Rula Ghani is unlike any first lady Afghanistan has ever had — and not just because she’s Lebanese and Christian. From the day her husband Ashraf Ghani, who she met while studying political science at the American University of Beirut, was inaugurated in 2014, it was clear she would not be a silent partner. She’s been a public advocate for women, children, and the almost 2 million Afghans displaced by decades of war. She’s also been an outspoken critic of foreign aid and military intervention in Afghanistan.But she’s also interested in spreading new narratives of the embattled country — like that almost half the cabinet is under 40 and 11 women are deputy ministers. “These are the kinds of stories I’d like to hear more of, it’s more about the small achievements of everyday,” she says. “We have stories that can be told but somehow they’re not being told.”
BRIGHT spoke with Ghani to understand these stories better, and what the world is getting wrong about her adopted country. Read the interview below:
BRIGHT: You’ve been a big advocate for women’s rights in Afghanistan. What support do you think Afghan women need? What is the international development community getting wrong about them?
Rula Ghani: Afghan women are like any other group of women coming out of conflict. They have gone through several decades of war, of uncertainty, of all the horrible things that have happened along the way. War disrupts societies and it’s caused women to completely lose their role in Afghan society. They need to gain that back and become active participants in the family, in their communities, and at work.
I think that the international development community should not see the problems Afghan women have as an indication that they’re weak. There’s this misconception that Afghan women aren’t engaged with the country’s problems. Afghan women are extremely strong and, perhaps because of all the problems they have had to face, they’re actually quite enterprising.
BRIGHT: After decades of war, there are almost 2 million people displaced within Afghanistan, part of 68.5 million people displaced worldwide. Why is this issue important issue to you and what can the world learn from Afghanistan?
RG: Whether you’re here in Afghanistan, or you’re in the U.S., there are always situations where people have to leave their homes suddenly and gather a few things and find shelter somewhere else. If you think about the fires in California right now, you already have an idea of how hard it is to lose everything in one go. It’s not an easy situation.In post-conflict countries, it’s that much more difficult because people are thrown into horrible conditions and there are no resources to help them. People are put into camps that are supposed to be temporary and then suddenly thousands of people are living in them. There’s not enough space so entire families are squeezing into tiny plots of land. You put a tarp on top of that space and use small stones and sticks to build a shelter, and hope that it keeps out the rain, and then the snow. There are very few facilities like toilets — and let’s not even talk about schools.
It can be a very, very desperate situation in those camps and unfortunately it does not get any better. Because people keep giving humanitarian aid and humanitarian aid is not the solution, the solution is helping them build a new, normal life.
What can people learn from Afghanistan? Don’t let these places become permanent.
BRIGHT: What do you wish Afghanistan had instead of aid?
RG: The very generous humanitarian aid given by the international community just hasn’t amounted to much: the number of displaced people is still increasing, and a few bags of flour and sugar or a few blankets and a new tarpaulin does not resolve this issue. The issue is resettling these people.
Camps shouldn’t be considered permanent fixtures; they should at most be a home for one year.
I think the money that goes to humanitarian aid would be better spent helping the government build new towns and more normal living situations that help provide employment for displaced people. The more quickly you can build normal lives, the better they feel.
BRIGHT: How has Afghanistan changed since you moved there from Lebanon? In what ways has it stayed the same?
RG: I got married in 1975 and we lived there before moving to the United States, so I’ve known Afghanistan before conflict. We came back in 2001/02 and the difference was incredible. I mean, the country had been destroyed, four decades of war. I couldn’t recognize it. The society had been broken.
My husband’s aunt would complain to me that when she used to go down to the market, she’d see 20 people she knew. She’d talk to them, find out about how their families were doing, and what was going on in their lives. Now, when she goes to the market she doesn’t recognize anyone. There have been these big shifts in the population because of the war.
Between 2001/02 and today, again there’s big changes, but they’re more subtle. We’re not totally out of danger, there’s a lot of uncertainty, instability, and people dying, but it has changed in that people are starting to find their hope and ways to improve their lives. They are starting to believe that we might be getting out of this situation.
BRIGHT: You’ve been critical of the aid sector in Afghanistan. What do you think needs to change in how NGOs operate in Afghanistan?
RG: I think it’s a systemic flaw that bothers me about NGOs — and I mean local NGOs, as international ones have their own set of problems. Local NGOs are built on a system of funding that is project-specific. Foreign donors give them money, but as soon as the project is over, they have to go back and beg for more.
Their work has to depend on what the donors are interested in. Maybe they’ll have to change specialty. If they were doing agriculture, maybe they need to switch to health, and maybe after that they’ll have to switch to education.
It’s not a very sane system, and you don’t get very good results out of it. The uncertainty about when and where their next project will be is not a very good system to build on — they can’t build institutions that will remain, because they’re at the whim of what money they can find.
I tell all the people that come and visit me after getting an NGO project funded to spend it on building lasting institutions. This foreign money isn’t going to be here forever, at some point it’s going to start disappearing.
You know what it’s done with the older generations in Afghanistan? They’ve become dependent on this money. It’s killed their creativity and their sense of initiative.
BRIGHT: You said international NGOs had their own set of issues. What are they?
RG: They’re more sophisticated but they compete amongst themselves for donor funds and they often don’t communicate with each other because they’re all competing for the same pool of money.They also skew reality in the process. They have to say Afghanistan is in terrible shape because they have to justify why they’re coming to work here. They end up contributing to the negative media about the country because they need to show how desperate the situation is in Afghanistan to get enough money.
They’re also not really trying to work with us as partners. Once they’ve spent some time in Afghanistan they realize we’re their partners, but they always come in with the idea that they know better, that they’ll tell Afghans what to do. It doesn’t work like that in Afghanistan.
I was watching a presentation by an international NGO recently and they had an infographic about the gains of women in Afghanistan: how many justices are now women, how many deputy ministers are now women. It was presented as if they had accomplished it. But each of these measures were done by the Afghan government, by Afghan women. If there hadn’t been political will, it wouldn’t have happened.
BRIGHT: You spoke about your choice to wear a headscarf to Devex World, an international development conference, saying that you wore it to show people that a woman wearing one “can have ideas and can express herself.” Could you tell us more about this?
RG: What I have noticed in my not-very-short life is that people react to who they’re meeting based on what they’re wearing, and how they’re dressed, and what kind of shoes they have. I think it’s really the wrong attitude. We need to learn to see beyond appearance: what are a person’s aspirations, do you agree with what the person is saying?
Especially now, with the question of the scarf, people attribute all sorts of opinions and ideas to women wearing headscarves that are probably very far from what they’re actually thinking.
BRIGHT: What stories do you wish the international press was telling about Afghanistan?
RG: We have come a long way since 2001. People have regained hope. Young people are no longer trying to go find fortune in Europe or other countries. We’re becoming a cohesive society. We’re trying to get over these divisions between ethnic and religious groups.
Young people are coming of age without the same prejudices their parents had. We have a whole population of older people who are still living the fights of the 1980s and 1990s, but the younger generation has much less baggage. They understand the concept of citizenship and they have much more of an understanding of civic responsibility.
It’s only been since 2001 that we had a regime that was trying to become a democracy. Before that, people weren’t really citizens; they were subjects. There was a small minority that led the country and if you were one of them, you had a very good life and if you were not you had a very bad life.
Young people understand that you elect a person for five years and after that you go back to the polls and decide whether or not to elect somebody else. Fortunately, 46 percent of the population is under 15 now. We have a very young population and that makes me very hopeful.
The media loves a negative story, unfortunately. If it’s sensational, it’s good copy. But slowly, slowly we’re starting to have a few nice achievements: We have young people in positions of authority, almost half the cabinet is under 40, and 11 women are deputy ministers.
BRIGHT: Do you have any advice for someone traveling to or working in Afghanistan?
RG: Listen to people; meet with as many people as you can. Afghan people, if you treat them with respect, they will return that respect manyfold. Listen, listen, listen.
BRIGHT: Anything else you’d like readers to know about Afghanistan?
RG: I’d love to give two book recommendations, to help people understand the country better. One is Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, which talks about the complexity of international interventions in Afghanistan. The other is A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar. It’s a personal account of the tribulations of a family during the decades of civil war. It has some beautiful passages and some horrible ones, but it paints a true picture of Afghanistan.
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