Helmand Development Conference – Why would anyone invest in Helmand?

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.

Thriving Bazaar in Nad-Ali

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!

Votes being cast in the Sangin Elections

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.

4 Responses

  1. Dick Scott says:

    With opium poppy the number one cash crop in this province, with apparently most government officials (and how about the council members?) involved in the industry, how can doners actually believe that funds will be honestly spent? Your article sounds good but it sounds like it may be coming out of unreliable sources…like the local government. My Afghan contacts in Helmand have little trust in local government.

  2. david says:

    Simple answer, no I will not invest in Helmand. Nor should my government. This campaign since 2006 has overall been a disaster for the UK and the local people – who have died in their thousands or had their homes destroyed.

    Yes Helmand Province is large, but 90% plus of the people live in the ‘Green Zone’ and as recent footage has shown this means it is densely populated.

    If the locals want democracy what happened in the six districts that do not have ‘simple democracy’ Which districts are they?

    Even ISAF admit 90% of the Taliban fight within a few kilometres of their home; quite contrary to your passage ‘ This makes it much more difficult for the insurgency to present a credible alternative’. We may not like it, but the Taliban have become a rival government. Let alone the impact of the local, Pashtun culture and history of resistance to outsiders.

    This is from DFID who spent cash on a children’s adventure park with a Ferris wheel, paid for water wells at the cost of US$100k each – after GIRoA took its fee – sorry bribes – and supplied farmers with ammonium nitrate in a chemical composition that enabled its use as an explosive.

    Finally the conference in Kabul aims to ‘lock in’ outsiders, the people who will decide are the local people, who will they choose after 2014 GIRoA or the Taliban? You use the word ‘fragile’, better would be temporary.

  3. Andrew says:

    Catriona,

    Thanks for sharing recent developments in Helmand.

    Might you comment on the current projects in the province’s south (ie Garm Ser and Khaneshin) and what the governance and development strategy might be there in view of the coming drawdown? Anything appreciated.

  4. Have been reading with interest your article. How can we help – maybe as a supplier from the west. Please let me know.

    I am in Europe, Riga, Latvia for your information.

    Good luck with your work, be safe.

    Steven G. Traylor

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