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Friday, October 05, 2007
Afghanistan is not a project plan - Rory Stewart

I much enjoyed Rory Stewart's book The Places in Between, so when I saw an ad in the paper for his IDRC-sponsored talk in Ottawa on Wednesday I immediately signed up online.

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© 2007 Richard Akerman

His basic theme was that things in Afghanistan are complex, and we have to be realistic about what can be accomplished. He showed the very detailed, technocratic plans drawn up by the international community, with all their lofty (and to be fair, quite noble) goals, and contrasted those ambitious plan with the realities of the country.

In a question from the audience, the questioner termed the international approach "PowerPoint democracy". After the event, I overheard others talking about how managerial language and project management have insinuated their way into international development.

That was the aspect that struck me most. There is a fallacy of project planning, that by drawing up the project plan, you are creating truth. If you have enough detail, you create a new world. Similarly, if you use enough management language about enabling democracy by transforming the leveraging of the Afghan people, you create this kind of bubble of unreality around what you're doing. You can't assume that an entire diverse population can be reduced to statistic, and considered as interchangable "resources" who buy-in to your project plan. It's madness.

Rory put up a slide that said basically they start off creating this huge expectation of democracy coming rapidly to Afghanistan, and then they throw in troops and consultants, and then the plans inevitably fail, and then they make a critical error...

they try to make it better by doing THE SAME, ONLY MORE SO

Although he didn't use this terminology, I know this as

The First Law of Bad Management

If something isn't working, do more of it.

Here are a couple more pics I took

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© 2007 Richard Akerman

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© 2007 Richard Akerman

Above: Rory Stewart making fun of the approach to state-building, simultaneously impossibly vague, complex, and unrealistic.

He lives and works and Kabul, his organisation is called the Turquoise Mountain Foundation.

I sat next to a cute journalism student and she laughed a lot, so that was also good.

He also spoke at IDRC in April of this year, they have a podcast of the talk available.

Wednesday's event was also recorded, and I think there will be a webcast available somewhere on the IDRC site sometime.

UPDATE 2007-11-11: The audio from the talk are now available at IDRC, they also have some photos they took

A slideshow of photos taken during Stewart's visit. (Note: This is not the slideshow that he did, it's a slideshow OF him.)

Audio podcast of his October 2007 presentation in Ottawa, Canada

UPDATE 2008-02-17: Audio and video of this talk are also available from TVO, they broadcast it on Big Ideas and you can view it online.

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