Berlin meeting gives Afghanistan hope

31st March 2004, Comments 0 comments

Representatives from more than 60 states are meeting in Berlin for a conference on aid to Afghanistan. While the money is expected to fall short of what Kabul is asking for, Can Merey writes that the two-day conference is providing Afghans with some hope amid the endless debris of war.

Karzai is hoping for new money to shore up security

Men atop the Bagh-i-Bala hill in Kabul rejoice in song and dance, as women nearby enjoy a picnic, some without their usual face-covering burka. All appear to be enjoying themselves amid the festive mood and sunny spring weather.

From the hill, 17-year-old Habib Rahman gazes out onto the debris-laden capital as he expresses his desire to become a construction engineer. "That is how I can help my country and my people the most."

Determining the future of Afghanistan is the goal of a seven-year plan to be discussed by the Afghan government and the international community at a donor conference beginning Wednesday in Berlin, including Afgan President Hamid Karzai.

Afghan and international experts will be trying to raise the USD 27.6 billion  (EUR 22.6 billion) estimated to be necessary for rebuilding the war-torn country.

While the government in Kabul knows this is a whopping amount, it does not want to be perceived as begging for handouts. "We are asking for assistance that will make it possible to get us back on our feet and continue with our development," said Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani.

Bringing Afghanistan forward is an urgent goal of the government in Kabul. According to Ghani, Afghanistan is the second poorest country in the world, with an estimated 29 million people considered dirt poor.

Afghanistan also has one of the highest worldwide rates of infant mortality and many mothers die while giving birth. The nation's life expectancy rate is less than 48 year, and only half of men and one in five women can read.

Twenty-three years of war and civil war have left virtually all of Afghanistan's infrastructure in ruins. While there has been some visible progress in the first two years of rebuilding efforts, many parts of the country remain a debris-laden desert.

Just six percent of the population has access to electricity, the quality of drinking water is poor and many streets are too damaged to drive on. The farming situation is poor and significant industrial capacity does not exist.

Afghanistan's infrastructure is in ruins after 23 years of war

The only profitable business seems to be the cultivation and sale of illegal drugs which provide immediate financial rewards with few risks.

The police and army are still being established, there is no justice system to speak of, and the central government wields little influence in the provinces.

The provincial areas are controlled by warlords with their own armed militias which the government has not been able to disarm. Specifically, in the southern and eastern parts of the country, remnants of the ousted former Taliban regime still enjoy support.

Indeed an unstable Afghanistan is more attractive to the Taliban, the regional warlords and drug kingpins.

Ghani himself has warned of further deterioration in the country that could lead to anarchy and have wider implications outside of Afghanistan. He has said that financial help from the international community now will end up saving billions of dollars later down the road.

The commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Canadian General Rich Hillier, agrees. "The amount we invest here is minimal compared to what would have to be spent when something similar to 11 September occurs," Hillier said.

*quote1*Even the billions needed for Afghanistan's seven-year plan will barely lift the country's level from severe poverty to poverty, Ghani said. The goal is to use the aid to help boost the yearly income level from the current rate of less than USD 200 to USD 500 per year by 2015.

The plan "is not the Mercedes of development, not even a Volkswagen, but a simple motorcycle," said Ghani, who hopes the Berlin conference will be a signal by the international community that it is still committed to rebuilding Afghanistan.

The Afghan minister also points out that Washington has been much more willing to provide financial assistance to its post-war rebuilding efforts in Iraq than in Afghanistan.

The United States gave the Iraq effort USD 22 billion last year, while Afghanistan - which is the about the same size as Iraq in area but lags behind in development by a decade - is set to receive from Washington about one-tenth this amount, or USD 2.4 billion.

In Berlin, the Afghans are searching for what will mark a clear turning point after years of war devastation.

Ghani hopes the conference will "finally put us in a position to emerge from the vicious circle that has gripped us the last two decades".

"We want to be able to wish for a normal country. We want to be able to hope that our children will be able to go to school - and that the children born today will live tomorrow," Ghani added.


April 2004

Subject: German News, Afghan conference, Afghanistan

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