These days there is a vibrant discussion about the usefulness of foreign aid and whether it does more harm than good. Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid seemed to start the conversation and it remains very relevant in terms of Afghanistan.
What was clear throughout the NATO-ISAF years was there were many projects that were duplicated by different governments and organisations, and that vast amounts of money was wasted on unsustainable ventures. There was also universal dismay that so much cash went into the pockets and bank accounts of corrupt officials.
During my time I was commissioned to write about a number of programmes funded by the German government in remote areas of Afghanistan. One of the ventures was setting up a dairy to make yoghurt, curd and process milk delivered by local farmers.
It was modern, immaculate and efficiently run, and the dedication, determination and knowledge of the Afghan director was awe-inspiring.
A smaller project gave women simple tools to sundry garden grown vegetables, which were routinely eaten by bugs, and so could only be sold for a low price at the market. A screen and a tray protected the produce, which meant higher prices.
One of the beneficiaries was a woman who looked like a 100-year old egg. She barely had any teeth, her long grey hair was pulled back into a plait that poked out under the scarf wrapped around her head; her face was the weather-beaten and wrinkled, the result of long years out in the fierce sun.
All that disappeared when she smiled, a cliché but true. She told me, through an interpreter, about the sense of worth the work had given her. She also said she was astonished to learn that women could go outside the home. Her enthusiasm, and the happiness and small amount of extra money made me think it was all worthwhile. I no longer cared about the intellectual arguments and the billions that had been invested. This had made a difference.
100 People, 100 Places are a series of short dispatches to complement my latest book, Dispatches from the Kabul Café (Advance Editions, 2014)