It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when we gather together in Pennsylvania to brace ourselves against impending disaster. No, I’m not talking about opening day at PNC Park, although that is depressing. Not quite as depressing as the fact that a) there’s such a thing as a Spice Girl and b) they keep coming back, but, still sad.
No, I’m talking about Groundhog Day, when those in America bound by the icy clasp of winter hope that some rodent can tell them whether spring is on the way. Or if they’ll have to endure long, dreary weeks of more cold. Which, of course, disproves global warming. It’s an event so magical that Bill Murray made a movie about it, you may recall.
Bill Murray plays a self-centered, egotistical man who mocks Punxsutawney Phil and the whole tradition surrounding that overgrown rat’s emerging from his winter slumber. He’s only focused on doing things that make him feel good. Kind of like this guy:
“We like to do this sort of thing because it makes us feel good.”
Well, so long as you feel better.
Naturally. Why else would someone take time out of their busy day to distribute clothes to Afghan refugee kids?
The Afghan winter poses a difficult – and sometimes deadly – challenge to refugees crowded into camps that surround the capital city. Overnight temperatures routinely dip below freezing, and the treeless countryside offers little in the way of firewood for the poorly-clothed refugees and their children.
Nearly two hundred of those children who attend the Aschiana School in Kabul got welcome relief from volunteers with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters who, on Jan. 27, delivered bags of donated hats, mittens, scarves and other cold-weather clothing.
Enter expatriates in shining armor.
Project coordinator Parween Omidi is an Afghan American who for the past three years has worked as an ISAF civilian media advisor and interpreter. Born and raised in Kabul, Omidi and her family fled the country following the Soviet invasion in 1983, settling in Orange County, Calif. As the years went by Omidi never forgot about the children of Afghanistan and was involved in several programs to provide them with care.
“I felt guilty,” she said. “I could get away, and they couldn’t. I wanted to give them a little hope that someone was looking after them.”
So they’re…orphans? Oh. Right. Not orphans.
Yes, because what Afghans need more than anything is someone to look after them. What the world in general needs is more expatriate types coming back to their home countries from America, letting people know that Americans…are there for them. Never mind that these aren’t orphans. They actually have families that probably think they’re the ones looking after their kids.
“Of course there is no way to know what any one child might need,” Omidi said. “But once the clothes are taken back to the family, the families can trade with each other for what they need. And sometimes you can tell. Like I saw a girl who was just wearing slippers outside, so I tried to quickly look through the bags and find one that had shoes.”
Why waste all that time trying to find out what the kids might actually need, when you “can tell”? And above all? Make sure they have good manners.
“The children there are very polite,” Omidi said. “While they were lining up to get the bags, I told them to be sure to say thank you to the Americans handing the bags out. They laughed and said, ‘We know to say thank you!’”
Oh look…they can say “thank you.” Just like people!
Imagine. Afghan kids. That know how to…say thank you. And yes, let’s make sure that no matter what happens, you thank the Americans for the wonderful job they’ve done. Bringing you clothes you may or may not need.
“I do feel that we make a small difference,” Omidi said. “These kids need proper clothing as [do] any other kids. Their families live in the refugee camps and are not able to provide warm clothing for their children. They should not become only the responsibility of the government or the U.N. It is up to the community to try to provide them whatever they can.”
No, I have no idea how clothing donated by Americans and distributed by ISAF troops is in any way a community-based relief effort. But then, I’m not terribly bright. Otherwise, this would make a lot more sense to me than it actually does.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying we shouldn’t donate clothing to Afghan kids. There are some genuinely needy and hurting people in this country, especially in the wintertime. But what I am saying is this: we need to be doing it better. Not out of pity, not out of some condescending “oh, too bad they can’t help themselves” aid approach.
We keep doing this. Over and over.
This clothing drive is a microcosm of the cataclysmic failure that is development aid in Afghanistan. We don’t find out what they need, we just give it to them, and sort it out later. Sounds like our plan for the billions in aid dollars we’ve pumped into this country over the years.
Looking at the picture, most of those kids look fairly well dressed to fend off the cold. While I want to believe they’re taking that stuff home to sort out and hand to their brothers and sisters, there’s the much more likely possibility that they’re going to sell it somewhere.
Because that’s what they need, is money. Money to buy fuel so they can heat their homes at night and not die. When the temperatures drop below freezing, all the clothing drives in the world aren’t going to fend off that chill. Yes, ISAF volunteers have put together fuel drives, and that’s great.
But what happens when ISAF leaves? Sustainability isn’t something you tack on to a program as you’re wrapping it up. Sustainability has to be a primary component for consideration when you’re trying to put together something that’s going to last after you’re gone.
That’s why Groundhog Day worked: Phil Connors fixed what he could, and in no way made himself a permanent part of the solution. Sure, he was probably doing it just to get the girl. I’m not trying to make him out to be the model for all things Samaritan. But instead of fixing what we think we should fix, why don’t we just fix what’s actually broken? And in a way that stands a decent chance of staying fixed?
So here’s what I’d like to hear from you as a reader: do you have any stories of aid/development efforts that actually worked? I’m not just talking about Afghanistan, but anywhere? I know those stories are out there.
Until next time, you stay on the sunny side!