Voices: Reflecting on a decade in Afghanistan
"I was only supposed to be in Afghanistan for three weeks, but I ended up staying 10 years. When I arrived in 2003, there was a transitional government, no elections, no constitution, nothing. I thought, wow, I can really do something concrete here, so I started working with the Government. A decade on, I’m back inside another Afghan ministry, but this time in a capacity development role with UNOPS." -
Elizabeth De Benedetti,
Chief of Party, Afghanistan
"My position is Chief of Party for ‘Keep Afghans Connected’, a UK Department for International Development (DFID)-funded project to develop the capacity and support institutional development in the operation and maintenance department of the Ministry of Public Works in Afghanistan. UNOPS has built a lot of infrastructure in Afghanistan, but this more than $6 million initiative is purely aimed at ‘soft’ skills, meaning we are developing the capacity of the ministry to do the operations and maintenance work itself with its own funding.
"To achieve this, UNOPS is embedding people in the ministry. At the technical level, Afghanistan has some very skilled engineers, many of whom were trained by Russian experts, but the country suffered a 30 year period of war when it was not exposed to new technologies and working methods. We are trying to fill this gap and train the ministry staff, while putting in place incentives like promotions so the staff are motivated to put what they have learnt into practice.
"Unlike many capacity development projects, we are not hiring anyone new. In similar projects, donors have been inclined to set up a project management office or unit, often made up of national experts from outside of the ministry. As the units operate in English, they will usually deal with the ministers directly, cutting the longstanding ministry staff out of the process. This arrangement ends up substituting capacity, rather than developing it.
"Our project team is a lean one, comprised of four core people including myself. My three colleagues are technical staff working at a central level in Kabul and three pilot provinces – Helmand, Balkh, and Ghazni. We want to demonstrate that the system, processes and tools being developed under the project work at both the central and provincial levels, so the ministry can scale it up to all 34 provinces. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will actually start a very similar project next year, which is great because we can share training materials with them to increase effectiveness and make sure there is no duplication of resources, unlike what happened in the past.
"Before UNOPS, I worked for the Government of Afghanistan, advising different ministries and ministers such as the Minister of Economy, the Ministry of Energy and Water and the Ministry of Finance. In 2003, I started working with the office of President Karzai; it was very different back then and communication channels were limited. In fact, the only way to send information from the very remote areas of the north of the country to Kabul was by sending an envoy who often travelled by donkey on the first leg of a three or four-day journey.
"After deciding I had done my time in Afghanistan, I returned to Europe. However, it wasn’t long before I saw an interesting job with UNOPS advertised. It seemed like a good fit so I applied and got it. I flew back to Afghanistan and the whole time in the plane and during my stopover in Dubai I was thinking, “This is madness! I don’t want to be going back to Kabul.” But I can tell you, as soon as I landed, I had the biggest smile on my face, and felt very happy to be back. People say that once you have been to Africa, there is always something that pulls you back there. I think the same about Afghanistan."