In the months before the Taliban stormed out of the hinterlands and seized power in Afghanistan, Global Affairs Canada produced an evaluation report that talked up how the department’s “ambitious” gender equality programs helped Afghan women become more “active, confident and self-sufficient.”
That report, which examines the impact of Canada’s Afghan development initiatives between 2015 and 2020, had been publicly available online but was taken down last month shortly after the Western-backed government of former president Ashraf Ghani fell on Aug. 15.
CBC News has obtained a copy of the full report.
A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on August 18, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
Since 2001, successive federal governments have spent $3.6 billion on aid, development and security assistance programs in Afghanistan, with an emphasis on what the government has called a “women- and girls-centred approach.”
Although the Taliban have promised in recent weeks to respect women’s rights, the future of many of the programs Canada sponsored is now in doubt — because of the hardline fundamentalists who reportedly took to beating unaccompanied women with sticks in Kabul last week, and because the country has seen a recent exodus of social justice advocates.
Advocates for gender equality now fleeing the Taliban
Many of the women and staff members who delivered those programs are now running for their lives from the new regime. Many of them could be admitted as refugees to Canada, which is prioritizing refugee applicants who fought for gender equality in Afghanistan.
Experts say one major drawback of the evaluation report is that it focused almost exclusively on development and didn’t take into account the ongoing war with the Taliban and the sustainability of programs under such conditions.
“It’s not very useful to undertake an evaluation that is only a development evaluation,” said Nipa Banerjee, who once ran Canada’s aid and development programs in Afghanistan.
Banerjee said her advice was sought out by reviewers initially but, ultimately, a senior Global Affairs official decided not to consult her because she was seen as being “too negative” in her assessments.
Sources said that others with deep knowledge of and experience in Afghanistan offered to participate in the Global Affairs review but their overtures were not answered.
‘Did we have no strategy?’
Grant Kippen, a Canadian who was until last month the chief electoral adviser at the United Nations Elections Support Project Afghanistan, said one of the recommendations in the report jumped out at him — the one to develop an Afghanistan strategy.
“Which kind of leads you to wonder, would this be the first time a strategy has been put in place? Or did we have no strategy?” said Kippen, who monitored elections in Afghanistan in one capacity or another for over a decade and a half.
While it acknowledges in a low-key manner some of the shortcomings of Canada’s approach, the Global Affairs report stands in stark contrast to the clear-eyed, hard-hitting recent assessment presented the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) — which concluded that there were “too many failures” in the American nation-building effort.
Kippen noted that recommendation No. 1 in the SIGAR report was an acknowledgement that the U.S. had no “coherent strategy” in Afghanistan either.
An Afghan girl shows her colouring book at a kindergarten in Mazar-e-Sharif in 2012. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
The Canadian evaluation report noted that donor nations often called the shots on development priorities “at the expense of fully representing the Afghan population’s true underlying needs and priorities.”
It went on to say that “Canada’s engagement was seen as not being sufficiently tailored to Afghanistan’s unique, complex and evolving context.”
But the report also heaped praise on Canada’s gender equality efforts, saying that during “the evaluation period, Canada earned a reputation as a leader in this area.”
The projects “in the women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment sector resulted in female beneficiaries becoming more active, confident and self-sufficient,” the report continued.
A lack of consultation, a risk of backlash
Over the years, many observers have noted repeatedly that women’s equality is a hard sell in the rigidly patriarchal Afghan society. The report acknowledges that “there were concerns that projects could have had an even greater impact if they had reflected a deeper understanding of Afghanistan’s local cultural context and Islamic tradition.”
It warned that, going forward, there’s a “risk that gender equality efforts promoted by Western donors could lead to backlashes and harm.”
It took Afghan women in focus groups to tell Canadian government officials that “Canadian programming would have benefited from a more inclusive approach that engaged men and boys further,” said the report.
Women fleeing the Taliban with their children try to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 16, 2021. (Reuters)
The fact that Western leaders, officials and aid groups often told Afghans what they needed rather than listening to what they wanted — or respecting the way they wanted things done — has long been a major point of friction in the aid effort.
One of the leaders of the anti-Taliban resistance group in northern Afghanistan bitterly reflected that sentiment in a recorded address last week to the Ottawa-based MacDonald-Laurier Institute.
“In the last 20 years, not necessarily the Afghan advice was taken into consideration,” said Amrullah Saleh, who succeeded Ghani after the former president fled the country. “There were many players outside our control. There were many actors who were not listening to us.”
Kippen said Canada needs to take a long, hard, impartial look at what it did and did not accomplish in Afghanistan — not to point fingers but to inform future decisions and speak to history.
For those closest to international efforts to build a civil society in Afghanistan, the events of the past month have been a bitter pill to swallow.
“Afghanistan’s development programs failed and that’s why we are at the stage where we are at,” said Banerjee. “They did not produce sustainable results. The trust and the support of the people of Afghanistan were not achieved, and the legitimacy of the government was not established.”
“They are not saying this,” Banerjee added, pointing to the Global Affairs report. “I am saying this looking at today’s situation.”
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