This following piece published by The Essential Edge 19 June, 2011.

Nick van Praag of the World Development Report 2011 sent us this blog regarding the role – and responsibilities – of aid workers and others dealing with countries like Afghanistan. The WDR 2011, which came out earlier this year, focuses on conflict and development.
I spent a lot of time this week hanging out with my friend Edward Girardet. He’s in Washington, D.C. ahead of the launch of his book that traces the history of international engagement in Afghanistan over the past 30 years or so.

Killing the Cranes is a deeply personal tale that includes an account of Girardet’s brush with Osama Bin Laden before he (Osama) became a household name. He also describes trekking through the Hindu Kush to interview the leader of the United Front, Ahmed Shah Massoud, during the war against the Soviet Union. This photograph taken by Girardet showing Massoud on the left with Girardet’s interpreter on the right) captures that encounter.

Girardet has reported on the region ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and has known three generations of aid workers. I asked him if they had changed.

Sure, he said. When they are in theater they spend much of their time in meetings coordinating with each other behind blast proof walls. Only rarely do they get into the ‘field’. And as soon as they get time off, they take the first plane out-to Dubai or Bangkok.

In the old days, says Girardet, they used to stick around, trekking, drinking tea with the locals, and generally getting to know the lie of the land, culturally and physically.

I guess you can’t blame them. Security is a much bigger constraint now than it was even a few years ago. Trying to stay safe in a hostile environment has a major impact on the quality of life for aid workers-not to mention the locals.

R&R breaks in the Gulf are only one manifestation of the problem. Even when they are there, aid workers are not there long. Deployment of international staff in these tough neighborhoods is rarely more than a year.

The result is that few of them acquire the local knowledge to pull their professional weight and support efforts to build a more resilient society.

An important finding in the World Bank’s World Development Report on conflict and security, which was published in April, is that international assistance must be sustained for at least 15 years to support most long-term institutional transformations in fragile states. While some bilateral and multilateral donors have started to adopt longer time frames, the same is not true for staff assignments.

I remember being in Sarajevo just after the Dayton Agreements with Rory O’Sullivan, the World Bank’s newly appointed country manager for Bosnia-Herzegovina. He surprised Bosnians when he told them he planned to be there for the next three years. And he was.

That’s not the norm for most organizations in southern central Asia. An exception is the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). For decades it has supported local initiatives in northern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and eastern Tajikistan.

The AKDN bases its approach on earning peoples’ trust by demonstrating its long term commitment to these regions and its peoples.

That commitment is reflected in its staff: some 95 percent are nationals or regional expatriates who speak the local languages and work in beneficiary communities for many years. Girardet would approve.

Nicholas van Praag, formerly with the World Bank, is an independent consultant and analyst based on both sides of the Atlantic.