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Afghanistan: Islamabad Conference Focuses On Reconstruction Plans

While Afghan leaders are gathered in Germany to begin planning their country's political future, development experts will meet this week in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to discuss post-war reconstruction plans for Afghanistan. The three-day conference, which opens today, is co-hosted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank.

Islamabad, 27 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Although fighting continues in isolated pockets across Afghanistan, the world is already busy planning for what is hoped will be the country's peacetime future.

Political negotiations -- which got underway in Bonn today -- are taking center stage, but just as important to Afghanistan's recovery will be the brick-and-mortar projects: rebuilding hospitals, constructing schools, de-mining roads, and treating the wounded and traumatized.

The statistics are grim. After more than two decades of war and several years of drought, one in four Afghan children now dies before the age of five. Of those who survive, fewer than four in 10 will have access to primary school, if they are boys. If they are girls, only three in 100 will get a basic education.

Only 11 of Afghanistan's 31 provinces provide maternal and child health services. Only a quarter of the population has access to clean water and just 12 percent to adequate sanitation. Two-thirds of Afghanistan's people suffer from drought and some degree of malnutrition.

The 200 or so experts meeting in Islamabad this week -- representing several UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank -- will discuss the most effective strategies for reversing these catastrophic indicators.

Cherie Hart is the regional spokesperson for the UNDP, the United Nations Development Program. She tells RFE/RL the conference is not "a meeting of bureaucrats."

"The United Nations Development Program, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are co-hosting this conference, and it is not driven by them," she says. "The whole aim of this is that it is an Afghan-led discussion, and it is aimed at harvesting ideas from experts who have worked in Afghanistan, including about 60 to 70 Afghans themselves."

Dale Lautenbach of the World Bank's South Asia department emphasizes this point, telling RFE/RL that unlike in the past, international development organizations are not interested in imposing any "ready-made" solutions. They have learned that working at the community level to develop individually tailored solutions to local problems is the best way to ensure aid money is not wasted: "When one thinks about building a strategy for reconstruction in Afghanistan, it's essential that one imagine such a thing not as a strategy or a blueprint from Washington or Islamabad or anywhere else, but as one that is essentially driven and owned by the sovereign people of Afghanistan, so that critical to any longer-term, sustainable development in that country will be the degree to which that agenda is owned and evolved through the people of Afghanistan themselves. Obviously down the line, when one looks at how such a thing is implemented, there would have to be funding mechanisms, there would have to be a kind of a reconstruction agency in place, in Afghanistan, staffed by Afghans, able to implement and to set the priorities going forward. But there is certainly no pretension on the side of the conference to say, 'OK, we're going to draw up the blueprint,' say, 'here you are,' and hand it over to the political leaders."

Cherie Hart of the UNDP says the challenge facing Afghanistan is that the reconstruction effort will entail not just the physical aspects of rebuilding, but also the reorganization of the entire social fabric. Since the two elements go hand-in-hand, they will be the twin focuses of the conference: "This is not a conference of just infrastructure -- building roads and bridges. It will also examine social infrastructure: health, education, the general welfare of people, and also post-conflict institutions. What will work. What won't work. People will present their ideas."

No specific projects are expected to be decided upon at the Islamabad meeting, and no money will be pledged. Organizers emphasize the gathering is just a first step. Much will depend on whether the various Afghan factions meeting in Bonn this week are able to hammer out a political agreement that will bring the country the stability it desperately needs.

So, what can we expect to come out of Islamabad? Hart says: "What will come out of a harvesting of ideas to take the discussion of reconstruction to the next level. It is one in a whole series of conferences that will ultimately result in concrete project proposals and a donor conference."

Over the past decade, the world has witnessed much misery caused by war and natural catastrophe and each time, rich Western nations have been called upon to help. Some now speak of "donor fatigue" and wonder whether help will be forthcoming for Afghanistan.

But Dale Lautenbach, of the World Bank, believes that in this case, donor nations will see the wisdom in being generous in their funding, when the time comes: "The challenge in Afghanistan is going to be really big, yes. But can we not do it? No, we can't afford to look the other way. So I think there is going to be a concerted effort, and I'm not sure that I can answer [the question of] donor fatigue and answer for all the donors, but I think there is a realization that this is something -- look, Afghanistan has been in bad shape since 1979, if you think about it. To look at this as an opportunity to capture the political process right now and build out of that a vision for a sustainable future for Afghanistan, really, is going to matter not just to Afghanistan but to all its neighboring countries and ultimately the whole world. So that's the nature of the investment. And whether you're fatigued or not in the face of that, I guess time will tell individually, but certainly from the World Bank's side, we are ready to embrace this."

Once before, the world walked away from Afghanistan, following the end of the decade-long Soviet occupation. Conference organizers hope the world has learned its lesson and will help Afghanistan close the book on this dark chapter in its history.