Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

Covid-19 in Afghanistan (3): Distributing aid and changing aid politics – view from a Herati village

S Reza Kazemi 23 min

At a time when coronavirus-related aid in Afghanistan is becoming a topic of heated discussion, and the cause of some unfortunate violent incidents, the aid that flowed into a rural community in Afghanistan’s western province of Herat was bitterly and deeply contested. With the day-to-day rhythm of life in this already impoverished village troubled by the virus threat, community leaders were pushed to transform the way they usually distributed aid coming from outside and to ensure it reached those most badly in need. AAN researcher Reza Kazemi gives a granular account on how the elders reacted, a case study that can illuminate the coronavirus-induced disruptions and aid politics throughout Afghanistan.

Closed shop with Covid-19 awareness material in Herat during the first wave of the corona crisis in spring 2020. Photo: Reza Kazemi/AAN.

This report is based on fieldwork conducted from 20 to 30 April 2020 in a rural Shia Hazara/Sayed community of about 2,000 households – in addition to the author’s previous intermittent research on the community since 2014 – and mostly applies to the period from 24 March to late April 2020 when a partial lockdown continued to be enforced in Herat province, including Herat city and this anonymised village. In addition, the author paid a short visit to the locality on 14 May 2020 to update specific issues (eg basic food price and state aid). For confidentiality reasons, the names of those who spoke to the author have also been withheld. While the community has already become more rural than urban in the past several years (eg increased local engagement in agriculture and livestock), its inhabitants still call it a shahrak (diminutive of the Dari word for “city,” ie a township); it is administratively referred to as a qarya (village). The author has kept the local usage of the word shahrak. All charts are by the author.

Living under coronavirus

Towards late April 2020, about one month after Herat province went into partial lockdown to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the shahrak looked calm and relaxed. Outside simple brick houses, in the morning, groups of children and men were, respectively, playing and chatting with their peers. Their groups had become smaller than usual, though. Some, especially among men, were wearing face masks made locally out of fabric. The women were often inside the houses. Most of them had resumed baking bread at home, on top of their normal unending household chores. (1) Baking one’s own bread was cheaper than buying it. Many families thought it also helped avoid catching the virus as they did not need to send anyone to buy and fetch bread from bakeries, places where various people’s paths would cross. However, in the evening, when the springtime weather was especially mellow, groups of people, mostly children and men but also some women, went out to the nearby fields and hills to play, socialise and enjoy nature. The most careful ones had fewer people in their circles and kept a healthy distance from others. Then and there, one felt, for a while, there was no coronavirus, no lockdown and no tension.

Deep down, however, stress was already building among increasing numbers of shahrak residents. One reason was the unrelenting exposure to all sorts of accurate and inaccurate information about the disease and its fallout on TV, radio and social media, received via mobile phone, as well as in daily face-to-face encounters and chats. (2) “I keep seeing so much about this corona on TV and my phone and hearing so much about it that I just want to see, hear and talk about something else,” said a plasterer who is a father of three children. This was a view representative of many locals AAN spoke to. The plasterer said he had then decided to stay home and avoid the scarce informal construction work he usually earns his family’s living with until “things get clearer, because I don’t want to take the virus back to my home.” He clearly believed that in the whole world, their small and simple compound was the only place where he – and his wife – could have some control.

A view of a typical house in a Herat shahrak. Photo: Reza Kazemi (2020).

Like the plasterer, more broadly, the lockdown had disrupted daily rhythms of life for almost all residents. Children had no open nursery or school to go to, as the government had ordered them closed. Many had no access to ‘online’ education because they could not afford the luxury of a personal computer and internet. Worshippers, usually the elderly, had to pray at home because mosques were shut, although the azan (call to prayer) continued to be broadcast by mosque loudspeakers. The youth, especially those studying and working, similarly suffered. For instance, a local woman, a dentistry student in Herat University and employee of a health clinic in downtown Herat city, said:

It’s become very boring for me. I’ve been losing my patience day after day. I’ve got no daily routine. My days are passing without doing anything useful or meaningful. When there was university [also closed as part of the coronavirus-induced lockdown], I could commute to and from the city and there was some chance to learn something or do something every day. There was some motivation to wake up in the morning and stay awake throughout the day. My friends are also suffering like this. We’re sometimes taking time to get together but our gatherings have decreased since the virus has come. I went to the health clinic where I used to work in the city for a few days. Then I stopped going. My family said, please don’t go, you might get infected and bring the virus to our home and then the children and us all could fall ill. So I listened and stopped going.

While both the man and the woman quoted above had begrudgingly opted to stay away from work, many local working men and women lacked any such choice. This was increasing already very high unemployment. In this shahrak, many women who work outside the house are employed as teachers in government, NGO-run or private schools in the locality or in the city. They had been hit hard by school closures, both socially in terms of having to stay at home for most, if not all, of the day and economically, as both themselves and their families depend on their meagre incomes. Such families are not few in numbers here.

Staying put at home during lockdown has globally contributed to increased domestic violence against women. Referring to this spike in cases of domestic violence after cities were locked down around the world, The Guardian has reported that “those working with abused women [in Herat city] are terrified for their clients” because of even greater difficulties in accessing help, among other things. One mental health professional told the newspaper that “women in Herat may survive coronavirus but not lockdown.” However, in conversations with locals including women, this author has not noticed a sharp increase in domestic violence in the shahrak under study. It by no way means there is no domestic violence because it is endemic here as it is in the wider Afghan society; it only suggests the locality might be an outlier in the global pattern. Generally, emerging research from around the world indicates that compared to men, women have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic – the same was seen in the shahrak.

The work of many men had been damaged, too. Representing inhabitants AAN spoke to, a local elder, who has been a shopkeeper for the last 15 years, said:

Everybody is a worker in a way. Even the president is a worker. Those devastated by corona are workers whose work has stopped in some factories, like one manufacturing pressure cookers that I know, drivers of rickshaws and passenger vans, and particularly daily-wage labourers who go to sar-e falaka [certain intersections in the city] to find work. For the daily-wage labourers, if they managed to find work for two, three days per week before corona, now they don’t find work for even a single day per week.

Similarly, those laid off had been severely hit. A local man, whose work as a cleaner in a mobile phone market in the centre of the city had been stopped by the lockdown, said:

Things [lockdown] will be like this at least until the end of Ramazan [23/24 May 2020]. I’m worried about how to cover running expenses in my family. My electricity bill has just arrived and it’s Afs 4,500 [about USD 60] for the past two months. But I’m not sure if my employer will pay me for the two months the market has been down so far.

However, some local working people, both men and women, were able to continue their work under the partial lockdown that, from the beginning, has not been strictly enforced by the provincial government (details in this previous AAN report). However, they were mostly employed by some factories in the Herat Industrial Estate. They regularly went to work. Factory buses picked them up early in the morning and brought them back to the shahrak late in the afternoon. Although some factories, ie those making face masks, white robes, health clinic beds, disinfectants or detergents, were encouraged by the government to increase their output. Others, for example producing beverages, foodstuff and stone processing factories, easily flouted lockdown rules. One informed local said, “They work clandestinely by closing their gates and shutters, so people passing or outside would think they’re off while they’re in fact working inside.”

At the same time, because the lockdown had ground the rickshaws and passenger vans to a halt, movement to and from the city (a distance of around 15 kilometres) had become difficult, particularly for women. A housewife described how it was more difficult for local women than men to go to and from the city:

There are no vehicles working in the shahrakSeh charkh-ha [red-colour Herati-style motor rickshaws; literally “three-wheelers”] and minivans don’t work. Only saracha-ha [smaller station wagons] work and that only on the main road outside the shahrak. For women, they’re more difficult to use. We need to walk up to the main road. There’s smaller space in those cars and it’s occupied by men who are strangers [ie women such as her cannot use them for cultural reasons]. And they cost more.

Moreover, panic buying was responsible for a rise in the local price of some basic foods, particularly wheat flour and cooking oil (see chart 1 below). “Many households have rushed to buy wheat flour. There isn’t a sufficient amount available in the local market, so prices have gone up,” said the shopkeeper cited above. However, the price of some edibles like chickpeas increased only very slightly. Fruits became so expensive that, in the words of the same shopkeeper, “the working class was completely deprived and hasn’t eaten fruits [since the coronavirus arrived]… They’ve eaten vegetables instead [which are cheaper].” The local health advice for people to eat fruits rich in vitamin C (eg oranges and kiwis imported from or via neighbouring Iran) to stave off the virus was thus painfully meaningless for the working population. In this shahrak, legumes and vegetables constitute the staple foods for many households. Not many can afford to buy meat, especially much-coveted mutton. The price hike, though seemingly not dramatic apart from wheat flour and cooking oil, meant an even heavier financial burden on already impoverished households.

AAN chart 1: Basic food price hike in the shahrak in Afs (76 Afs = about 1 USD), April and mid-May 2020, data gathered from local grocery stores.

These developments – increasing anxiety, disruption of day-to-day life, even greater unemployment and price hikes for essential edibles under a partial lockdown – made people inside and outside the shahrak think that it was an apt time to ask for or offer a helping hand.

Making aid flow

The kalan-ha (elders and people with influence) – mosque council members, white-bearded men and socially active male youth, mostly men – have played the key role in aid attraction or distribution in this shahrak.

Since they were economically relatively equal, no ‘big man’ has emerged to dominate local public affairs and thus no one could bring all the kalan-ha under his influence or control alone. So they were clustered and mostly became active where they lived in the locality. (3) It was no surprise then that one kept hearing that so-and-so kalan (singular of kalan-ha) has brought this-and-that help and given it to so-and-so people. In fact, some kalan-ha already had their beneficiary lists handy, in case some aid arrives from any people or institutions willing to give it, or if they themselves manage to bring aid to (mostly their parts of) the shahrak.

Although the giving, distribution and taking of aid had helped some carve up a niche of importance in the locality, it seemed more so that the broader aid-dependent structure in the country was making some shahrak inhabitants engage heavily in aid-seeking and/or aid-managing, as will be discussed below. Meanwhile, others simply went on with their business and were not concerned about aid-related developments, not asking for it even if they qualified as mostahaqin (beneficiaries); they were somehow managing to make ends meet, albeit often with unimaginable difficulty.

On the other side were the givers of aid, locally called khayerin (benefactors). Benefactors based in Herat city were either politically or economically significant actors and gave whatever aid they wanted to give. This happened mostly through the kalan-ha rather than themselves personally (this author only registered one case of direct aid distribution by the benefactor himself). Those based outside Afghanistan channelled whatever help they gave (and/or that they gathered from benefactors abroad) through their intermediaries (representatives and/or acquaintances) based in Herat city. At least some of them were affiliated with local charity groups. These Herat city-based intermediaries then contacted the elders or socially active youth they knew in the shahrak for distributing the aid to whom their local contacts regarded as beneficiaries. In such cases, the involved kalan-ha acted as second (or third) intermediaries, as shown in the flowchart below.

AAN flowchart 1: aid flow in cases where aid came to the shahrak from outside the country. In internal aid flow, benefactors mostly channelled their aid to beneficiaries through the kalan-ha.

By late April 2020, this author recorded the following five cases of coronavirus-related aid distribution (listed from largest to smallest) in the shahrak. The list is not exhaustive but it does capture what aid was distributed and who was involved, including benefactors, managers and beneficiaries of aid:

  1. An Afghan benefactor based in Europe, who previously financed the construction of the centrally located main mosque in the shahrak, sent aid like wheat flour, rice and cooking oil to Herat city. He probably transferred cash to buy and provide locally. His field representative, an acquaintance in the city, passed the aid on to the main mosque council whose members divided it into five equal parts according to the shahrak’s five mosque areas. Then they distributed each part to the resultant number of beneficiary households per mosque, around 240 households in total.
  2. Another Afghan benefactor based in Europe sent money to a university lecturer in Herat city who used it to buy wheat flour, rice and cooking oil. The lecturer then contacted socially active male youth he knew, some of whom are members of a local mosque council in the shahrak, to receive and distribute the aid among the residents, 120 households in total.
  3. A Herat MP, who won many votes from the shahrak for his re-election in the 2018 parliamentary elections, distributed, through the arbab (the locality’s representative to the district government), aid like tomato paste, spaghetti, rice and cooking oil to some 70 households, allegedly almost entirely in the area of the shahrak where the arbab’s house was situated.
  4. A private businessman based in Herat city personally came and directly distributed some food aid among some households (number unknown but most probably more than ten households).
  5. A man (profession unknown) who was not able to hold a funeral ceremony due to coronavirus-related concerns distributed, through a local elder he knew, aid such as rice, cooking oil and legumes to ten households the elder identified as beneficiaries.

No government aid had arrived in this community by mid-May 2020. Similarly, no aid had come from foreign, ie non-Afghan, people or organisations by then, either. The arbab told AAN that no aid had come to the entire district of which this qarya (village, in official government parlance) was a part. Only some district government representative had come and prepared a list of beneficiaries without showing up again, at least by May 2020. The arbab had also sent an aid petition to a government agency he called “hawades [literally “incidents,” a reference to the office of the provincial Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, ANDMA]. “They’ve yet to give a reply, let alone come and help,” he said. A couple of days earlier, the shahrak had seen a rare short visit by a senior government official (a deputy provincial governor) who had asked the residents to turn the only existing public school into a makeshift health clinic if there were any cases of coronavirus infections in the locality. Although there were some local discussions by late April regarding wheat that had arrived in the central grain silo for, as President Ashraf Ghani had informed the Afghan people, distribution of government-sponsored free bread “through mosques in the districts,” more locals believed that little or no such aid would reach their shahrak as it was inhabited by people who were not considered as native to the district and Herat province as a whole.

Contesting aid

In most of the five cases listed above, the arrival of aid either caused new problems or exacerbated old local contentions, mirroring a much wider trend observed in other provinces since the virus hit the country. (4) This applied to both when aid arrived for the whole shahrak or for a specific area of it. When aid in case number 1 above (the largest recorded by the author) came to the main mosque to be allocated to those considered as needy from amongst the entire shahrak, its management proved very controversial. A main mosque council member involved in the process described what had happened:

In the compound of the main mosque itself, elders got involved in a heated dispute over how to divide the aid. Then some more locals gathered. Things went very bad. All sorts of differences resurfaced. You know, there’s so much talk everywhere that so-and-so is the know-it-all and knows how to do things best or so-and-so should have all the authority. Eventually, we somehow ended up giving the aid to some 240 households living in all five mosque areas of the shahrak.

Another elder who was part of that aid distribution felt “relieved” that they somehow managed the decision-making process:

Thank God, things didn’t get out of control. What would have we done if a stampede was caused? We saw on TV that one man lost his life in a stampede over getting aid in Kabul… We keep saying we shouldn’t gather in groups. It helps the virus spread. Worse, if someone would have got injured and killed in a stampede or brawl, it would have done more harm than good to our community in the name of aid.

In cases where aid was given in one part of the locality, as mentioned above, it caused not only contention but also suspicion about possible motivations behind the aid given. For instance, the aid distributed in case number 3 above was either paid for or provided by a Herat parliamentarian. Several locals, both kalan-ha and others, told AAN that the aid was channelled through the arbab who campaigned for the MP’s re-election, and he then distributed it to those around him. (However, few locals thought the MP purposefully focused his aid distribution on those who had voted for him in the past parliamentary elections.) In a conversation with AAN over aid distribution in the shahrak, the arbab made no reference to whether that specific case was politically motivated or not, but he did say that the aid was too little and those who wanted it were too many.

In general, locals believed there was a mix of spiritual, humanitarian or political motivations behind the aid given thus far, often simultaneously. If aid given under case number 3 was seen in a more political way, cases number 1 and 5 were regarded as more spiritual in nature (in terms of beneficiaries praying for the ageing Europe-based Afghan benefactor and the Herat city-based benefactor’s deceased family member), while case number 2 was considered as having a more humanitarian element in its motivation (ie doing something to contribute to easing the suffering of those identified as needy and therefore deserving of receiving help), as will be discussed below. (The author is not aware of any potential motivation behind the aid given under case number 4 above).

In the city of Herat, since the virus arrived, wealthy businesspeople have been giving away aid that is mostly foodstuff. In informal conversations with AAN, some residents said that while some businesspeople had a genuine humanitarian intention, others were using the occasion to both show off as philanthropists and promote their businesses by launching public events of the aid they have allocated or distributed and then extensively disseminating it offline (eg putting up billboards in prominent city intersections) and online (especially on Facebook). Some local journalists (watch an example here) have reported that some of the food aid given has been either expired or of very poor quality.

Alternately, some locals, even among those involved in the aid distribution process, argued that the process of giving and taking aid was bad overall, for two reasons. First, the aid would not last, in some recent cases even beyond only a few days. “Some aid is so little that it’s only for one night’s consumption by a typical large family,” said the arbab. “But, what about food for the next night?” he asked. Another elder said:

What God gives is a different thing [from aid]. Let’s pray that people [will be able to] live from their own hands. When aid comes, what will happen after aid stops coming any longer? People shouldn’t get accustomed to living from aid.

Second, aid – of the type that creates dependency – was thought to cripple not just an individual but also a whole community and to help some, in the process, achieve positions of power that many believed were often misused, if not abused. (5) Several locals told AAN that the shahrak had been blacklisted by the local government for any future development funding, given its alleged mishandling of previous public welfare projects, primarily under hambastegi-ye melli (National Solidarity Programme, NSP), a massive rural development initiative of the Afghan government, itself financed through pooling international aid. The last project implemented in the locality, a public water supply system, has been a total and disappointing failure, with implications that continue to trouble the community until this very day. Given local fragmentation, especially conflicts between some elders and two other local elders who were running an already existing private water supply company (the company wanted to increase the water price), the shahrak’s development council decided to spend the last round of NSP funding (approximately USD 60,000, of which several locals said only USD 45,000 actually reached the locality at the end) on creating their own public water supply system. Although the public reservoir has been installed and the shahrak has been piped (again), water has yet to flow in the public system. Many, even among the elders who pushed for it, thought it would be difficult to get the public structure up and running.

Beyond the scale of a rural community, aid dependency has been extended to afflict an entire country, as locals perceived. Here, there has been a torrent of rumours against all echelons of the Afghan government, from Kabul down to the district in Herat province that the shahrak is administratively a part. It is alleged that the state is using the coronavirus as a pretext to milk the international community as much as it can, mostly to the benefit of those running the state. According to local gossip, it was alleged, for example, that some locals were paid to go to health centres designated for Covid-19 cases and pretend they are sick there, for instance, by coughing, so that it looks as if health facilities are full of patients and this would then justify sending more foreign aid to Herat province and Afghanistan as a whole. Worse, there was also a rumour that some locals have been paid to lie down wrapped in a white shroud and pretend they are dead, falsely indicating a spike in fatalities due to the coronavirus. Equally worse, there was gossip that people who had died from other natural causes, drug abuse in particular, had been registered under Covid-19 deaths, which one local described as marg-e khiali (“ghost death”).

The author has found these rumours baseless and false, as they were based on hearsay. The author did not find a single case of evidence for any of them during his research. So it seems this is misinformation, and many locals were uncritically spreading it, although it could have serious repercussions by, for example, undermining the government especially in these sensitive conditions. The Herat directorate of public health has also strongly rejected these claims, emphasising it wants makeshift health centres designated for Covid-19 cases not only empty but made redundant (see chart 2 below for the status of Covid-19 disease Herat based on data provided by the provincial directorate of public health).

AAN chart 2: Number of Covid-19 infection, recovery (gender breakdown unavailable) and death cases reported by Herat directorate of public health on 15 May 2020.

However, as far as aid is concerned, this gossiping does make some allusion to the multi-level and deeply entrenched aid politics in Afghanistan. Here, many residents of the shahrak viewed the Afghan government as seeking or needing to be given aid by the international community, while the government viewed the locals as being in need of receiving state aid. This was despite the fact that no coronavirus-related state aid had so far come to locals residing in this shahrak, as discussed above. “They [Afghan government officials] turn a crisis [coronavirus] into an opportunity [money-making],” said a local man who works in a stone processing factory in the Herat Industrial Estate. “If they get something, some little part of it might also come down to reach people like us.” At the same time, many locals believed that at least parts of the international community present in Afghanistan have also been deeply implicated in aid mishandling and misappropriation, indicating rampant corruption on all levels of aid politics in the country.

Coming up with a solution

Despite bitter politicking over aid, including discussing the devastating effects of aid dependency and previous mishandling of public development funds, few disagreed with the fact that the coronavirus had ushered in different times marked by an urgency to make aid reach those really badly in need. Only few pushed for a radical position to cut all aid once and for all. The kalan-ha knew, or were pushed to accept, that business as usual could be catastrophic in the changing conditions, not just because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing war and political instability in Afghanistan, but also because no one was clearly willing to take responsibility in it, while seeing fellow community members starve, and even potentially die, in front of their eyes.  

After the commotion over aid distribution decision-making in the main mosque, different groups of kalan-ha, often organised around where they lived in the shahrak, began seriously thinking about changing the ways in which they distributed any further aid that came their way. This author has looked into one example of changing, and indeed improving, aid distribution. This could help to explain an emerging transformation not only in the overall local aid distribution pattern but also in making aid more humanitarian in purpose (although it is not certain how long it will last). This was case number 2 (with an Afghan benefactor based in Europe who sent money to a university lecturer), where the aid distribution was seen locally, at least among most residents in parts of the shahrak where it was distributed, as having a more humanitarian motivation.

When one group of kalan-ha consisting of some local elders and socially active youth received 120 food aid packages (each package having 25kg wheat flour, 25kg rice and five litres of cooking oil) around mid-April 2020, they settled on one shared procedure for beneficiary identification and aid distribution. This process was characterised by consultation and a ‘reality check’ (see flowchart 2 below). An elder involved explained the method they collectively devised, agreed upon, and implemented:

To avoid such an unfortunate thing [turmoil in the main mosque], when we received some aid last time, we consulted among ourselves and decided to do everything ourselves. We listed the households we locally knew were deserving but we again checked this by having our youth go and check the interior of their compounds. We then distributed the aid to those households at night, so that lots of people won’t gather or even notice that aid has come. We had a group of young people move around in a vehicle and take the aid to the households we had already identified. They took the aid right to their doorsteps. If you don’t take it to their doorsteps, it is possible that aid won’t reach [the beneficiaries even at that last stage]. They did this over several nights, starting from about 9 pm when few people are out in our area.

AAN flowchart 2: A collectively devised local solution for determining beneficiaries and distributing aid.

The surveillance part of this method was disliked by some but the fact that it was done by familiar locals, including socially active young women, trusted by, at a minimum, community elders assuaged the concerns. However, even this strict method did not guarantee that there would be no problems. The same elder quoted above described not only the troubles they faced but also how difficult aid distribution could be on the ground:

It was really difficult to distribute the aid. Afterwards, some people approached me, saying they weren’t included. I told them we mobilised our youth who went into people’s houses to find the needy. Even with the work we did, some real beneficiaries could drop from the list by [unintentional] mistake. In one case, a man with paralysis and a large household wasn’t included in the list. When my eldest son learned about it, he immediately left the meal we were eating to make sure that man was included and that aid reached him. We’ve fallen out with men and women alike over this aid distribution. At least, we in our group [of elders and youth] have clear consciences that we did our best and took the aid to those we checked and found to be neediest. And it wasn’t such an amount of aid that it could reach everybody. Aid distribution is a very difficult thing to do in our society.

A socially active youth, who is a member of a local mosque council and who took the aid to the houses of the beneficiaries, described some of the problems the youth involved encountered:

The last aid we received, we, four to six people, distributed it at night, beginning from 9 to 11 pm and sometimes close to midnight, driving our minivan. We took it to the doorsteps of the households we had identified in advance. Even at that time of night, some people would peep through narrow openings through their house doors. They were trying to figure out what was going on. During the day, the person who was managing the aid distribution kept being stopped by people who were saying he had brought aid and asked if he could include them in the list, too. Things were such that when he wanted to get out of his house, he first looked out to see if there were any people in the alley and if there were none, he would get out and then rush to whatever business he had. That’s how difficult aid distribution is.

Lastly, some kalan-ha were following aid distribution in neighbouring rural communities, hoping to learn from them. An elder described one initiative that had caught some eyes in the shahrak, but thought it was not practical in their area, as aid used to come in smaller quantities:

Residents in a village in neighbouring [name withheld] district have told any visiting government official that the government should either not bring any aid to their village or, if it does so, it should give it to all, whether they are shah [kings] or gharib [poor]. They’ve said that by distributing help, the government shouldn’t play one off against another or make villagers do so among themselves… The government has distributed some wheat and cooking oil to the households in that village, and it’s done so at night. Some villagers may have declined to receive those things because they don’t need them and, more importantly, because they’re honest that they aren’t the real beneficiaries. But I think such people are few in Afghanistan.


The above study of a rural community in the western province of Herat tells us a number of things. It shows how the Covid-19 virus and the resulting lockdown exacerbate socio-economic vulnerabilities. In this seemingly calm and relaxed rural community, the disease hit hard an already socio-economically vulnerable local population by further building up psychological strain and leaving children, youth and elderly with no routine that could resemble their regular daily one, let alone compensate it. It also added more locals to the many already unemployed and raised the price of their staple foods – with girls and women being more disproportionately impacted.

These further deteriorating social and economic conditions made actors inside and outside the community ask for or offer aid. Aid flowed into the village from Afghan benefactors either from outside Afghanistan or inside Herat city who channelled it to local beneficiaries through intermediaries based in Herat city and/or in the village; the latter were the kalan-ha, or local community leaders, ie elders and socially active youth, both often mosque council members at the same time. What was striking was that these actors were managing to keep aid flowing in the absence of any Afghan government or foreign aid coming to the community, at least by mid-May 2020.

However, aid was almost always contested for a variety of reasons. These included: difficulties in aid management that was in one case about to break into a stampede; raising suspicion about motivations if aid was locally regarded has having a more political than spiritual or humanitarian purpose; aid durability, aid dependency and misuse given previous histories of public development fund mishandling; and, even, widespread rumours circulating that the Afghan government is using the coronavirus as a pretext to attract international aid. The latter, albeit baseless, exposed aid dependency on several different scales, from the dependency of locals on private and state aid (despite the fact that no government aid had by then come their way) all the way to the dependency of the Afghan government on international aid, in a process widely believed to be ridden with mishandling, misappropriation and corruption at all levels. In the local community, aid-seeking had already put some members, primarily the kalan-ha who already had ready-made beneficiary lists handy, in positions of power that many thought were often misused, if not abused.

The coronavirus had ushered in different times, marked by an urgency to help aid reach those badly in need. As a result, the kalan-ha were pushed to do something to reform, but not radically cut aid (which some argued for), because no one was clearly willing to take responsibility in a situation in which fellow community members starve, and possibly even die, in front of their eyes. A more consultative, realistic and rigorous approach to beneficiary identification and aid distribution followed in at least some parts of the researched community. This made aid politics more locally grounded and fairer and thereby made a much-needed gesture of solidarity for the benefit of those most vulnerable.

Edited by Christian Bleuer and Thomas Ruttig

(1) In this shahrak, most families had their bread baked at home by their women in the past (ie some ten years ago). Over time, however, most families started buying their bread from the bakeries that opened. At the moment, there are four bakeries in this community; three reduced their output and one even got closed after demand for their product dropped because more households resumed baking their bread at home. It is not known, however, whether this trend will last beyond the coronavirus epidemic.

(2) The World Health Organisation has called this profusion of correct and incorrect information about Covid-19 an “infodemic.” Given its ‘viral’ nature, this is perhaps similar to how the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has itself spread and mutated across the world (activate a visualisation here).

(3) For a detailed discussion, see: Said Reza Kazemi (2018), “Talking about and Doing Elections: The Shaping of a Local Electoral Field in Western Afghanistan,” Central Asian Affairs 5: 160-176.

(4) There have been several protests over mishandling, misappropriation and corruption of coronavirus-related government aid in different provinces of Afghanistan. In the eastern provinces of Laghman, Nangarhar and Kunar, a journalist told AAN that some locals protested because they did not receive aid or aid had ended up being given, they said, to those that were not real beneficiaries. Similar protests have occurred in the capital Kabul and Parwan province to its north. The most unfortunate incident, however, took place in Ghor province, where a local protest over public aid distribution broke into clashes between the protesters and security forces, leaving several killed and injured.

(5) A rickshaw driver explained potential abuse in an aid-dependent system (in the case of this shahrak, see flowchart 1 in the text) by recounting the following parable where the two ends of the system (actual givers and actual receivers of aid) might not know what is happening to aid as it flows through various intermediaries through the system:

Once upon a time, a king went out to meet his soldiers face-to-face and find out how they were doing. The soldiers complained that they didn’t have enough food to eat, their clothes and other equipment were in poor conditions and that they weren’t given enough attention. It was winter and snowing, so the king asked a soldier to make a big snowball. He then ordered the soldiers to stand in one long queue and asked them pass the snowball from one end to the other. When the snowball reached the last soldier, it had almost melted away due to the heat from the soldiers’ hands as well as the sunlight. The king then told the soldiers that like the initial big snowball, he sent them sufficient supplies but they got somehow lost along the way up from the centre down to their base.

The rickshaw driver identified the parable’s main point in this way: “The soldiers didn’t know what and how much the king was sending and the king didn’t know how the soldiers were doing.”


Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority Aid ANDMA Corona Covid-19 Herat kalan-ha mosque councils National Solidarity Programme NSP Shahrak