Monday, April 19, 2010

Afghanistan's Empty Playgrounds

U.S. public diplomacy acknowledges the importance of engaging foreign youths--but often that term seems to apply to adolescents and young adults, and not the very young.

For a recent NPR piece, Foreign Policy's Anna Badken visited a rural village in Afghanistan, where the child mortality rate is second only to that of Sierra Leone. At a playground near a refugee settlement stands a large billboard, erected by government contractors reading: "Title of Project: Creating Livelihood Opportunities for Refugees in North Afghanistan. Project Code: 02 AFR. Component: Play Ground and safe Play area ... Donor: Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (United States of America)."

The playground is underutilized in this part of the country, where potable water is in short supply and jobs are scarce. Many children in the camp have died before they were old enough to appreciate it--not exactly an anomaly in Afghanistan, where 28 children die every hour.

"What the billboard really says," Badken argues, "is that the international aid that is supposed to help rebuild Afghanistan is tragically failing."

From a strategic standpoint, Afghanistan's weak infrastructure is troubling, as poverty and desperation could easily drive youths to join the Taliban. From a humanitarian standpoint, the problem is even more disturbing.

Foreign aid can be a public diplomacy tool, if it represents an understanding of a population's desires. But programs that confirm the donor's ignorance of the recipients needs are unlikely to generate a flood of goodwill. Resources for aid and public diplomacy are limited, of course, and playing is an essential part of development. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a parent who'd rather give his hungry child a see-saw than a loaf of bread.

It's easy to judge the effects of foreign policy from a desk in D.C., and it's hardly fair to chastise an aid project with such good intentions. Ultimately what's underlying this problem--like the foundation of so many public diplomacy issues--is the need for coordination to make sure that intentions, actions and receptions align.

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