Let’s build on a foundation of hope for the Afghan people

A first-hand account from UNDP Afghanistan’s new Resident Representative on his encounters with citizens and UNDP colleagues connected with the ABADEI programme.

November 28, 2023

A young girl smiles brightly in the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Her smile is a ray of hope and joy in a difficult time.

Photo: UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat

Soon after I arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, I realised that many people have misconceptions about the country and its people.

Almost everyone that I have spoken with outside Afghanistan has a negative perception of this country. That perception is summed up in one word: Taliban.

When they heard that I was going to Afghanistan, some of my colleagues jokingly asked if the organization was punishing me because I had done something wrong. Worse, when I tell people that I chose to come here, they thought something might be wrong with me! (Smile) 

But the truth is, within a few days of being here, I knew I had made the right decision. I have found the Afghan people, not just my colleagues in the office, but people in the communities and villages, to be warm, hospitable and kind.

Last week, I was on a flight and experienced a moment that illustrates the warmth of the people. I left my seat and went to the restroom while drinks were being served, so I did not have a chance to request some water. When I returned, a young Afghan man (probably in his twenties) sitting next to me, saw that I didn’t have anything to drink, so he opened his water bottle and asked me if I wanted some of his water. It has been like this everywhere I go. Kindness from ordinary people across the country. I have been fortunate to work all over the world, and I know that the spirit of hospitality is part of Asian cultures and societies. It is particularly strong here in Afghanistan.

Fortitude in the face of overwhelming challenges

Afghanistan has experienced four decades of war and turmoil, which have devastated the country, set back its development, and reversed earlier gains. But when you meet Afghan people, you do not see signs of conflict and war. You see resilience, determination, and a desire to rebuild and move forward. 

People rarely lament the past. Women and men are planting fields and looking for support to build water catchment and irrigation systems and roads. They look at the future, not the past. That strength, fortitude, that resilience, is extremely positive in my view. It gives us all a foundation of hope on which to build. People are ready to go, to lift themselves up through their own efforts. That is powerful.

The same is true for the current conditions under which people live. There are severe restrictions especially against women and girls - Afghanistan is the only country in the world where women and girls cannot attend secondary school or university. Women are also restricted from working in certain fields, and from going to health facilities and public parks. These severe policies and restrictions contravene fundamental human rights and the Charter of the United Nations. But, yet again, we see people looking forward and finding ways to cope. This is one of the reasons why we think the international community should not wait for changes in the regime or its policies before we work to improve the circumstances of people, especially women and girls. The people of Afghanistan should not be made to suffer further, because of a regime they did not choose. Already roughly half of the population live in poverty, and about 6 out of every 10 Afghans cannot find the resources to meet their basic subsistence needs. People face real hardships, and we must continue to work to help improve their lives while trying to persuade the administration to adjust those policies.

Meaningful collaboration with communities

I was very heartened to see that after the takeover by the Taliban and the turbulence which ensued, the UN decided to stay and deliver. As for us in UNDP, our team is fully in place and on the ground. So far, I have visited our regional offices in Kabul in the centre, Herat in the west, Mazar in the north, and Kunduz in the northeast. The work that I have seen is truly impressive.

What impresses me is not just the quality of work our team is doing – whether building flood protection walls, irrigation canals, dams and solar energy facilities or providing livelihood opportunities for small and medium entrepreneurs. The impressive part is that all our work is done with the communities and working alongside local-level officials.

Communities also contribute their own resources to interventions, too. At one site in Kunduz, we constructed, with community labor, a water management system serving thousands of people in a number of communities, while the community bought and installed solar facilities to pump the water from underground. This joint effort was tremendous and has created something that is impactful and sustainable. 

A lot of our work is done with women and for women. Almost every programme we implement involves women, whether in design, implementation or as end users/clients. Some of our programmes are  exclusively for women. Examples of what we do include providing micro-enterprise grants and training to tens of thousands of women-led businesses. Many of the new and upgraded health facilities have benefitted women. I am particularly grateful for the support we’ve received for our work with women from partners such as the EU and Japan. 

Now is the time to build on solid foundations

What I have seen in the field are stories of lives being changed. This is one reason that I am so pleased to see the new Transformative Chronicles book of human stories which our team developed. It focuses on individuals. These are stories of people who now have incomes, people who can send children to school, who have access to water, and who can now use improved health services, and so on.

One of the most touching moments for me was when I visited one of our community kitchens. I have heard some critics say that kitchens keep women bound to traditional household duties. But when I visited and spoke to the women, and heard the stories of seven women who work in a community kitchen, then is when I understood what the community kitchen meant to them. Some of these ladies said they have educational degrees. Before being employed in the community kitchen, they were at home, unable to work despite their training, previous job experiences, and education. Some felt depressed, and some suicidal. However, these community kitchens have enabled them to leave their houses, to bond with other women, to earn an income, and provide food for dozens of people every day, including children and poorer members of their communities. These community kitchens have changed their lives significantly and given them hope. That is what our ABADEI programme is about – it is about giving people options to lead better, more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

I was also touched by some remarks by one of our UNDP staff in the field. During my last visit to Kunduz, I met our team on the ground to discuss our work and understand their challenges. In my wrap up meeting with the team, I clearly remember one of our teammate who asked to speak, and then gave an emotional account of his experience working in the region. He said he was Afghani and has seen 20-30 years of hardship and devastation. However, since ABADEI, when he now goes to communities and sees flood protection walls that protect the lives of thousands of people, or irrigation systems that help farmers to produce greater yields, he feels a deep sense of pride knowing that the help being provided to his people is coming from the organization that he work with - UNDP. That was a powerful moment for me and the other colleagues in the room.

This is why I work with UNDP, for the difference that we can help to make in the lives of people. The ABADEI programme, its leadership, area managers and staff have done an incredible job. We must continue to build on these foundations.