WASHINGTON — Rula Ghani, Afghanistan’s first lady and a champion for women’s rights, fashions herself as a grandmotherly figure for a nation struggling to reclaim its history and traditions as a springboard to a more stable future.
She also understands that representatives of the international organizations she has no qualms about criticizing might find her a bit less comforting. Speaking on the sidelines of Devex World on June 12, Ghani took issue with some nongovernmental organizations’ tendency to ignore the existence of a government in Afghanistan.
“There is maybe two-thirds of them that think they know everything, and they're here to help, to teach, and to tell [Afghans] what to do. And so they really create more harm than good,” she said.
Data and technology have opened unprecedented possibilities for development organizations to understand and connect with the people they serve. At Devex World, organizations at the cutting edge of a shift from "beneficiaries" to "consumers" see promise in a future where they — finally — don't have all the answers.
Here is the full interview with Ghani, edited for clarity and length.
What is life like for women in Afghanistan today, versus 2001?
You're trying to ask whether the situation of women today is better than in 2001. It's very much the case. There have been a lot of improvements, but we still have things that need to be addressed, and I think, like everywhere in the world, women have to fight to find their place in society.
And what is it like to be a woman politician in Afghanistan today?
The person sitting in front of you is not a politician. I don't do politics, and I state it very clearly on my website ... I very purposely refrain from engaging in politics, because I want people to consider me as their first lady, whatever group they belong to. This has been very clear for me. I'm much more like a grandmother. They call me “bibi jan,” which is the term you use usually for a grandmother, and they're very comfortable with me, and I'm very comfortable with them too.
That being said, while you refrain from politics and make that clear, you are one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people, you're working on an issue — women's empowerment — that is inherently political and perhaps especially so in Afghanistan. So what does it mean to you to not be political and yet to work on political issues?
I don't think it's just a political issue. Women are human beings like men, and as such they deserve respect like men do. They have rights like men do. And it's actually bringing them out of obscurity, out of the corner in which they have been relegated, especially during the last decade of the 20th century.
It's not that I'm doing much. I'm just opening a door. And they are ready.
They feel that they have the possibility to become somebody, to take a place. I'm very clear in saying: “I don't necessarily want you to get out of your family. If you want to work [outside the home] that's fine. If you want to stay at home that's fine. You should do what you feel comfortable doing.”
So, I give them choice. I tell them the solutions have to be their solution, and they know their situation better than anyone. What I'm trying to do is bring them in as actors on the social scene, but not necessarily outside the family. Families in Afghanistan are really important, and they're actually a support network. And I know from my years of living in the [United States] that support networks are very important — when you don't have people to help you when you have a minor or major crisis it's very difficult. But in Afghanistan you always have family members that try and help you.
I'm not trying to idealize the family — the ties that bind can be sometimes oppressive, but there is a lot of positive. If women feel comfortable becoming important to their family, it makes the family even stronger, and you have children that grow up that are happy, well adjusted, and become actors of change in their society.
Do you feel that you have a strong partner in the global development community or is this something that has to be firmly Afghanistan's own agenda?
The problem is there, and there are different ways of addressing it. I'm not always happy with the way it is addressed by Westerners. It's basically a question of attitude. You cannot see a problem and tell people, “well, you know, you're doing all this wrong.”
Whatever the situation is, even if you're at a friend's who's cooking, and she's not cooking right, you cannot tell her, “you're doing this totally wrong. You should be doing this and this.” No. And unfortunately there is a lack of sensitivity of international workers. Not all of them — there are some that are really very good. But there is maybe two-thirds of them that think they know everything, and they're here to help, to teach, and to tell [Afghans] what to do. They really create more harm than good.
“You cannot see a problem and tell people, ‘well, you know, you're doing all this wrong.’”— Rula Ghani, first lady of Afghanistan
The problems are there and we need to address them. If you talk with parents, it's usually the very poor ones that have to sell their children into marriage. They don't do it with a light heart. What parent would sell their child and say, “it's OK, he gives me some money." No. They do it out of obligation. The way we are trying to deal with it first of all is through the very general goal of bringing more empowerment to the whole country — building the economy, making sure that everybody can have access to a job, to a source of income.
But also for them, bringing it home, saying, “maybe one day you'll have a piece of land that you can sell instead of selling your child if you have a debt and you have to repay that.”
I don't like the blame game. I'm very positive. I always try to find something that is positive to say — and to commiserate with them. They feel bad. Should I make them feel even worse? And how do you think they're going to react? They might say, “oh you're from the West, you know nothing. You don't understand my situation.”
The difference that you're describing is, instead of blaming people, giving them a different option.
Giving them different options, trying to help them out of their isolation. If ever they are isolated, trying to encourage women to have sewing groups, discussion groups. The Afghan culture is very much about deliberation in groups — the “shuras,” the “jirgas.” It's creating a sense of community, but you don't see the internationals promoting that.
We're coming out of three decades of war, we are in a post-conflict situation, where society has been totally broken. What you need to do is try and bring society back together.
Huge families, extended families that now are just a husband and wife, and may have a lot of difficulties understanding how to function within a nuclear family. They're accustomed to [having other family members available to] take care of the children. For example, the wife might be alone with her children trying to cook, and hot water falls on a child. Many of the babies I have seen that have been scalded by hot water was because they were playing whilst the mother was busy doing something else.
We need to reinstitute some of the traditional things. They have their good, they have their bad, and we should stress the good.
“Maybe I'm seeing my role here at Devex [World] more as saying, ‘OK, technology's good. It's not bad, but please let's not forget the human being. It's the human touch that's really very important.’”—
I think that's an interesting juxtaposition to some of the themes that I'm hearing around here, which tend to be more about technology and data and the ability of these things to empower people to have agency. You're talking about restoring traditions.
Restoring tradition, restoring that history where some women were very important. We've had queens. Women have conquered India. We've had some very strong women. Schools for girls in Kabul all have women’s names, famous women.
So I think, yes, we need to have a strong past, because it's only when you have a strong past and strong tradition, then you can go into the future. You can't make a culture out of nothing. And you're right, yes I feel like there is a lot of technology talk here, and maybe I'm seeing my role here at Devex [World] more as saying, “OK, technology's good. It's not bad, but please let's not forget the human being. It's the human touch that's really very important.”
Obviously you're very focused on the future of Afghanistan and rightly so, but you have a lot of knowledge that's useful to the international development community as well. When you think about the way that that organizations might function in the future, how would you like to see it change?
I'm only talking about the experience I know. So my advice is really in terms of Afghanistan — and that they need to get better informed about what's happening in Afghanistan. A lot of international aid organizations and NGOs ... come as a result of absence of a state. They are called NGOs and they are there to provide services that a nonexistent government is not providing — education, medical, legal.
“Whenever you have a little bit of money in your hand, invest it in things that will endure, that you'll be able to build something on, not on cars and computers and office furniture …”—
NGOs and the internationals are very important right after war stops and until a government is settled — not just formed, but is starting to function. Maybe because the media is definitely very biased against what's happening in Afghanistan, I think they're not digging deep enough to understand what's happening in Afghanistan — that the government is slowly taking its responsibility and setting up a structure. And they may find that they are hitting walls in some places because there is an existing structure now.
In a time where people talk so much about sustainability, why don't they stop and look at the model of the NGO. It's the most unsustainable model, because it goes cycle by cycle. Once the cycle is finished, the NGO has to go with its begging bowl and try and get more money. If they were doing agriculture and the money is for medical, well they'll become medical specialists. And if the money is for handicap, they become handicap specialists. What kind of model is this?
I usually deal with Afghans, and usually it's the older ladies in their late 30s, 40s, 50s. They come and complain to me that, “oh, there is no more money. We can't do anything. Our NGOs are doing nothing.” And I say, "well, but you've done it for 20 years. Didn't you build something? Isn't there something you can start a local institution out of?" And this is what I'm trying to encourage — whenever you have a little bit of money in your hand, invest it in things that will endure, that you'll be able to build something on, not on cars and computers and office furniture and trips.
I definitely agree that there is a time when NGOs are very important. But I feel that today, in Afghanistan, where there is a government that's taking its responsibility and setting up structures, maybe it's time to rethink.
Local NGOs should become local institutions. International aid [groups] have to work with the government and instead of saying, “we have a strategy and this is what you're going to do,” they should see that this is a government with its own strategy. So, they should be saying, “where can we help you? Let's partner.” It's really a shift from donor/beneficiary to partnership.
With large international organizations providing a service when it's useful and when there's demand for it.
I know you talk to them. Do you think they get it?
Oh, they come to me and I talk to them, and there are some that are not very happy with me. Apparently I scare of them, but what's there to be scared of?