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How Communication May Have Changed the Outcome of Humanitarian Efforts in Afghanistan

9-Year Aid Worker Offers Grassroots Perspective

By: Mary Ann Callahan

Several recent reports on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, which cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars, cite corruption and lack of proper management as primary reasons it did not achieve our goals.

The findings are stark and, unfortunately, accurate, but they overlook — or omit — another serious problem: The United States did not consistently communicate with Afghan citizens in ways they could understand regarding the reasons foreigners were once more in the country.

We did not convince the Afghan people that we were there to help, and that cost us Afghans’ hearts and minds and, with them, total success.

Many would argue that the explanation for the presence of the US and its allies was clear. The whole world knew about the tragic attacks on US targets on Sept. 11, 2001. The perpetrators were tracked back to Afghanistan, where they were afforded protection by the Taliban regime, which had taken over all but a small part of Afghanistan and imposed its cruel interpretation of governance over a helpless populace.

Everyone knew that — except the helpless populace. Left in almost virtual darkness regarding world events because of war and lack of development, many Afghans had to try to figure out what was going on by themselves. With nothing but three decades of conflict against a backdrop of centuries of the same, the only logical conclusion was that these new invaders were there for the same reasons the old ones had come. They had again been conquered.

However, that was not their immediate response to the presence of Westerners. In the beginning of the U.S. mission, many Afghans welcomed us as a liberator, a champion who would help those who were unable to help themselves throw off centuries of quiet desperation. The trouble was, no one took the time to outline for them what their new world might look like. No one told them why they needed electricity and roads, and why it was important to begin to look at some things in their culture, such as the role of women, differently.

At first, the needs seemed so glaring, the international teams forged forward with the forceful righteousness of a good cause. It was only when the myriad obstacles to progress inherent in a place like Afghanistan began to surface that the population began to resist. They were told that electricity would come quickly and make life brighter, and that roads into their villages would boost commerce.

When the electricity did not come quickly because there was no infrastructure, they became suspicious. When the roads that were being built into their rural dominions were rumored to be for invaders’ tanks, many physically fought to stop those efforts.

Soon rumor and misinformation about the outsiders and their mission began to grow. When it was also reported that these foreigners were making salaries that made the heads of most Afghan spin, their natural distrust seemed to have found a core tenet upon which to rest. Add to this the fact that most of the few foreigners the Afghan people actually did encounter seemed busy with Western methods of business, overseen by a bureaucracy that was unfamiliar to an ancient and less ordered society, and the mistrust could only grow.

The conclusion by many Afghans was inevitable. The United States was there to meet the needs of the United States — not to help Afghanistan.

Sadly, a great deal of the mistrust and some of the corruption could have been avoided if we had taken the time to talk to the Afghans in ways that were meaningful to them. Explaining basic concepts using a campaign that incorporated a variety of communication methods might have changed the outcome.

Afghans might have supported our efforts if they had understood them. Then, all we would have had to deal with was our own inefficacies.

About Mary Ann Callahan

Mary Ann Callahan ) worked in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2012 in a variety of capacities, most involving communications. She developed and implemented an independent journalism program that trained Afghans to accurately report on international development efforts in their country, and received recognition from both the U.S. and Afghan governments for her work. She is the author of three books based on her experiences. “Clouded Hopes” is the second in a series that also includes “Clear Differences: Short Stories from Afghanistan.” Her children’s book, “Little Heroes,” is about two cats growing up in Kabul and Paris and helps to acquaint young readers with the disparities of our world.

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