Today I will be attending the Helmand Development Conference in Kabul. Helmand’s Governor, Gulab Mangal, and his team will paint a picture of the progress in Helmand and set out the opportunities for donors, NGOs and the private sector. There is no question that Helmand still has a branding challenge. The progress that has been made over the last four years is not widely known, and images of violence and despair are still ones that spring to mind. The conference is an opportunity to change peoples’ minds with concrete evidence.
Other provinces have attempted similar events and it is difficult to grab attention. So what makes Helmand – only one of Afghanistan’s 34 Provinces different? Well one difference is that Helmand is the largest Province by geography. Secondly – alongside its important neighbor Kandahar it forms the core of the Pashtun south, a region that will have to be bound into any future national peace deal.
But why else should we care about Helmand? Firstly because Helmand shows what is possible even in the most challenging ofcircumstances. As a centre of the insurgency, and with deep underlying drivers of conflict, Helmand presented one of the most challenging of test cases. The majority of Helmandis no longer have security as their number one concern and instead are calling for improved education and health rather than security. That transformation shows what is possible. Donors can and should learn from this experience as they build their knowledge base of how to operate in conflict zones.
Secondly, and the heart of what has worked – Helmand has a unique system for holding government to account. Development thinking now puts good governance at the heart of sustainable development. Afghanistan does not yet have a good track record on this. But Helmand does. It has the only elected political district councils in Afghanistan – a total of seven now across the Province.These Councillors are elected in a transparent secret ballot way and form some of the most legitimate, credible bodies in Afghanistan. We know this as we track peoples’ perceptions of government legitimacy and there has been a steady improvement over the last four years. Councils have a three year office and in the second round of elections many have been voted off – making it crystal clear that they have to deliver for their citizens if they are to be entrusted with power. Simple democracy really does work!
Thirdly we are now seeing how security, governance and development support each other. Districts which have these Councils are more likely to be able to lock in the security gains as people can hold government to account for delivering basic services. This makes it much more difficult for the insurgency to present a credible alternative.
The progress in Helmand, whilst impressive, is nevertheless fragile. It is imperative that the government shows that it can continue to deliver as ISAF reduces its presence on the ground. So what can the conference do to support? There are three things which will make a difference:
Firstly to lock in support from the national line ministries to ensure national budgets arrive on time in Helmand and line ministries implement projects to high standards. Secondly to raise awareness amongst donors and NGOs of the role they can play as funders, implementing partners and supporters of civil society. Thirdly to learn the lessons from Helmand – in particular around how to do governance in conflict zones.
So, we look forward to the conference. With an eye toward transition, this will be good for Helmand, and good for us as we safeguard our investments – past, present, and future.