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Afghanistan: Will Diaspora Return To Help Rebuild The Country?

International participants at this week's conference on Afghanistan's reconstruction, being held in Islamabad, have been careful to stress that no development strategy for the war-torn country will be effective unless it is Afghan-driven. The world has seen too many examples of failed assistance programs run by foreign aid agencies without the proper input by locals. But this raises the question: Does Afghanistan, after two decades of war, have sufficient human resources to draw on? Many qualified Afghans are now abroad, forming a vast diaspora. Can they be enticed to return to help rebuild their country? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten is in Islamabad and discusses the issue with a conference organizer and participants.

Islamabad, 28 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- David Lockwood currently serves as the deputy director of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), for Asia and the Pacific. But for five years -- from 1991 to 1996 -- Lockwood was the UN resident coordinator for Afghanistan, working from Kabul.

Lockwood knows Afghanistan, and as a conference co-organizer, he has been promoting the need to involve Afghans in the reconstruction of their country.

It is clear, he tells RFE/RL, that participation by the diaspora will be one of the keys to success. For one thing, there is now a so-called "lost generation" of youth within Afghanistan, who -- because of war and Taliban social policies -- never received a basic education.

"It's an enormous problem. It was not so different in the refugee camps. You had basic schooling, although mainly Madrassas in the refugee camps, and inside Afghanistan, very little education -- certainly for the last 10 years and even in rural areas for the 10 years before that -- although in the cities, education was still going on. There was a university functioning in Kabul until the early '90s. But those who have been born in the last 20 years and those who were tiny at the beginning of that period have all suffered hugely. And that's perhaps the most difficult challenge of all: How do you mobilize human resources in a country where people have not even had the discipline of learning?"

Most schoolteachers in Afghanistan have by tradition been women, but under Taliban rules, they were banned from the profession. As a result, the primary and secondary school system stopped functioning.

"The teaching profession over the years has become decimated. Interestingly, most of the teachers in Afghanistan were women --- even in boys' schools -- and they have not been allowed to teach for many years now, for all kinds of reasons, as well as the complete breakdown of the school system. Getting that started again is another huge challenge."

But Lockwood says there are remedies. Many Afghans abroad with the skills their country will require in the years ahead are ready to return, at least on a temporary basis.

"There are many, many Afghans who have remained strongly patriotic -- that's one of the big features of Afghan society. In that sense, Afghanistan is very different from working with, let's say, East Timor, where there's a huge diaspora, but they are so integrated into societies elsewhere, it's actually difficult to get the Timorese to break off from where they are today and come home. The Afghans have stayed in touch and, of course, there are many more of them. It's a much bigger society. You have more than 20 million Afghans, whereas Timor is only 800,000 people."

But how to motivate Afghans who have put down roots elsewhere to return? Again, Lockwood:

"One way to lure them to come home is to have programs that bring people on short assignments. For example, people who are teaching would be willing to come maybe during the summer break for a three-month period, to get a feel for Afghanistan. They might not otherwise come. There have been very successful programs in other countries, called in the UN jargon TOKTEN -- that's a Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals -- where you pay somebody's living expenses, plus a ticket and no fees for their services. These are missions based on patriotism, people who would like to go home, and you provide the wherewithal for them to do that."

Lockwood says some of those people will come back with their families for long-term or permanent assignments.

Arif Parwani could be one of those people. Parwani left Afghanistan in the 1980s and has lived in the United States for 15 years. A civil engineer, he is now vice president of Structural Renovations Incorporated, a California-based general contractor.

Parwani told RFE/RL he decided to come to Islamabad as soon as he heard about the reconstruction conference to see if he could lend a hand. For him, it was a patriotic duty.

"Because of the latest developments, like any other Afghan abroad -- especially the ones who have the skill and the ability to take part in Afghanistan's reconstruction -- I was trying to mobilize. Last week, although it was short notice, it came to my attention that there was going to be a conference of the international community, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and donors on the subject of preparing for Afghanistan's reconstruction. And that's why I'm here."

Parwani says that, in California, he knows many others like him, people who want to contribute to Afghanistan's redevelopment.

"There are lots of Afghans abroad, especially I am speaking for Afghan engineers that I am in contact with, throughout California. They have a strong willingness and commitment to come back and take part in Afghanistan's reconstruction. Most of them were not aware of this conference, and I gave the hosts and organizers of this conference some names and contacts, so hopefully they will enter them in their database. And in the future, they could take part not only in the reconstruction process but also in the decision-making process. And yes, to answer your question, there are lots of Afghans who are willing to work in Afghanistan in the future."

Returning to one's devastated homeland on a short- or mid-term contract is one thing, but would Afghan professionals abroad consider moving back for good?

Aziz Ahmad, another Afghan emigre who now runs the Heward Reconstruction Service -- a charitable NGO based in Pakistan -- expresses the mixed feelings many of those who left Afghanistan a long time ago feel about returning permanently. Would he relocate to Kabul?

"Well, yes! And I could say no, also, because my children have grown up in a different environment. Maybe my wife and I, at retirement age, will go back to Afghanistan and stay over there and live in our country."

Parwani, now in his 40s, expresses the same concerns about his children but says he does not want to wait that long, although he has established a comfortable life for himself in America.

"For right now, I am not prepared to move inside Afghanistan because of my kids' education; and I'm considering doing that in five years."

No one can forecast what the situation will look like in Afghanistan even five weeks down the line, let alone five years. But if political leaders can agree to a settlement that will bring peace to the country, the Afghan diaspora appears ready to back it with concrete deeds.