Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Masters of Poverty

From Glenn Reynolds, who quotes Boston University Professor John Robert Kelly. Too good not to reprint in its entirety. My only quibble is that the reader must not confuse the local NGO staffers with the development tourists described below. The gap between a Western  NGO Mandarin and his local counterpart is probably as great as that between the slave and slaveowner in the antebellum south. And the division of labor is roughly the same. The foreign NGO representative lives in the big white house on the hill and looks at the books of accounts. The local NGO worker often lives in a shack in the field and does all the dangerous and dirty work.



It’s a lonely and frustrating life for the western NGO and UN grief relief workers in Afghanistan. There are those hefty paychecks, often amounting to thousands of dollars——tax-free-- a week, but no place to spend it. After all, how many carpets and antique swords can one collect? Then there’s that pesky problem of the desultory hours surfing the net in air conditioned estates converted to office space, but nowhere else to travel, except back to the villa in new, chauffeured Landcruisers for an evening of the same old faces, same old conversations. Numerous fearful directives and warnings keep these NGO workers from hitting the street and meeting and mingling with the Afghan population. When these warnings are lifted, few wish to wander from their guarded compound. There’s a very valid awareness that the NGO permanent party isn’t well liked by the Kabulis. An elderly Hazara rug merchant whose business has been halved by the timidity of NGO shoppers snorts derisively in perfect English, ““Their feet never touch the ground in Kabul.” And he’s right. In a typical week, one sees just a few handfuls of westerners, mostly ISAF troops on holiday, even in the safest zones of the tourist traps and souvenir shops on Chicken Street, Kabul’s answer to Rodeo Drive.

Many of the professional compassion corps are feeling restless and bored; they’ve already been staff in Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan, and nowadays believe they belong in Iraq, that’s where the real money is. In the status conscious pecking order of NGO hierarchies, Afghanistan is passe. Only the palpable danger of Iraq keeps down the flurry of resumes from Kabul to Baghdad. It’s the rare NGO worker who applies for work before the shooting is over and the maximum salaries are fixed. The money has been spent in Afghanistan, the bank is closed. The UN has larded tens of millions of dollars on an enormous fleet of brand new top-of-the-line Toyota Landcruisers, many times that on inflated salaries, mansions and the luxurious perks of occupying pashas. The needy locals are not amused. The American citizens who’ve liberally financed this largesse would be appalled at the waste.

It’s not all monotonous or pointless in Kabul; at one French NGO housed in a stunning antique-laden chalet, I’’ve devoured a seven-course meal prepared by a 4 star chef. Then there’s always the sumptuous UN House, where one can take a dip, mingle poolside among scandalous bikinis and dowse dehydration with inspired cocktails fashioned by our languid Euro masters. Unfortunately, since "American UN employee" is an oxymoron, our one attempt to storm the formidable barricades is a spectacular failure. We’re rudely turned away, despite flashing $20 bills to the Afghan UN security. My companion, a fierce Pushtoon-American licensed to pack a very visible Glock 19, glances back at the sunbathers as we’re escorted out: “We’ve paid for all this with our taxes, you bastards!” One of the Pushto guard’s shrugs his shoulderssympathetically, muttering an apology that suggests “someday this will all be ours again.” For all the heroic American efforts in Afghanistan, truly and deeply appreciated by the indigenous population, we’re still treated as unwanted nuisances by the predominantly European NGO residents.

For us hoi polloi, there was always the Irish Pub that opened on Saint Paddy’s day to such fanfare in the western press——and with far greater gratitude in Kabul——but is now shuttered, a victim of its own success.

Sean McQuade’s commercial instinct was impeccable: the creation of a stimulating oasis for thirsty westerners in one of the driest and most oppressively conservative cities in the Islamic world. The demand was high——a bit too high, according to some Afghans. In a city where getting stoned isn’t an amusing colloquialism for intoxication but a literal description for the Taliban sport of getting smashed at the soccer stadium, Sean’s otherwise laudable enterprise had a few defects in the business model, the most notable was that his public house had a mullah next door. McQuade had hoped for a lower profile for his tavern, but the spirited swarms of tipsy patrons pouring into their NGO SUVs in the late hours scandalized the neighborhood and not even the owner’s gracious offer of baksheesh to rebuild local roads and schools could keep the speakeasy alive.

All is not lost for parched westerners in search of a public lager with good company, however, since other more discreet taps have opened throughout the city. At the Mustafa Hotel, long the favorite haven of adventuresome tourists and savvy international journalists, where last summer we diluted toxic contraband Tajik vodka (at $50 a liter) with Fanta, one can not only legally quaff a draught, but also surf the net or file a story at the same time...and not a mullah for a hundred meters.