Paving the way to peace and prosperity in Afghanistan
by Cassandra Markham Nelson
Looking at a map of Afghanistan can be very deceiving - lines that show roads linking the villages and cities of the nation are just that, lines on a map. When you actually attempt to get from point A to point B, it can be a rude awakening - where roads should be are only dirt ruts, rivers have no bridges, and trips that should take only an hour result in over a day long journey.
Of Afghanistan's total road network of 20,720 kilometers, only 3,120 kilometers are paved and of this 3,120 km paved roadway, over 45 percent are in poor condition.
This destruction serves as a constant reminder of how fragmented Afghanistan remains. Physically and politically divided into city-states, the country cannot reunite, says President Hamid Karzai. The nation needs roads to bring it back together.
Afghanistan's volatile mix of ethnic groups and rival warlords is a constant threat to the stability of the central government, and little real progress has been made in bridging these divides, even after almost a year since the fall of the Taliban. "As far as the integration of the government in different parts of the country is concerned, we have moved very slowly," said Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah to Reuters during a recent visit to Tokyo. "I'm not satisfied with our achievements."
Many high ranking officials in the Afghan central government have strongly advocated that increased assistance, particularly in the form of roads, is necessary to ensure the security situation improves and the fragile government survives this tumultuous period. And, not surprisingly, security, as it relates to the "War on Terrorism," is also a key driver for the United States and other coalition nations to continue providing aid to Afghanistan.
But it is not just the government who is pressing to have roads rebuilt - the ordinary Afghans also deem this as a top priority for the nation. One villager in Kunduz province says, "Now it takes me over a day to transport my wheat to market. If the local road were fixed I could reach the market in a couple hours. We need roads to get to market and go to the hospital and education centers."
Clearly, roads are a major priority for Afghanistan - to interconnect the country and bring security and economic opportunity to all corners of the country. But almost a year after Karzai took power, little work has been done.
"The government is not capable of rebuilding roads by itself," says Dr. Sadeq Mudaber, President of National and International NGOs under the Afghan Planning Ministry. "We need to collaborate with NGOs to rebuild."
Recently, however, it appears that Karzai's plea has begun to be answered. In October, President Bush announced that the United States, along with Saudi Arabia and Japan, will be providing $180 million for road improvement projects in Afghanistan.
Mercy Corps is operating programs in southern and northern Afghanistan to rebuild the rural economy and road reconstruction is a major focus. Projects include the reconstruction of nine roadways, totaling over 240 kilometers and 14 culverts. These are being carried out with funding from the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), Taiwanese Government and The European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).
Tertiary and local roads are an important component of the roadway network and will pay a key role in binding Afghanistan back together again. Furthermore, with winter fast approaching many humanitarian assistance organizations are hoping roads in remote areas are reconstructed to facilitate emergency aid delivery to rural districts often the most vulnerable areas.
"My office has received many requests from rural people to connect villages and districts," says Dr. Sadeq Mudaber of the Planning Ministry. "Major roads will not solve all our problems - local roads are critical, too."
Aside from the obvious need to reunite the country provide greater access, road reconstruction promises much needed jobs to the thousands of unemployed men - many who used to work as soldiers for local commanders.
Many of Mercy Corps' reconstruction initiatives are using a model in which local Afghans provide the majority of the labor and are paid in cash for their work. This approach not only results in major improvements in Afghanistan's infrastructure, but also infuses cash into local economies and provides much needed employment opportunities to impoverished families.
Under a grant from ECHO, Mercy Corps is working to rehabilitate roads across Kunduz province. The projects have been selected with significant input from the local communities. A team of local female and male Mercy Corps Community Laison Officers conducted "town hall" surveys in numerous villages to learn the needs and priorities of the local communities. Information from these meetings was used to identify projects and determine the best approach for implementation. According to Mercy Corps Engineer Abdul Wahad, criteria for selecting projects include the assessed vulnerability of the area, strategic importance of the roadway, willingness of the community to participate and contribute to the project, and the need for the roadway as identified by the government authorities.
Community contribution plays a significant role in all the Mercy Corps projects being implemented. For instance, in Mir Sheikh, Kunduz the community was already working on the roads before Mercy Corps began the project. "We were working here before Mercy Corps came," says Amer Juma, an elder of the community. "Residents of the community had volunteered to build a road connecting their village to the other roads in the area. We were able to do the leveling on our own, but not the gravelling. Mercy Corps advised us on how to better level the road, and then assisted us with the graveling and supplied us income for the graveling work. Without Mercy Corps we could not have graveled the roads. It takes too much work for people to do it without some income to feed their families."
Mercy Corps Program Officer Michael Possmayer explained the rational for this approach: "We didn't want to get in the way of the community initiative that had already started in Mir Sheikh. And we didn't want to pay them for work they had already planned to do voluntarily. Instead, we chose to work with them to augment their work and pay for resources and labor needed for additional activities like graveling the road."
Mir Sheikh village elder, Amer Juma speaks for his community when he says the road project has had a significant impact on his community. "It has given us income now when we can't farm our lands because of lack of water," he says. "And when the new road is completed, we will be able access health care and hospitals in an hour. Before it took over five hours by donkey. In the future, when we harvest our crops, we will earn more money because it won't cost so much money for transportation."
Clearly the humanitarian aid community and the Afghan government will be challenged in securing and channeling the vast amount of aid required for road reconstruction. It will be a major test, but one that has the potential to secure support from the traditional outlying regions by reducing discontent, providing employment and access to building livelihoods. And, in the long term, this will provide the central government greater legitimacy, strength and stability.
Cassandra Markham Nelson is Senior Media and Information Officer for Mercy Corps in Afghanistan and Pakistan