CULTIVATE FEMALE LEADERS IN AFGHANISTAN
(In)Effectiveness of Targeted USAID Afghanistan Program
In late 2014 the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it would be spending in excess of 400 million U.S. tax dollars on a program to “empower Afghan women”. Called Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs or “PROMOTE”, it “seeks to advance opportunities for thousands of Afghan women to help them become leaders in the political, private, and civil society sectors”. Less than 2 years later the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), expressed concern stating that “the Afghan women engaged in the program may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion” — which could be construed as the American taxpayer having squandered (potentially) hundreds of millions of dollars.
One of the supported activities of PROMOTE is the educational workshop. In a recent article by Dr. Cheryl Benard published via the National Interest, USAID’s design, staffing, and implementation of PROMOTE workshops was brought into serious question. The author notes that the workshops are set-up specifically to not provide deliverables like educating attendees on increasing crop yields, basic how-to’s on identifying diseases, or teaching carpentry 101. Instead they apparently are, “sessions in which women, mostly, and generally the same ones over and over again are informed by their trainers that they are equal, important, and born to be leaders.” Dr. Benard goes on to explain that the reason why the same participants are seen continuously at these workshops is that, “those who speak good English and have the savvy to get themselves on the invitee list (are) recycled endlessly because that’s so much easier than looking for new candidates.” Bernard also claims that the USAID trainers direct participants to “practice writing their ‘visions for the future’ on a whiteboard and giving fictitious radio interviews.” Benard concludes by stating that, “if they play their cards right, (the women can move on) to the advanced class and the refresher workshop and the specialized class on how to run for office. It can become something like a profession, with free meals, a stipend, days spent in nice hotels and for the especially lucky, conferences in Dubai or Europe or even the United States.”
We at RTSGC believe the PROMOTE program, while striking in planned scope and potential coverage, has fallen short of expectations most especially when it comes to implementation and gaining traction. “Young Afghans are the future of their country, and our aim is for the young women who participate in this program to be the future leaders of all sectors of Afghan society.” – USAID Afghanistan Mission Director Bill Hammink. An admirable goal to be sure, however only cursory research is required to find just how non-impactful the program appears to have become.
Created in 2008, SIGAR’s mission is to “promote economy and efficiency of U.S.-funded reconstruction programs in Afghanistan and to detect and deter fraud, waste, and abuse by conducting independent, objective, and strategic audits, inspections, and investigations to promote efficiency and effectiveness of reconstruction programs, and to detect and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars. SIGAR also has a hotline that allows individuals to report suspected fraud”. Unfortunately with little or no ability to affect and enforce change or at the very least to refer for accountable consequences, SIGAR’s exemplary reporting has resulted in limited meaningful action and is unlikely to do so unless the new U.S. administration follows-up to effect change and eliminate waste. In fact in a December 18, 2014 report, SIGAR states, “the Defense and State Departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) were (in many cases) unable to identify the portions of programs that specifically related to Afghan women.”
So, all of this begs the question, “How do Afghan women benefit from this costly USAID program (PROMOTE)? At RTSGC, this is of special concern to us as our CEO invested many years embedded in-country working with the very people, men and women, the PROMOTE program is attempting to educate and protect. He witnessed first-hand the well documented physical and mental abuse and oppression of women. In her National Interest Article, Dr. Benard opines that, “The challenges & atrocities that women in Afghanistan face in order to secure an income for her family to raising children amidst the harsh economic crisis are increasing and it is primarily because of the lack of political will and laws that perpetuate gender inequity at the national level. When you are highly advanced and living in peacetime, and your switch turns on the lights, you can define “empowerment” as meaning that women should speak up more loudly in the next board meeting. But when you are trying to dig out from over forty years of war, and when you were one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world even before that, “empowerment” might (simply) mean: (a dam that brings actual power to your home).”
In a country so fundamentally different culturally from the US, we at RTSGC, agree fundamentally with Dr. Benard. We believe a more appropriate course of action would be to focus first on completing “bricks and mortar” projects such as power generation and distribution, textiles, rare-earth mining, specialized agricultural development (e.g. saffron production), building new schools, road construction, providing safe drinking water, and other infrastructure type/impactful-on-the-LONG-TERM opportunities versus attempting to dramatically shift an existing culture to a more Westernized way of thinking. Opportunities for such efforts could synergize with women-owned business development efforts. In fact, we believe that a much more effective way to spend US tax dollars would be to focus on those ideas and projects that are going to have the most impact, over the longest period of time, impacting the greatest number of people. Common sense? You decide.
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