Michael Bowers recently returned from Afghanistan, where he served as Mercy Corps' Country Director. An international relief and development veteran with experience in challenging places like Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Albania and Kosovo, Bowers spent two years managing innovative programs that have helped more than two million Afghan citizens.
As the five-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion and the fall of the Taliban regime approaches, Bowers took time to discuss his experience in Afghanistan's unique and challenging setting, as well as sharing thoughts about how the country is changing.
First of all, what made you interested in taking the Country Director position in Afghanistan?
Bowers: The incredible development challenges of assisting the Afghan people rebuild their country after 20 years of civil war and strife. In addition, I had the chance to visit the country and was moved by the level of dedication and energy our staff possessed. Several of Mercy Corps' employees are ten year veterans with the agency, and are critical to our strong reputation for a reputable and meaningful humanitarian relief agency.
How did the humanitarian situation there change over the two years you were there?
On a nationwide basis, the living conditions and economic opportunities improved during my stay. More children are going to school, improved access to health care and a stable economy with a newly elected government are all good indicators.
However, there are sharp disparities between regions, ethnic groups and gender. For instance, the north of the country - which is relatively more secure - had better opportunities to exploit reconstruction aid funds and improve infrastructure, agriculture production and development. In the south and east of the country where insecurity is a major factor inhibiting reconstruction, development is less visible and more difficult to gauge.
How is the role of women in Afghan society evolving and improving?
In Afghanistan, 27 percent of legislators are women. This is a significant fact given the importance of including women in post-conflict institution building, especially in a culturally and religious conservative society such as Afghanistan.
Mercy Corps supported Ariana Financial Services Group, a microfinance institution led by women as an example. Yet, for a vast majority of women and girls living in rural areas, change is slow, difficult and very risky.
How is the increase of poppy production affecting the "new" Afghan society - and what is Mercy Corps doing to mitigate it?
The production, transport and sale of opium is a incredibly complex socio-economic phenomena. Farmers are left with little viable options to grow alternative crops which offer the economic return of poppy. In addition to poor farmer choices or high indebtedness, the opium economy is thriving where law enforcement is virtually non-existent and conditions for intimidation and social pressure to grow poppy are strong.
Mercy Corps acknowledges that combating the opium economy will take time and occur by providing an enabling environment for production [of alternative crops] in conjunction with better law enforcement and interdiction. So-called alternative livehoods are indeed just another term for improving living conditions through economic, health and development opportunities for rural communities.
Mercy Corps programs involving alternative livelihoods are based upon applied research to understand what may or may not be effective, and interventions that create stronger communities that enable families to increase their household incomes sustainable through [legal farming] activities.
What is the single biggest challenge faced by the "average" Afghani family, moving forward?
A society based upon rule of law - not rule of guns.
What are Mercy Corps 'biggest opportunities and challenges in Afghanistan for the near future?
Our biggest opportunities are our investments in Afghan institutions such as Ariana Financial Services Group and the Afghan people, such as our staff and beneficiaries. Through financial and technical resource development, groups that help poor Afghans access financial services will hopefully long outlive our need and presence in Afghanistan.
Rebuilding the country's financial capital, however, requires an equal if not greater investment in the skill base or human and social capital of the population to battle illiteracy, social divisions and support democratic principles. Mercy Corps' challenges include working in a situation where humanitarian workers are killed or intimidated and a fragile central government unable to meet the social service needs of the populace, leaving many vulnerable families and individuals at risk for natural or man-made shocks.
What are three words you'd use to describe your time in Afghanistan?
Vibrant, frustrating, and compelling.