Book review: Opium season

I just finished reading Joel Hafvenstein’s “Opium Season“, a book that has absolutely nothing to do with social media but which I’d like to recommend to anyone working in the aid-business.

Opium Season is about Hafvenstein’s time in Afghanistan in 2005, when he was working for a USAID funded cash-for-work project that was supposed to supplement the income of people who were due to lose money because of a poppy-eradication campaign.

The problem with donor driven programmes

opium_seasonWhat makes this book such a good  read is not only that it is well written, but also that it gives excellent examples for what’s wrong with donor-driven aid programmes.

From the very beginning, the project was not driven by the needs of the population, but by the donor’s requirement to create 2.5 million days of work in a Helmland province within a year. Hafvenstein writes: “Everything else – the amount of money we spent, the total number of people we hired, the nature of the jobs we created was flexible.”

In other words: whether the work made sense or was even counter-productive hardly mattered, as the project managers were struggling to meet the expectations of USAID. The worry that was constantly on their – and their bosses – minds was that if they failed, they wouldn’t get the next, bigger project. A poignant reminder that today, aid is a frequently seen as business first and something that can help people second.

Having money is not the same as having resources

Joel Hafvenstein writes about this with great honesty and explains very well how he reflected on these issues more and more the longer he worked in Afghanistan. The book also illustrates the lack of resources and the frustrations that a lot of aid managers have to deal with on a daily basis, even if the project is well funded. His efforts to get from one day to the next without screwing up on a monumental scale will feel familiar to many people who work in the non-profit sector.

Last but not least. I like “Opium Season” because it contains a lot of background information on the history of  the region and helped me to appreciate that hardly anything is clear-cut in Afghanistan.