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Afghanistan: Where the incapable come to build capability

By Revelly Robinson - posted Monday, 7 March 2011

Capacity building in Afghanistan's commercial sector is often typified by young, inexperienced, under-qualified university graduates who have no interest in understanding the culture of the local population, leading to a culture of contempt and disdain for the Afghan people.

It is no secret that Kabul is rife with contractors, missionaries and all manner of other expats ranging from restaurant entrepreneurs to civil engineers. After the departure of the Taliban the massive influx of aid money into Afghanistan was accompanied with a surge of foreign expats, many young, socially mobile and with grand ambitions of helping Afghanistan claw itself out of decades of civil war and away from the clutches of the Taliban. After the military, NGOs and UN had made their mark, then entered commercial enterprise. Consulting firms such as Deloitte snapped up USAID contracts like bukhari sawdust, realising the potential windfall of never-ending investment into the chaos stricken region. As the funding and security threats increased, so too did the chasm between the expat and local community.

Much has been written about the so-called 'Kabubble', a social vortex in which expats interact in total isolation of the local community. The transience of many Kabul expats and the need for release from the stress and frustration of a typical work day in Afghanistan results in an outbreak of prohibition style, guest-list only parties, where expats can abandon the social niceties of Afghan culture and fraternise as un-scarved or as unshaven as they like. In expat circles, foreigners are free to lament about the difficulties of working with laggard locals, the need to babysit and cajole their staff and the inefficiencies of the Afghan bureaucracy. These common complaints and the fact that inter-cultural mingling is frowned upon by many companies perpetuates the gap between locals and expats and hinders the capacity building effort.


Capacity building involves the assistance given by those with a particular skillset to improve the capability of those whose skills are regarded as lacking in a certain area, usually those entities working in developing countries. The problem with the notion of building capacity in developing countries is that the process often has little to do with the culture itself. In fact, in many cases it results in the imposition of the so-called more modern society's methods upon the so-called less capable country's. Afghanistan's commercial sector is rampant with organisations building the capacity of the perceived incapable.

A consultant at the major telecommunications company, Roshan, in Kabul remarked upon how expats who often had less expertise in their field than the locals, were just expected to steam-roll into the organisation, making their staff bend at their will. There was no attempt in the company to educate expats about Afghan culture. Friendships with locals were discouraged and movement into Afghan areas was restricted under the guise of security reasons. Expats were ferreted away in fortress like compounds. Social circles were even further segregated with separate lunchtimes and eating quarters for expat and local staff. The culture of the company was characterised by an influx of minimally skilled foreigners, many with only a university degree to their name, blasting into the office and dictating demands to Afghan locals. Many of these demands were less than productive and delivered in total disregard of the presiding Afghan customs of respect and civility.

What the majority of expats fail to realise is that management systems are developed in the context of the organisation which they are intended to govern. Imposing a particular system upon another fails to take into account the intricacies of the system it is intended to improve. To assume that systems developed in the opposite side of the world in a culture completely alien to the local culture

can necessarily be universally replicated is insulting to the local regime, which often has its own processes for handling similar issues. Workplaces should emphasise that efficiency is the key. Whether this is achieved by using foreign or local methods, expat and local staff should collaborate jointly to achieve this aim.

What the capacity building effort, in Afghanistan in particular, needs to focus upon is the need to integrate commercial practices with methods that are respectful to the local society and choose expatriates who will seek to promote this. If not, then what will eventuate is a situation where poorly educated foreigners are prematurely promoted and, due to their high positions, are less likely to seek alternate employment. As these under-skilled staff reach middle management level, they too will tend to seek out employees who will replicate the management systems they've adopted, in other words, those work practices that rely on belittling local Afghans. If these are the individuals being recruited by businesses in Afghanistan, then its no wonder that an undercurrent of resentment exists within the Afghan community against the overpaid, under-worked and over-the-top foreigners.

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About the Author

Revelly Robinson is an independent writer and consultant based in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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