Reflections on 10 years in Afghanistan

12 May 2016

Hossam Helal is an Egyptian judge, who has worked with IDLO in Afghanistan since 2005 in many roles, including Acting Chief of Party and Head of Training for JTTP.

'When I first arrived in Afghanistan ten years ago to lead a course on commercial and civil law, I was completely taken aback to find that it was the first time most of the judges present had ever seen the code. At that time, they were issuing rulings on the basis of their own personal judgment, rather than any law. For me, it was a sign of the state of the justice system then.

It also took me by surprise when a couple of the judges came up to me afterwards to praise the course. We got talking. They told me how difficult the situation was for them. Earning just 60$ a month as a judge, both were having to work as a night guards for a construction company to support their families.

By sheer coincidence, I bumped into one of them again six months ago, I reminded him of that story and he told me how things had improved, average salaries for judges are now around 1000$ a month.

Looking back, I also remember that all the instructors used to be internationally recruited, the only Afghans worked as translators. A donor once told me ‘you can’t employ Afghans to deliver the course because they’re not qualified.’

In 2005, I’d go to a meeting and of ten people present, one might be Afghan; today there are more likely to be nine Afghans and one international participant.

I’m proud to say that I leave a team consisting entirely of Afghan trainers. It’s a huge achievement for IDLO, which has supported local staff with career development, training and coaching. Many of the local staff have gone on to study law degrees, post-graduate courses and even PhD's. They showed commitment, worked hard and proved themselves. Even our cleaners take English classes.

I often joke and proudly say that I am a victim of our success, I am leaving many people behind who can now do my job.

A number of our former staff have gone on to land senior posts within the government or universities. Some are such hot-shots, I can’t even get a meeting with them now!

With programs, like JTTP, we started as implementers to enhance the capacity of the justice sector, but building on this experience, we went on to support the Afghan institutions establish their own training units, from the Supreme Court and Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice and Attorney General’s Office. The units are up and running, and they’re conducting their own courses for their own staff using their resources and trainers.

When I’m asked if IDLO has made a difference, I say of course. I first met judges who’d never seen the code, now there are Supreme Court dedicated trainers, who are leading the education of others.

Is it enough? No. But I can honestly say that over the ten years I’ve been in Afghanistan, the justice sector has changed immensely. And the situation for women too, they’re much more active. If you go to the University Law Faculty today, you’ll see lots of girls. This wasn’t the case in 2005.

However, I am concerned about the sustainability of the country. Regrettably, when the international community pulled out their military forces and began reducing operations in Afghanistan, in many cases they offered talented Afghan staff opportunities to leave with them. I lost a lot of talented people. I don’t understand it, you can’t establish sustainability of a country if you take the most talented people out of it.

And the security situation is much worse than a decade ago, that has been a setback and is going to be a challenge – how will this affect international efforts to support Afghanistan? I don’t know.

But in terms of the bigger picture in Afghanistan, things won’t change within 5-10 years. We are just sowing the seeds.

Based on my experiences of Afghanistan if I were to give one piece of advice to the international community, it would be 'don’t always give the Afghans ‘burger and chips’.' They might need a different approach.  Listen, let them lead, let them choose the way.'

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Hossam Helal, IDLO Head of Training for JTTP
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