Sinéad Magill l Palladium - Aug 31 2021
Recognising the Real Heroes in Afghanistan

It will be a long time before we truly grasp the lessons learned from the current crisis in Afghanistan, but as the American military and NATO forces withdraw from the country and the Taliban moves in, putting allies and locals at great risk, there is time to acknowledge the potential dangers that locally engaged staff face in delivering impact for their countries in humanitarian contexts.

I spent much of my career in Iraq, supporting governance reform, economic development, policing and social development programs. During that time, I saw huge transformation and the ability of development and humanitarian actors to make meaningful change in people’s lives.

When you work in Iraq, everyone in the western world thinks you’re a hero. And for many, you really are. You see and do things that most people won’t ever see or do in their lifetime, but the difference is you go in with a huge amount of protection. From armoured cars, bulletproof vests, and a military base to go home to, you have the security and knowledge that at a moment’s notice, your country can pull you out and get you home.

But what about the locals?

For years, we’ve not only talked about the importance of working with local actors – we’ve done it. Local staff are key to providing fast, efficient, and contextualised emergency responses in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, ensuring that the work is sustainable and continues both after the crisis is over and when international organisations eventually leave.

In Iraq, where I had armoured cars and if needed, a way out, my colleagues were walking a different route every day to get to work at a military base where they had to wait outside to be let in. And every step of the way they knew they were being watched; that they and their families were at risk. There was very little I could do for them beyond giving them advice or offering support, but at the end of the day they were on their own.

The reality is, they’re the heroes. For some local staff doing humanitarian and stabilisation work around the world, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, they take on, knowingly, that their job means they may have to leave their country. And they do so willingly, trusting in the fact that someone will help them leave if it comes down to it. It’s nearly unimaginable to consider taking a job that means you could never go home again.

For these local actors, they’re receiving training, capacity building, and invaluable experience to transform and support the communities in which they live. But is it enough? Is it enough for them to carry on when the rest of the world leaves them behind? It leads us to question and look closer at how we carry out interventions in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and others. How do we get to the point that we’re truly building local capability, rather than simply maintaining a reliance on international support?

Because if Afghanistan has taught us anything, it’s that they must be equipped to sustain program goals when international organisations or militaries leave. Without that context, they will forever be reliant on others, rather than moving forward on their own terms.

As I reflect on the situation in Afghanistan, I realise that it’s time to recognise who the real heroes are when we talk about humanitarian response, conflict, or stabilisation work. And it’s not those coming into the situation, it’s the local actors that are left when all is said and done with the full knowledge of what’s possible should things go wrong.

That’s bravery.

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