Last month, while I was visiting my family in southeastern Afghanistan, my mobile rang. I didn’t dare answer it.
I recognized the number instantly – it was a colleague I work closely with at the World Food Programme (WFP) office in Kabul – but I couldn’t risk being overheard speaking to her in English.
Most of my relatives in Paktia province don’t know that I work for the United Nations. I tell them I run a private business – the same story I give to my neighbors in Kabul. If everyone knew the truth, it could put us all in danger.
For the same reasons, I’ve never programmed the numbers of my international colleagues into my mobile phone, because I don’t want someone to find them there if I’m searched at a roadblock. I leave my work phone behind when I travel to the south to visit relatives and friends.
Sadly, none of this is unusual.
There are people here who believe that working with non-Muslims is forbidden. Some are willing to use violence to enforce this belief, and may not differentiate between someone working for a foreign military force and someone working for a humanitarian agency.
The gap between rich and poor is also an issue. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on Earth, and some people assume that those of us working for international agencies are wealthy – which could make us and our relatives targets for kidnappers seeking ransom.
I look around and see a country that desperately needs development, stability and growth. In 30 years of war, we were kept separate from the world. Afghanistan now needs continuous engagement with the international community to repair the damage done in those decades of conflict. It also needs people with skills and education to build Afghanistan a better future.
A sense of responsibility
Personally, I feel a sense of responsibility to help my country grow. My work at WFP is one way of facing up to that responsibility and the challenges that go along with it.
Not only are we feeding more than eight million people and addressing the immediate humanitarian needs that are so starkly visible here, but we are also using food in development, such as rehabilitating irrigation canals, and feeding children through our school meals programme to help secure that brighter future by laying the groundwork for sustained recovery and development.