the villages where ABADEI was working, I was pleased to see that, not only were women engaged in rebuilding the houses as part of their households, but women were empowering themselves in many areas of the community. I was inspired by the courage and determination of the women I met, who more than anything wanted to give their children the opportunity to be educated and to thrive despite the cultural and religious limitations.

Again, this is a change in mindset. Today the people of Qala and Yousufkhel are not asking for aid or handouts. They are asking for education for their children, for health services, for energy and water to supply businesses. Through this change, they are not victims anymore – they are agents of change, empowered to forge their own futures.

The people of Afghanistan have been through so much, and many feel abandoned by the rest of the world. Our promise to these people now is that we will not simply build, and leave, but that we will provide sustainable solutions which leave Afghan futures in Afghan hands. It is a powerful promise, and one we intend to deliver.