Afghanistan’s horrendous choice: War with women’s rights or peace with servitude

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Today is International Women’s Day and as my contribution I am focusing on Afghanistan as both the UK and the US cut their support to this country

I have recently come across a searing Congressional report from the United States Inspectorate on Afghanistan Reconstruction on the state of women’s and girl’s equality there.

Everybody knows the years of conflict which has cost British and American lives to rid the country of the Taliban regime and their horrendous treatment of women.

But this report shines a different light on the current plight of women just as the UK and the US are about to leave the country should a deal be possible between the war lords and the Taliban.

The United States has spent £564m in aid over nearly 20 years on women and girls

It reveals that during the never ending conflict from 2002 to 2020 the US has spent some £564.6 million on women and girls. On one level the achievement for women has been startling. From virtually no girls in schools under the Taliban there are now 3.5 million girls receiving an education. And a third of the country’s 210,000 teachers are now women but mainly in urban areas like Kabul.

There have been improvements in maternity care despite a horrendous death rate among pregnant women. Prenatal care coverage rose from 16 percent of pregnant women in 2002 to 61 percent in 2015. Postnatal care coverage increased from an average of 28 percent between 2005 and 2010 to 40 percent in 2015. And the number of trained midwives rose from a pathetic 467 in 2002 to roughly 4,000 in 2018.

There is, like many other areas, a huge disparity between urban and rural areas. Some 16 per cent of women died in childbirth in Kabul rising to an alarming 65 per cent in one rural province in 2002. This has improved with various estimates from the UK, Irish and World Health Organisation by between 19 per cent and 50 per cent, because reliable statistics are difficult to verify.

What has not improved particularly in rural areas is the attitude towards women. The US government also tried to encourage women to join the army and the police – this was the least effective of their programmes. “Targets have been highly unrealistic and unachievable. Although there has been a modest increase in the number of women police officers, women in all parts of the security forces face threats to their personal safety and pervasive harassment and discrimination,” says the report.

KABUL, 22 October 2019 – UNAMA Central Region Office in Kabul organized Global Open Day event, to facilitate discussion on women, peace, and security. The event was attended by 36 participants representatives from women rights activists, Government actors, schools’ teachers, local shuras, and university students. UNAMA CRO head of office In her opening remarks emphasized the importance of the Global Open Day as a forum to review the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. UNAMA Photo / Fardin Waezi.

The US aid has had more effect in getting women involved in politics and the community. The report says: “Afghan women have assumed leadership roles at the national, provincial, district, and community levels. At the same time, they face threefold threats: continued or intensified violence, the risk of Afghan peace negotiations leading to erosions of women’s rights, and a dire economic and humanitarian situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Covid 19 has caused big problems in Afghanistan. The report says: “The lack of testing capability means that up to 90 percent of collected samples are untested, and therefore go unreported. Of the limited number of tests conducted, Afghanistan’s positivity rate—the percentage of tests that reveal COVID-19 infection—was nearly 43 percent as of July 2020, one of the highest in the world.”

The World Bank is alarmed that widespread poverty will become worse as the Afghan economy is hit by the pandemic cd see those living in poverty rise to 72 per cent of the population. Cultural problems make treatment for women worse. “Due to deeply entrenched sociocultural norms, many Afghans are reluctant to allow their mothers, wives, daughters, or sisters to visit a doctor directly, or at all, if that doctor is a male.”

The future is not rosy in other areas for women. The report found “Some of the gains made for girls in access to education may not be sustainable, since a large portion of the education sector in Afghanistan is dependent on international donor funding for maintaining and expanding those gains.”

No level playing field for men and women in meetings

And it is not a level playing field in political meetings. One woman told the report “When we have meetings and both men and women raise their hands and show their cards, the respect that is given to men is not given to women. The time which is given to men is not given to women. When a woman speaks, she is not allowed to speak more than three minutes, but a man is allowed to speak more than 15 minutes.”

Women are still scared in many parts of the country to go out alone as they can face harassment and violence from men. SIGAR interviewed 65 people from all Afghanistan’s 14 provinces and both men and women said it was society’s constraints that held women back.

The time which is given to men is not given to women. When a woman speaks, she is not allowed to speak more than three minutes, but a man is allowed to speak more than 15 minutes.”

Afghan woman

Many interviewees—male and female—said that social and cultural norms are one of the biggest barriers to Afghan women’s advancement, particularly in rural areas. “Men in our community think the role of women is to sit at home and cook. If their mothers tell them to behave well with their wives, so they do, and if their mothers order them to beat their wives and misbehave, so they also do,” said a woman from Nangarhar Province.

President Biden will decide soon whether to completely pull out of Afghanistan which was the policy of the Trump administration. The UK, according to a leaked report to Open Democracy will cut aid sharply to Afghanistan shortly. Once again it will be women who will lose out and many of their fragile gains could once again be lost. As the report said if the Taliban and other war lords regain full control “the effort to promote women’s rights may be hampered by a growing narrative in Afghanistan that the country can either have women’s rights at the cost of peace, or peace at the cost of women’s rights.”

The full report by SIGAR is worth a good read.

Exposed: The Whitehall high flyer who stole ministry secrets to help Adam Smith International bid for overseas aid contracts

rajadasgupta.jpg

Raja Dasgupta: pic credit Daily Mail and keyword suggestions

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This is Raja Dasgupta. He was a fast stream entrant to the civil service elite. He had a  good career . He started in the private office of  Alan Duncan ,the minster for international development in 2011.

He was promoted to climate change manager in South Africa in 2012 and then became head of the business effectiveness team in 2014 also in South Africa.

His Linked In profile says : “I have played a leading role on strategic business planning for DFID’s regional Africa programme, directly advised and worked with UK International Development ministers, and officially represented the UK during international treaty negotiations at the United Nations.”.

His Linked In profile which detailed his career now appears to have been taken down following  the exposure about his activities.

But in June last year he joined Adam Smith International – a British private overseas aid contractor ( annual income £130m) which relied on 80 per cent of its money from the Department for International Development – as a senior manager based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Now he has proved to be the catalyst that has brought down ASI Ltd – which has been effectively banned from bidding for any more contracts until the organisation has proved to the ministry that it has been completely reformed. Three senior founder directors, Peter Young ( in his youth a far right Tory), Andrew Kuhn and  Amitabh Shrivastava have resigned and the founder executive chairman,William Morrison, is to leave once the reforms are completed.

Three separate sources in England and Africa  (and the Mail on Sunday) have named Raja  Dasgupta as the civil servant who gave confidential ministry  information to ASI Ltd which gave them a competitive edge to bid for contracts across Africa.

One source said : “when moving to ASI in South Africa he took with him DFID country plans and country specific private sector engagement plans that DFID would then rank bids against, it set out specific priorities and specific sectors and markets that DFID wanted to focus on…This then allowed ASI to bid on contracts specific to these Southern Africa private sector engagement plans as set out and created by DFID and FCO.( Foreign and Commonwealth Office).”

Certainly the official findings of a DFID report – which does not name him – confirm this.

“The withdrawal by ASI is the result of serious concerns about the company’s behaviour:

  • ASI employees sought to make use of improperly obtained DFID documents shared within ASI by a former member of DFID staff.
  • The documents in question were draft internal DFID documents which contained information clearly confidential to the Department.
  • The documents were nevertheless shared widely within ASI, including to senior personnel, in full knowledge that ASI should not have had access to the documents.
  • This was done with a view to exploiting the material to ASI’s commercial advantage.
  • At no point did ASI or any of its employees question this or raise concerns with DFID.
  • DFID has conducted its own forensic investigation into these allegations. There have been serious questions over ASI’s ethical integrity. It is therefore right that ASI is taking action to address this.”

I tried to contact Raja Dasgupta by ringing his Nairobi office. There was no reply nor message facility to leave my name. I tried to contact ASI’s media team and did leave a message about whether Raja was still working for them. They have not come back to me.

Reprehensible as his actions were, this story has wider ramifications. He is not just a rogue  chancer or trader even if DFID seem to pin the blame on him. The culture exposed at Adam Smith International is a damning indictment of the British company. They knew they had access to confidential material which could be used for commercial gain. They wanted to make more profits in a company that already paid six figure salaries  and huge dividends to its top people. They were millionaires dealing in poverty. That is why – even if it is reformed – DFID are right to say there will be no “quick fix” which allows them to resume business next month.

But it also raises questions about DFID and its capacity to monitor what is going on. While the aid budget has gone up – the staff budget has been cut. So fewer people are monitoring larger sums of aid. DFID will not release the  full forensic report into what happened – either to the public or to the Select Committee for International Development, which holds the ministry to account. What have they got to hide.

This story began when the Mail on Sunday exposed the firm trying and failing to hoodwink the Select Committee on International Development by creating favourable reports of their work. It has now morphed into an example of how British private contractors can try and rip off the British taxpayer for private gain by any means they see as necessary.

 

 

A British made overseas aid scandal that has ended in ruined reputations for the people who promoted it

Mail on Sunday story

The Mail on Sunday story that started the scandal. Is there more to this?

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In the last few days one of Britain’s bigger contractors to our overseas aid programme has voluntarily suspended participating in bidding  for any new work and seen the resignation of three of its principal founders.

Adam Smith International – turnover £130m  and making a £17m profit in 2015 – makes  a lot of its money promoting overseas aid programmes funded by the  British taxpayer in places from Afghanistan to Jordan, Nigeria, St Helena, Syria. Iraq and Libya to name but a few. It also received funds from  among others the Canadian government, the European Commission and the World Bank.

However last year it faced an expose in the Mail on Sunday which revealed that it was attempting to hoodwink  a Parliamentary committee investigating the role of  private contractors by encouraging favourable views of its work.

That committee – Commons Select Committee on International Development – produced a damning report last month which concluded it had tried to mislead Parliament.

It concluded that Adam Smith International behaved improperly and it was only the failure of the company to convince MPs that they are not being reported to the Committee of Privileges for misleading Parliament.

The report said : “Adam Smith International has acted improperly …It overstepped the mark in soliciting the submissions of written evidence, including  applying pressure to beneficiaries to submit evidence with implied or explicit references to continuation of funding.

“ASI sought to unduly influence the International Development Committee by engineering the submission of what at first sight appeared to be independent evidence of its value and effectiveness as a mechanism of development delivery. We are very concerned at the serious lack of judgement displayed by ASI…, the actions of ASI went well beyond what was appropriate.

“That we did not accept the material in question as evidence meant that we were not misled or influenced. This reduces the seriousness of the impact and therefore we are not seeking a referral of this matter to the Committee on Privileges.

“Nevertheless, we deplore the sort of inappropriate conduct that ASI staff have engaged in—particularly the attempts to conceal ASI’s involvement in collecting the beneficiary testimonials and the inappropriate pressure that was put on beneficiaries to provide testimonials”.

The committee were not wholly satisfied and planned a further investigation with a report due at Easter.

adam smith intrernational

Then last week the top people in charge of the company quit.

William Morrison, Executive Chairman of ASI, said in a statement on its website:

“The company’s mission is to foster the social and economic development of some of the poorest and often most conflict-ridden countries in the world. Our comprehensive reform emphasises the importance to our staff of this mission.  We regret that certain deficiencies of policy and procedure resulted in our failure to meet the highest standards of corporate governance, such that we did not meet the expectations of DFID and the public, to whom we are accountable.”

The organisation is to reform itself as “an enterprise with primary focus on a social mission, with a mandate to consider its triple bottom line, taking into account its social, environmental and financial performance.”
It will also establish a foundation and reinvest a significant percentage of net earnings in developing countries, in part through the new foundation.

It announced three founding directors – Andrew Kuhn, Amitabh Shrivastava and Peter Young – will step down. And William Morrison himself , a founding director and ASI’s Executive Chairman, will step down after leading ASI through the restructuring.

Looking back through early Companies House accounts show the firm originated as an off shoot of the Adam Smith Institute – a neoliberal think tank – and its first directors included two founders of that think tank Madsen Pirie and Eamonn Butler. The Institute was recently revealed in a survey to be the least transparent about where it got its money.

One of the other directors Peter Young, who has just quit, had been there 24 years.

The highest paid director was paid £223,000 a year and the remaining directors shared another £500,000 a year between them. Malcolm Rifkind, the former Tory foreign secretary, is also a non executive director.

The company was nearly struck off the Companies House register  in December – but the action was withdrawn in February.

One can only wonder whether there is more to this story than even meets the eye – given how quickly it has started a damage limitation exercise. One waits the MPs findings with growing interest.