04 October 2009

A better way to help Afghanistan

A better way to help Afghanistan

Today, General Sir David Richards is quoted in The Sunday Telegraph as saying "Taliban and al-Qaeda know that the conflict will not be lost in Afghanistan, it will be lost in Britain, America and France, and their tactics are designed to get at that vulnerability.  If you look at the geopolitical consequences of failure, it's not just in the short term on the streets of the UK.  If the Taliban and al-Qaeda - and, believe me they are one and the same - think they have defeated is, what next?  Would they stop at Afghanistan?"

He then uses the domino argument that used to be used for justification of the Vietnam war, i.e. next on the list would be Pakistan, India etc.

I do not believe that he is correct as I think the underlying cause of the issues is poverty rather than religion.

There are very few rational reasons for war.  The only completely justifiable reason is national security, and I mean a genuinely direct threat to national security; even George Orwell, a committed pacifist, accepted and joined in against the potential of invasion of the United Kingdom by Hitler and the Nazis.  Neither the threats in Iraq and Afghanistan were direct threats to national security; the United Kingdom never used attacks by the IRA in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain as a reason to invade the whole of Southern Ireland.

The only other rational reason for war, although in my opinion it does not constitute justifiable reason for wars, is protection of economic interests (which could have been a reason for the American-led invasion of Iraq, but no senior politician has ever admitted this one).

Wars are started for many other reasons, ranging from the pique of national leaders to power struggles.  Worryingly there has been a massive increase in the number of conflicts since 1945, with a massive jump since the mid-1980s.  I suspect that most of these are internal power struggles rather than wars between sovereign states.

It is time for peace.

These wars will not solve some of the key questions that underlie the rise in global terrorism:

  1. How do you close the poverty gap between the developed world and the developing world?
  2. How do you bring education to the developed world, especially to women?
  3. How do you provide finance to new businesses, especially for women, in the developed world to enable them to start their own businesses and struggle their way out of poverty?

War does not solve these questions and the many more detailed questions about how to remove global poverty.  It treats in a very blunt way the symptoms of poverty.

Think about what good could be done for people's lives if some of the military expenditure were spent trying to build Afghanistan (and rural Pakistan) out of poverty by promoting education.  Doesn't even this Labour Government acknowledge the importance of education to pulling people out of poverty; this has been a cornerstone of Labour policy for years, even its mantra "education, education, education", but one they have failed to transfer to other countries. 

Britain spends between £2.6 billion (2008) and £3.5 billion (2009-10) on fighting in Afghanistan.  In contrast, Britain's development expenditure is about £100 million a year (Source:  Country Programme Evaluation Afghanistan, Department of International Development, May 2009), none of which seems to be for education.  The USA spends about $3 billion directly via its Overseas Development Assistance, with a further two-thirds being indirect bringing their annual total to $9 billion (Source:  Country Programme Evaluation Afghanistan, Department of International Development, May 2009).

What Britain is doing to help Afghanistan is a drop in the ocean.  It looks pathetic against the Americans input.  Also, all the expenditure seems to be being spent on humanitarian projects and big infrastructure developments.

Britain's involvement in Afghanistan will fail even if it were to become a military success without addressing the overarching question of poverty, and its solution through building an education system and nurturing an economy.

I would estimate that it would cost about £35,000 to build a school in Afghanistan and support for up to 5 years (based on the $50,000 quoted in the Central Asia Institute web site www.ikat.org which is part of Greg Mortensen's saintly work in rural Northern Pakistan).  Even with the inefficiencies of British bureaucracy, we must be able to build schools for £70,000.

So I think the British Government should commit to building schools in Pakistan. 

The current UK schools building programme is for for 200 new schools each year at a cost of £45-55 billion over the programme. 

So let's say that the Government should commit to building 200 schools in rural Afghanistan at a cost £15 million, or £3.75 million a year for 50 schools each year.  Intriguingly, that's less than it costs per school in the UK, which is about £27.5 million, so perhaps we just drop one school from the building programme and commit that to schools in Afghanistan or around the world.

Or how about something even more radical, Britain could build some mosques.  This would show that this is not a religious conflict.  This would act as a counterweight to radical Islamic mosques and support a more balanced and tolerant Islam.  This is also important as much of the teaching is carried out within mosques, especially on the interpretation of the Koran.

Without getting the underlying basics of education correct then you cannot even hope to start solving the economic and political issues.

The downside is that the British Government's name is so tainted that they may simply not be able to build schools or mosques without causing offence.  If that's the case, then that speaks volumes about the popularity of our policy on the ground.