Urbanization and Human Development in Kabul

Presented at the Center for Policy and Human Development, Kabul University, 07 November 2007

Some Background

Thank you doctor Wardak for giving me the chance to explore the idea of urbanization and human development in Kabul. First I need to explain my overall situation and my specific purpose here today. I am a doctoral student in City and Regional Planning at U.C. Berkeley. Four years ago I volunteered here in the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing. I coordinated a city-wide survey of housing and demographic conditions, and worked with the Department of Construction to identify sections of the International Building Code that should be translated for consideration as part of the new Afghan Building Code. I only worked here for five weeks, but I intended to stay on for a year to pilot a neighborhood-upgrading project in Qala-e Zaman Khan and Deh Khuda-e Dad on the north slope of Tapa-e Maranjan. A change of ministers prevented that, so I sought other ways to get back here, on terms that I considered ethical. Once the offer from the Ministry fell through, I started the PhD program to gain access to academic funding, and to give me a chance to learn more and prepare for work here. As it turns out, few American organizations are willing to fund advanced research in Afghanistan. This is unfortunate because, on the conservative side, the United States has a strategic interest in understanding Afghanistan. For academics, Afghanistan is also exceptionally important because of the rapid changes taking place here now. If we want to understand the modern world, we need to study the places where modernity is emerging. Right now that is Afghanistan.
This trouble with funding ended up being a blessing. The World Bank Institute agreed to pay me to teach at Kabul University, which placed me in an excellent position for meeting with Afghans and internationals across Kabul. This also means that I could fulfill my first intention, which was to use my dissertation research time as a pretext for doing long-term capacity-building work here. Hopefully my research has benefited from being actively engaged in work here at the same time. Furthermore, the World Bank took great pains to free me from security restrictions for this work. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture graciously agreed to work with the Bank and hire me as a consultant to teach here. Since I am not a direct employee of either organization, I am free to explore the city on foot, on a bicycle, in a shared taxi or Tunis, or on the fabulous Mille Buses. Even among foreigners here I feel that I am especially privileged for where I can go and what I can see. I am thankful to the World Bank Institute and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for that. I am also thankful to the al-Falah Foundation and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley for providing the only unrestricted research funding that was available to me.

From this rare position of independence, I am also free to express the shame that so many Americans feel about our failure, the failure of our government to follow up on a promise to help this country. A lot of good work has been done by the numerous agencies here, but that has been insufficient against fundamental political errors my government has made. I apologize to Afghans for this failure. This apology is part of my obligation as an American citizen. We must speak out, especially against our own government, when it is violating the fundamental rights and laws of our country. To keep our rights, Americans must always be ready to take risks to protect those rights, and to protect rule of law wherever we are. What you hear now is an active defense of the US Constitution. Our Constitution declares universal rights, not limited to our country, nor is it limited to American citizens. We are obligated to honor your laws and principles not only because we are guests here, but because that is one of the fundamental principles of American citizenship. Afghans have the right to challenge us for any violations of our own laws, and our response will show whether we have the courage to be citizens or the cowardice to be slaves of a new empire. At the very least, Afghans should require Americans to obey traffic laws in this city, which includes displaying license plates on our vehicles, and keeping public rights-of-way clear, including all roadways and sidewalks. Right of way is freedom of movement. This is true in both Afghan and American law, and it is the fundamental basis for civil assembly and protest, as well as for commerce. Any violation the freedom to move and gather, any blockage of public space should be temporary. I have no right to speak about the Afghan version of temporary, but I can say to the Americans that five years is not temporary. Some people think the obvious retort to this is “security requirements”. I have been traveling across this entire city for the last six months, from Qassaba to Darul Aman and Dasht-e Barchi to Arzan Qimat. Those of you who have ridden in a taxi with me know that whenever the driver asks where I am from, I always say that I am an American. During the last six months there have been three major bombings against Afghan police and military and multiple suicide attacks against foreign forces. The state is under attack. But what is being attacked? Good governance or impunity? If aid becomes militarized, if diplomacy becomes militarized, then these also become targets. I know the security industry here will try to argue their point of view. But remember that they get paid up to $2000 per bodyguard per day. They have an armor-vested interest in keeping you frightened. But the major danger you face on a daily basis is traffic accidents, and aggressive driving exacerbates that. So please dust off those seatbelts and wear them. This is much less romantic than the self-perpetuating idea that we are all having an exotic adventure because we are in danger as a targets. We make ourselves into targets with our behavior here. The point is to help our fellow human beings in a country that continues to suffer from twenty-nine years of war and counting. We should be spending aid money on a nationwide universal literacy program, not guards. I suspect that we could pay a lot of Afghan teachers’ salaries with the price of one personal bodyguard. We could even pay many Afghan police officers, who perform a public service of real value.
Note that Rama Mani articulated many of these ideas four years ago in her AREU paper entitled Ending Impunity and Building Justice. This Center also challenged the still-prevalent ideology of security, with the alternative concept of Human Security in the first Afghanistan Human Development Report three years ago. As this center has argued, concepts do matter, because our choices and our actions are driven by the way we see the world. Every conceptual framework is like a lens, and different lenses reveal or obscure what we see and understand. So what I would like to focus on now is the way we see urbanization in Afghanistan through the lens of Human Development.

The Human Development Lens

Since we are in the Center for Policy and Human Development, a key site in the production of the UN Development Programme’s Afghanistan Human Development reports, I expect all of us here are familiar with the concept of Human Development. What Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen intended was to develop better measures of this poorly-defined but widely-felt process of “development”. The definition of development continues to be contested, but there is now at least a worldwide consensus that is means more than just national economic growth. In extreme cases like Nigeria or the Congo, an economy can grow with such unequal distribution of wealth that living conditions for a large part of the population are actually worsening even as the national income increases. Beyond strict material considerations, there are also questions about the dignity of living conditions; the fear and uncertainty that people experience; relations within the society; and relations between the society and the state.
When the UNDP team introduced the Human Development Index in the first Human Development Report in 1990, they described it as a work in progress. Literacy, life-expectancy, and purchasing-power income were the three indicators used. Ul Haq and Sen chose these three indicators partly because each one captures a very different aspect of development, and partly because data on these indicators was available in most countries and could be compared. Even with the limitations of this first version of the Index, it brought about a revolution in thinking about development. As Amartya Sen has argued, we are now returning to an earlier understanding: of economics and politics as an integrated whole in the development process. Unlike nineteenth century economists and conservative twentieth-century economists, scholars of development conceive of political economy much more like eighteenth-century philosophers of the Enlightenment era. That was a time of political and economic turmoil as well, and the institutions which those philosophers designed were largely responsible for the Industrial Revolution that began in the West in 1789. That Industrial Revolution caused massive urban growth, the urbanization of whole societies during the nineteenth century. After the Second World War, the United States felt that the best long term defense against communist expansion was to promote decolonization and to help newly-independent countries develop. They had just rebuilt the US economy with a massive development project called the New Deal, and during his inauguration speech, Truman announced that he wanted to extend that New Deal as a Fair Deal to develop the economies of other countries. This was the key to building lasting peace.
However, no one had articulated a clear concept of development, nor how different aspects of development mattered more or less in different countries. Actually, Afghan planners understood better than most, because Afghanistan had been actively engaged in development since it gained full independence from Western interference in 1919. The Second Five Year Development Plan, published in 1963, begins with this description of development:
Deliberate development as a conscious goal of State policy is not new to Afghanistan. Systematic attempts were made in the late nineteen-twenties to open up communications, develop industry, spread education and introduce administrative and social reforms. (Haq 1963:1)
Several pages later, the authors of this Plan describe value of human investment in terms that are a precursor of the Human Development framework developed by other South Asians. I quote again:
Another characteristic feature of planning in Afghanistan is the relative absence of conflict between ‘productive’ investment and investment in ‘human capital’. An important factor which has retarded development in the past and is proving a serious bottleneck today, is the acute paucity of professional and technical skills at all levels; experience has proved that development of human resources has to keep pace with, and in the case of certain crucial sectors to be ahead of, investment in material resources. Education and training are therefore and integral part of practically every single project or programme included in the Second Plan (Haq 1963:3).
Consistent with that Plan, the government of Afghanistan invested heavily in the development of this university, and the creation of the Polytechnic. I recommend that you all read the Second and Third National Development Plans. Foreigners and Afghans alike need to understand the longer history of development thought and implementation that has existed here. Both Sardar Daoud and Zahir Shah understood the need for a developmental state actively participating in the industrialization and broader development of Afghan society. Once the basic human and physical infrastructure was in place, perhaps it would have been possible to shift to a market-led economic growth policy. But that state-led development project was interrupted, and much of the infrastructure—from roads to literacy rates—was undone after 1978.
To analyze the choices ahead, it is helpful to now add in a key contribution of the Human Development framework. In this framework, all the people in the society are seen as both objects of development and as agents of development. Through this we understand that the role of the state is not just to serve the people, not just to give them water, and electricity, and education, and health care, and law enforcement. Such a view is not only paternalistic, but it also assumes that the people are passive recipients of government service. It ignores the whole other side: that good law enforcement makes business activities safe; that education makes a workforce more skilled and valuable; that better healthcare makes them more productive and less expensive. It ignores the fact that the whole population can pay tax to the state—even at very low levels. And when the population pays tax to the state, that makes the state even more accountable than voting does. People only vote once every few years. It is a clumsy instrument for maintaining accountability. But if they are giving money to the state according to their abilities, they will also demand accountability and transparency on a much more continuous basis. Once we understand the whole population to be both objects and agents of development, we have the two ingredients necessary to understand healthy state-society relations. Yes, the state should provide public goods that cannot be delivered effectively or fairly through private means. We can disagree on the finer points of where and how to draw the line between private and public. But the Human Development framework makes it very clear that the people of Afghanistan have to be actively engaged in the development process in a reciprocal, accountable, transparent manner.
Here is a specific example. I have asked respected Afghans to write position papers about the threat of earthquakes in Kabul. You all know that several hundred thousand Afghans live on the mountains of central Kabul. You all know that their houses are made of unreinforced clay-brick, with heavy rooves made of logs and sand and clay. Most of you also know that Kabul has the same type of earthquakes as Iran and Pakistan. They are not frequent, but they are severe. Given what happened in Bam in 2004, and Muzaffarabad in 2006, you should also know that a similar earthquake in Kabul will probably kill more than one hundred thousand people immediately, and the survival of thousands more will depend on immediate and effective government response in the hours and days after the quake. You also know that there is no way to remove those thousands of families from the hills, because they are there for a very good reason; and they know these risks perfectly well. They are there for access to urban resources: for access to education, health care, and job opportunities. They are there to improve exactly the measures described in the Human Development Index. Now, given that they will remain there, preparation for disaster response will take at least several years. It will require major community cooperation, to count exactly who is there and to organize them into rapid-response networks to give accurate information to the police and other authorities the moment a disaster strikes. In other words, the state must acknowledge their agency and develop a cooperative relationship with thousands of families to improve its own responsiveness and effectiveness. I do not know when this process will begin. Several of the people whom I asked refused to write such papers because they feared that an authoritative public acknowledgement of this danger would cause a public panic. Furthermore, it would obligate the government to do some major preparation, and make the Afghan state accountable if it failed to at least try to prepare. If we assume that those people are only passive and ignorant, and that the government must spend hundreds of millions to either stabilize their houses or relocate them, we are ignoring their role as agents of development and seriously underestimating both their intelligence and their capabilities. After this talk, walk up to any of these hillside settlements and ask the people there. They know that they are balancing their risks and opportunities on the edge of a knife. They understand. But do we understand their choices and their tremendous potential?

Contradictory Urbanization Policies

In my third and closing argument, I want to examine urbanization policy in Kabul more broadly, through the Human Development framework.
First of all, what is urbanization? We see more and larger buildings being built. We see traffic and population increase. We sense more demand for urban services like canalization, electricity and water. But these are the symptoms of urbanization, not the underlying process. What drives these apparent changes? Development economists describe urbanization as a shift in livelihoods together with a shift in space by households. This is a partial definition, but it is critically important. Households choose where to live based on a combination of factors, including opportunities for income, access to health care, personal safety, and access to education. This last factor may be the most important for us here. Afghans struggling to afford a place in Kabul are committed to intergenerational human investment. They want their children to be educated. They want their children to be literate, and numerate, and they want their children to be part of social networks that give them maximum access to all types of resources in the future. Collectively, the parents of Kabul are doing more to raise the Human Development Index of Afghans than all the government and foreign agencies combined. They know that the best teachers and doctors will not go to the provinces. Would you? Would any of you?
Here the Human Development framework shows its roots in the Liberal political economics of Adam Smith. We have to examine the choices of households; we must think about their preferences, in exactly the same way we think about our own. This does not mean that we should be purely reactive or empirical. Planners believe strongly in being proactive. But the Human Development framework is based on the assumption that households make rational, informed choices about where and how they live. We cannot ignore the collective judgment of three million people who have moved to Kabul in the last six years.
I mentioned that four years ago I coordinated a city-wide survey of households for the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing. In that survey we asked about household and family structure. Notice that the two are very different. We also asked why households moved to Kabul, and under what conditions they would move back to the provinces. From this survey I learned several things. One is what Afghans already know: that Afghan families are extremely extended, so any household is just one small branch of a larger family network which may include construction workers in Dubai as well as apple farmers in Wardak. Afghan families try to spread their risks both regionally and internationally as much as possible. This is rational. At that time, many urban households were receiving money from their rural relatives, until they could build the contacts to get jobs. So at the grassroots level, extended Afghan families were subsidizing the urbanization of thousands of households. Furthermore, it was clear that these households were very well informed of their choices. Since poor households in Kabul can and do move frequently within the city, this is not a case of ill-informed households making a mistake and then ending up trapped in Kabul while livelihoods are better in the provinces.
The government and international agencies, on the other hand, have made an aesthetic judgment that Kabul is “too big” and “too crowded”. Compared to what? Several weeks ago I visited Delhi, which is a wonderful city. It also has serious problems with traffic, poverty, and some crowded housing. The planners there estimate that the total metropolitan area of Delhi includes 35 million people. Planners at my university who work in China estimate that the metropolitan region of Shanghai now exceeds ninety million people. I do not think that Afghanistan can or should follow the same development path as China, but I do question a set of national development strategies that rely on un-researched assumptions that a city is “too crowded” or “too big”. Too big for whom? For people who are already long-established in Kabul and want to deny the same urban benefits to newcomers?
I raise these questions because there is a contradiction in urbanization policies in Afghanistan. On the one hand, this is the most centralized state in the world, according to analysts of the 2004 Constitution. Just for comparison, every American city elects its own council and mayor, and many raise their own taxes and sell bonds to build infrastructure. They all determine their own land uses and economic development policies. In Afghanistan, almost all power is at the center. It is difficult to make any sort of professional career outside the capital. By choosing a highly centralized government structure, Afghans have committed themselves to monopole urban development, like Paris in France, Cairo in Egypt, Bangkok in Thailand, and Jakarta in Indonesia. I am not advocating political decentralization, because centralized states can develop very well. I am just pointing out what poor households here already know: that to make it in Afghanistan you should probably move to Kabul. This means that the growth rate of Kabul—not just the absolute scale of growth—is likely to outpace the growth rate of other Afghan cities so long as the state remains so centralized.
Against this implicit policy, there is an explicit policy of “deconcentration.” This policy is expressed most clearly by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, who provide land and benefits to returning refugees only in their home provinces. UNHCR has respectfully followed this policy without questioning it, as far as I know. In general, I think deference to Afghan government policy is a good thing. Many donor policies compromise the sovereignty of this government by pushing Afghans in directions other than what they would choose. But in this case I question deconcentration policy because it contradicts a fundamental policy decision which Afghans have already made. A huge fraction of the money and political will in Afghanistan over the last five years has been put into rebuilding the rural sector. Compare the budgets of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development with the Ministry of Urban Development. Compare the National Solidarity Programme with the lack of political will to solve disagreements between the Urban Ministry and Kabul Municipality. While these two agencies have been left to fight over the last five years, almost all the urban growth of Kabul has been unregulated. I came back to find the hills of Khair Khana completely built over, including rapid growth into the Shomali Plain. District 13 has doubled in size, with only one public road being improved. During a similar land rush in San Francisco in 1850, the city council extended straight streets in every direction from the downtown. It was the most equitable solution, and the only solution that could keep up with the urban growth caused by the California Gold Rush. One hundred and fifty years later, those streets are wide enough to handle cars and modern infrastructure. The same could have been done here, and the same can be done now for future growth of Kabul. Despite the desire of the policymakers in Kabul today, this city will have more than eight million people in the next ten years. Rather than assuming that is a disaster, I wonder: what if all the resources that had been put into an anti-urban policy had been put into a pro-urban policy over the last six years? What if future policy acknowledges the collective wisdom of millions of Afghans and shifts towards industrialization, the development of urban infrastructure, and a reciprocal relationship of broad, progressive taxation that obligates the government to be answerable to the population? Kabul will reach a population of eight to ten million sooner, but what else would be different?
The Human Development framework reminds us that people are not just objects of development, but also agents of development. In urban terms, I like to think of this as Minds and Hands, not just Mouths and Bowels. Afghans are a remarkably industrious and inventive people. I experienced this the first time I walked down a street in Kabul four years ago. Within minutes I realized that I could commission any sort of metal structure I wanted, and it would be custom-fabricated for me right there. When I bought a Chinese bicycle, the first thing I had to do was bring it to a bike-sazi to have it adjusted so the brakes would work, the handlebars were at the right angle, and the pedals rotated freely. All those thousands of minds and hands are hoping that the social elite in this country will begin to have faith in them and start to build this economy.
Thus far I have not even mentioned opium, and I am sad to do so now. But I expect that you would ask me about it if I did not mention it. It seems that much of the effort that went into rebuilding the rural sector has been captured by the narcotics industry. The alternative livelihoods program that David Mansfield and Adam Pain examined in 2005 focused on alternative rural livelihoods; and growing wheat or roses or lemongrass versus opium are not realistic alternatives. In a landlocked country, high-value, low bulk goods and services are the only realistic goods that can compete in international trade. That is true across the boundary of legality and illegality. Electronics assembly and secondary outsourcing from India can compete on the international market. These are realistic alternative livelihoods, and they require a skilled population and reliable electricity. I think there are many policy adjustments that need to be made regarding opium, including rejecting the American policy of keeping it totally illegal. But more important within this discussion is that the realistic alternative livelihoods to move away from an opium-dependent economy are almost all urban livelihoods.

I mentioned that the shift in livelihoods and location is a partial definition of urbanization. But we also notice that the culture of urban households is different than village culture. Afghans have described this to me in terms that are even more vivid than we use in the West. Here I will finish with a few other aspects of urbanization.
As residents of cities we get used to dealing with strangers, not just our extended families. We grow up with people of different ethnic groups. We form lifelong friendships that cross social boundaries. In Western languages, we say that a person who adapts to urban life becomes the denizen of a city. Two thousand years ago that expression was combined into one word: citizen. Among Muslims the tradition is different but also extremely focused on cities. The Arabic word which is closest to meaning city is madina, which means both place-of-faith and place-of-justice. The concept of ‘umma extends beyond city walls, but it has strong parallels with the idea of citizenship: all humans can join this community, it is not restricted by kin relations, or ethnicity, or status. The possibility of extending membership to the whole human community means that we must first recognize the fundamental humanity, the shared adamiyat of all humans. Urbanization means more than fulfilling material needs, or increasing our choices and capabilities. I believe Mahbub ul-Haq, the Pakistani economist, had this in mind when he developed the Human Development Index with his longtime Indian friend, Amartya Sen. With urbanization, with Human Development in its broadest sense, with effective urban governance and justice, it is possible that Afghans will find what they desperately desire: it is possible that Afghans may find peace.

Thank you for your time and attention. Now I invite questions and comments from all of you.

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