UW News

April 10, 2008

Rebuilding Afghanistan: Leaders in government, nonprofits study at Evans School

How do you rebuild a government when it’s been not merely damaged but literally blown up? When leaders and day-to-day civil servants have either been killed or scattered not just outside the capital city and regional towns but outside the country?

At the UW Evans School of Public Affairs, 15 Afghan government and nonprofit professionals are spending three months in intensive courses to help them rebuild Afghanistan after almost three decades of civil unrest, including 1996 to 2001, when the Islamic fundamentalist government of the Taliban ruled the country.

“We’re learning how to create a new civil service based on meritocracy,” said Ahmad Jamshid Arefi, 27. “Destruction is easy; rebuilding takes years. Unfortunately, we have lost both infrastructure and intellectual capacity.”

Arefi and his colleagues, 11 men and four women mostly in their late 20s and 30s, are part of the initial group of students in the Master of Public Policy and Administration program at Kabul University. Members also work in their country for organizations such as the United States Agency for International Development, the Afghan National Assembly, the United Nations, the Afghan ministry of finance and the country’s civil service commission.

At the UW, the students are studying leadership, management, economic development and public policy.

Professional jobs are hard to come by in Afghanistan, and people take what they can get as means of both supporting themselves and rebuilding the country, said Zarif Waez, 28.

He and his colleagues say that while the Afghan economy is growing, job creation is hampered by continuing violence, including resurgence of the Taliban.

There’s also the continuing problem of leadership skill, and corruption is endemic, said Noorullah Zaheer, 36. Trained in literature and pharmacology, Zaheer directs training design and delivery at the Afghan Civil Service Commission. He and his colleagues aim for merit-based hiring and promotion rather than the deeply ingrained system of bribery and nepotism.

A shortage of trained professionals complicates this effort, Arefi said. Many of Afghanistan’s brightest minds fled the country when war violence began years ago. Those who have returned, he said, have often needed jobs and shelter, further stretching government resources.

At the same time, many top officials in government ministries have trained in countries such as Canada, the U.S. and Australia but are operating beyond their capacity and need additional training, Zaheer said.

Sanjeev Khagram, a UW associate professor who directs the Marc Lindenberg Center at the Evans School, is the co-principal investigator, with Senior Lecturer Leslie Breitner, on the funding proposal, which drew almost $500,000 from USAID through the Afghan eQuality Alliances and Washington State University.

The situation in the country is close to Khagram’s heart. Now 40 and a U.S. citizen, Khagram belongs to a family Indian by descent, but residents of East Africa for four generations before fleeing Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Khagram has been impressed by the Afghan students. “How incredibly courageous they are. Their society is still in the midst of civil war. They have to worry about being killed while simply doing their jobs.”

Despite difficult lives in Afghanistan, the students assert that things are improving. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been held. In 2002, gross domestic product per capita was about $187 but by 2006 had almost doubled. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education, 5 million children, about half those in the country, are in school compared to 500,000 when the Taliban ruled.

Most Afghans simply want to do their jobs and take care of their families, said Hamid Jalil, one of the Afgan visitors, but the media only reports the bombings, not people going about their daily business.

Asked what has surprised them about the UW, the Afghan students said the extent of resources available, including both professors and materials such as library books. Contrast those resources, Arefi said, with problems at Kabul University — for example, lack of building heat during the winter.

For Jalil, the time at the UW is part of a great hope: “It’s taken us six years for Afghanistan just to get to this stage, but rebuilding is exciting, and we are dedicated to contributing.”