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Published 20 July 2012 13:58, Updated 24 July 2012 06:43
You can picture AusAID’s embarrassment. An independent report on development in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province – where Australians took over from the Dutch in mid-2010 – shows the number of girls enrolled in school has not risen. The main growth in the private sector of the war-torn country, in a grim irony, is in luxury goods stores for women.
In short, not much has happened for the longer term development of women, but wives in the gilded cages of local strongmen can at least buy more trinkets.
The report lays much of the blame at the feet of the provincial governor, but it’s not exactly the bang that AusAID, the Australian government aid agency, hoped to get for its $165 million in development assistance. Still, it may well be part of the reason why AusAID terminated its contract with the agency that produced the report, the Kabul-based Liaison Office. Report author Susanne Schmeidl said AusAID wanted parts of the report rewritten to reflect the more optimistic claims the Australian government was making on Afghanistan’s progress. For the record, AusAID told ABC’s Lateline program that it had not asked the agency to spin the report and that it terminated the contract over a failure to meet deadlines.
Pursuing development in troubled countries is similar to doing business with them. It is a long-term project and does not necessarily bring a happy end in time to suit the election cycle – or within the fixed reporting periods by which listed companies live and die. And you have to think really long term. Western powers have been interfering in what is now Afghanistan since the 19th century, when Britain sought to use the territory as a buffer zone to keep an expanding Russian Empire out of India. Can anyone remember offhand the name of the politician who led that “surge”?
Australia’s involvement in Uruzgan is just one minor anecdote in the Great Game, as the rivalry and conflict over central Asia has been known ever since Britain launched the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1838. Both the development game and business, which follows close behind, reflect that tortured history.
There is enough evidence of that in recent times alone. House prices in Kabul rocketed after the Taliban was ousted in 2001, when aid workers and consultants poured into the city – making it more expensive than Tokyo and New York, the Financial Times reported – only to crash after the speculative development wave crashed.
A couple of weeks ago, Australia said it was upping its aid to Afghanistan to $250 million a year. The press release announcing the increase said Afghan adult literacy was 40 per cent for men and 12 per cent for women. In Uruzgan, the Liaison Office report points out, the figure for women is “a seemingly impossible” 0.6 per cent.
A country like Australia should support development. But it can’t expect to report great leaps forward. The Great Game – geopolitics in development and in business – has to be long term.
AUSTRALIAN MERCHANDISE TRADE WITH AFGHANISTAN, 2011
|AUSTRALIAN EXPORTS TO AFGHANISTAN 2011||$14.7 million||Includes $6.7m of “confidential items”, $2m in electrical machinery, $1.9m in telecommunications equipment and $855,000 in beef||Ranked 107th of Australian export destinations|
|IMPORTS FROM AFGHANISTAN 2011||$732,000||Rugs, artwork and antiques||Ranked 156th of Australian import sources|