Emmanuel Tronc is a senior research analyst at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, who holds extensive experience in the humanitarian field and especially in Afghanistan since 1996.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your connection to Afghanistan? How did your humanitarian career start?
My arrival in the humanitarian field and Afghanistan was not planned. In 1996, I accompanied a French filmmaker who was engaged in Afghanistan since the 1980s. He was working on a movie about the Afghan resistance at the time. That project and various circumstances, including becoming ill during my visit, led me to reach Kabul and visit an MSF clinic where I was taken care of. I discussed what I was doing there with a doctor and I explained my experience. The doctor expressed to me that there could be some opportunities to work with MSF. I dedicated 20 years of my life to MSF and worked in Afghanistan on a regular basis.
You seem to be have been interested in Afghanistan from a young age. Is there a particular aspect about the country or the culture you connected with the most?
First, Afghanistan has experienced a very long-term humanitarian crisis, in terms of needs and sufferings. As humanitarians, it’s a context where all of the aspects of challenging operational programs are present. At the same time, it provokes critical reflections you need to have, when you’re trying to develop a humanitarian ambition to serve affected populations, including on your role, responsibilities, and limits. I also experienced a link with communities that is extremely unique and welcoming. It is not a surprise that year after year, I developed and maintained relationships with many people. This is why Afghanistan drove me throughout these years, through a deep connection to the environment and to communities. For all of these reasons, I continue to feel a willingness to engage and commit to supporting affected people.
Going back to what we talked about at the start, what do you think changed or hasn’t changed since the 90s for Afghans?
Afghanistan is really a country that has faced challenges and restrictions mainly for civilians, by all actors, including the international community. The ongoing approach to sanctions and the external geopolitical agendas promotes restrictions as well. Daily life is restricted, economic and social opportunities, freedom, rights, security, and activities – everything is increasingly restricted. It’s a country where implementation of policies and good practices that can help people to live and decide their own future, is extremely difficult.
Would you say that’s probably one of the most challenging things you had to encounter, whilst dealing with coordinating humanitarian programs?
Not really, because humanitarian programs in such circumstances are always facilitated. I was doing research last year in Afghanistan for an Afghan research institution and in these last 2 years, humanitarian actors have been able to have a large operational deployment in an environment generally secured, in most provinces, today. In some cases, it is also generally easier for NGOs and humanitarian organizations to operate when states are falling, weak, or facing multiple limitations in running public services. You can have your own negotiations with limited challenges and responsibilities. The more challenging aspect has been for local NGOs: how can an Afghan NGO exist and be developed in this environment? Do they have the space and flexibility to operate and to receive support? From my point ofview, the future of humanitarian activities is driven by local actors, and not international actors. If we return to the cycle of humanitarian international interventions (which often result in substantial dependency), it means we’re missing the point. Afghanistan is a good example of classic humanitarians action’s short term practices and limited vision for civilians, privileging the fragmentation of actors; everyone tries to secure and promote their own activities.
Going into education now, because one of our projects is education and we have some schools. In your ‘Fragile Future’ report you mentioned the inaccessibility to education. How do you think that in the last few years has been affected?
Education in Afghanistan has always been a major challenge for youth and children, in terms of access, quality, equipment, perspectives, access to universities etc. This is very real for girls firstly, but also for boys. We should not believe that there is good education for men in Afghanistan. I remember a few years ago there were many fake diplomas given in Pakistan for Afghans. Education is really one of the main pillars to be supported, but it is extremely tenuous. If you associate this with limited economic opportunities and jobs – because today not only do Afghans seek security, but also work – opportunities are limited. If you are restricted by sanctions, religion, limitations to traveling – what do you do? Education during the past decade has been supported, but was never really placed at the center of Afghan society. We also have to keep in mind that if you educate people in a context like Afghanistan, where life is so restricted, a large part of educated people will want to leave for a better life, in terms of rights and freedom, in places like Canada or Europe. The large exodus in September 2021 of Afghan educated and professional people has shown the limits and risks for Afghan society in the immediate future.
If you remove 100 female medical doctors and move them to Europe, who do you have left to treat women in Afghanistan? This is why education is critical, despite the fact that Afghans are familiar with the restrictions dividing men and women; this is ancestral. We are moving in this direction in a highly restrictive environment and that is probably why education is limited and unable to evolve. But it should remain the priority in cities and rural areas alike.
Do you think the West has common misconceptions about Afghans or their culture and situation?
I think the way international interventions are developed is opportunistic. You can do good, you can restore monuments, you can create opportunities for museums to thrive, you can develop education programs and schools, but in the meantime, you facilitate the return of actors who don’t want the same type of life for the citizens and the society, they don’t want the same way of living. The ways of living that we pretend to promote, or that we consider should be universal, is rejected by political and religious leaders in these types of countries, as well as by some people. That is why there is a clash. When I discuss with Afghan friends, I see that they don’t want to be blurred by this Western vision of emancipation. These are not misconceptions because we know exactly what the reality is, it’s more that international interventions cannot determine or respond to the deep changes and evolutions of a society in the end.
So, do you think there’s anything different that future generations of humanitarian workers should do differently when conducting their work there?
I would probably be a bit radical, but there are 2 major issues with humanitarian international actions. First, they continue to engage local actors primarily for implementation of programs which either undermines or are limits local leadership. Funding is also a central issue because everything revolves around the donors and the budget. Humanitarian activities are very costly today. I remember in Afghanistan in the 1990s, it was possible to run a 100-bed hospital support with 3 expats and 35 national staff for 300 000 USD. Today you have 20 expats, 200 local staff and it’s a 2-million-dollar budget for a similar structure and quality services. Humanitarian activities, when done in a small and very localized and tailored way are more challenged, in particular by donors putting a lot of pressure on types of programs, actions and support that are able to be given.
Do you have any final predictions for the future of Afghanistan? Do you think there will be an end to the current humanitarian crisis anytime soon or do you think it’s going to be a long process?
I think in the last 2 years, there’s a development and consolidation of a new regime. The diplomacy and the international operations so far didn’t bring positive results to change this status quo. Afghan voices and realities are more and more in the dark because humanitarians are extremely cautious about what they can say about Afghanistan and what is publicized, while trying to be pragmatic and continue to run programs. I would say that there’s no visible commitment to fund Afghanistan programs with the current regime in place, so there’s a disillusionment about the country and a prioritization of the geopolitical and security dimensions. I don’t think that, in these circumstances, the sanctions will be lifted swiftly. I don’t think the situation is going to change drastically unless there is a major internal political tension. Migration of Afghans today is also extremely challenging, and people have begun to return, despite the current political circumstances. I have some friends who were in Iran, India, and other places who are now returning to Afghanistan, because access to visas now for Afghans is extremely difficult. Their life in Europe is not El Dorado, it’s not a paradise, so some return. People will try to survive and try to find new ways to continue to exist. This situation can remain for decades and humanitarian actors will continue to be there, adapting to some restrictions, because there is a willingness to better control the financial assets of humanitarian actions. They will continue to negotiate and develop some programs, but there is unlikely to be profound change. Humanitarian actors don’t want to leave because they’ve also adapted to the different policies, they find windows of opportunities to work there, so everyone is trying to find ways to be present. There are actors who work remotely, and a few local actors that try to continue their work despite restrictions. There are local NGOs that are very strict and cautious about what to say and what to do and they’ll continue to have a very limited budget. These will be the ones that will have a footprint abroad, like AfD and others. They have risks to face in the long run. For local NGOs, it will remain difficult to get access to funding; for Afghans it’s critical to have access to economic welfare, support, job opportunities, and basic rights. It’s like everyone has done their best, and we let it play out, we left it in pieces.
How do you think we can keep Afghans and their experience on the map?
Perhaps not to think they should be on the map. Maybe because we arethinking that we isolate them more and more. I believe that more field engagement by the international community through local empowerment would be good.
Do you think in the last 2 years the dialogue has decreased regarding what’s happening?
Of course. Again, I don’t see Afghanistan as a priority by the international community. Even if we discover massive mineral resources, I don’t think it’s going to be a priority considering the multiple other humanitarian crises. Afghanistan remains because it’s like an open wound of international interventions. We like to talk about it and we don’t, at the same time. If we look at what has been done during the past twenty years, it’s difficult to understand and to accept. The humanitarian approach has serious limitations and we have not drawn out lessons from this experience, or had in depth introspections, particularly the UN system. We talk about humanitarian programs, and we say 20 million people need food, what does it mean? What do we propose in terms of alternatives? I think Afghans deserve something more structured, visionary and drastic than purely to repeat what we’ve done.
Lastly, do you have a particular vision or a dream for the future of Afghanistan?
What I see is that it’s important that Afghans try to find their own ways to engage. I think sanctions, which affect the populations the most, should be lifted, in order to let the Afghans decide on their own direction. With sanctions, community lives and voices are very limited. Afghanistan must reach a point where the people are able to travel, to create schools, to define their future. This is not a dream, sanctions should be lifted so Afghans havemore opportunities to exist, for themselves and for their families. In the meantime, we should put more pressure on leaders and less pressure on locals and citizens – that would be my vision.
Let’s end in a more positive and personal way. Do you have any fond memories of Afghanistan or any books or films or people that stuck with you?
Plenty because, again, Afghans are not only resilient, which is a term I don’t like, but they are a very vibrant and dynamic people. They continue to ask you how you’re doing, and not talk about their situation. They are more afraid for their children than for themselves. They are afraid of what they can offer to their children in terms of opportunities. But again, I don’t think they are going to resign when it comes to trying to exist in this world. They don’t like to be stigmatized, so it’s interesting to see how locals are detached from the Afghan diaspora. I have confidence in the sense that Afghans have an incredible capacity to stay on their feet despite the circumstances. We always had good times swimming, having dinners, playing games, and talking about the banal things of life. I remember when we had a volleyball tournament that brought local and international actors together; there were many opportunities to exchange and engage. I think today things are more compartmentalized, but there are always opportunities, and we should preserve them. I think we should continue to talk about this country and its reality. There are generations and hopes on the line. Afghans are optimistic and look at their own perspectives. They are not demoralized. They don’t have the luxury to escape the storm.