To Live and Work in Kabul

Dallas Newby pictured with Afghan children in Kabul.
Dallas Newby is a Management Consult and Facilitator currently working as an advisor to the Minister of Finance of Afghanistan, Dr. Omar Zakhilwal. He has been living and working in Kabul for the past 11 months. Dallas has worked across a range of industries including overseeing assembly of high-tech electronic equipment; teaching risk management to operations leaders of natural gas plants; assessing corporate strategies of multinational companies.

Dallas admits that he NEVER anticipated finding himself in his current role.

Dallas, can you start by briefly describing your living conditions.

I have lived in five different guest houses since arriving almost a year ago. My first home was an Afghan guest house. The facilities were very basic since at that time, there was only electricity for about one hour a day in Kabul. I must say, waking up in a house that is just above freezing and having to boil water for a cup of tea and bucket shower is a lot of incentive to stay in bed! I am currently living in a very comfortable house that is provided for the advisors working with the Canadian Governance Support Office.

Can you tell me a little about your personal security: what is your situation and what impact does it have on your day-to-day activities?

When I first arrived, Kabul was going through a relatively dangerous period and no security was provided to me. At that time, I did all of my own shopping, took the Afghan company bus to work, and received no security advice from any of the multitude of security firms in Kabul. Obviously, personal safety was always in the back of my mind and it was definitely a source of stress. This was compounded by my inexperience in the country. I felt that I had to weigh the risk of each trip that I made away from home or work. Since that time, the level of security in Kabul has risen a good deal–as has my knowledge of the potential risks. I now feel quite comfortable in the city and truly believe "what will be, will be". Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I am now on a program where I am provided an extremely high level of security. Our home is guarded by a minimum of 5 private security personnel, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We travel exclusively in armoured cars, normally with an armed support team following closely. My movements are closely tracked and I am largely confined to central Kabul. All locations that we visit must be pre-cleared. I find this even more draining than the effects of insecurity I felt when I first arrived.

There are a number of restaurants that provide high levels of security and these are frequented by the international community. Although they do offer a bit of a break, these establishments normally don't allow Afghans entry. This makes it hard to socialize with your colleagues and contributes to the wedge between Afghans and expats. The satisfaction from the work that I do is my biggest coping mechanism and when time allows, I hit the treadmill for a run. When possible, I arrange an evening out with Afghan friends and it helps reduce my stress levels. Finally, I do take frequent short trips outside of the country, normally within the region.

How does the work that you're currently doing differ from your original expectations?

I arrived in Kabul to work with Dr. Zakhilwal when he was the Chief Economic Advisor to the President. This was a bit of a stretch for me but my previous experience had been as a management consultant, so I was not too far from my comfort zone. The first day on the job, we planned to spend the afternoon discussing my role and the kind of work I would be doing. However, that very morning, he was appointed Minister of Transport to resolve a crisis impacting the transportation of religious pilgrims to Mecca. I grabbed my laptop and we settled in to the Ministry.

For the next four weeks, he sat at the conference room table, calming community and religious leaders, mobilizing community support to help meet the basic needs of the pilgrims, and trying to avert widespread rioting. I sat at his desk, contracting and scheduling aircraft to transport pilgrims. This work was incredibly challenging and well outside my area of expertise. However, it gave me the opportunity to be useful on the very first day, and within a very short period of time, I had earned the trust of a large number of Afghans–including the Minister.

Since then, I have led or contributed to the development of a national technical assistance program, established a team of policy analysts working to address key questions of Cabinet and facilitated the creation of a national plan to boost government revenue. Being a generalist who is not afraid to take on new challenges is a real advantage in a place like Afghanistan. When a problem arises, there is usually no time to recruit a technical expert and give them an understanding of how Afghanistan "works;" it is better to roll up your sleeves, work with all the stakeholders, and find practical solutions.

Walk me through a "typical" day.

In some ways a typical work day is a lot like home. Responding to emails, attending meetings, commenting on the work of others, and seeking input from others on the work I have undertaken. However I spend more time on social interactions that help to build relationships. Each day I start by greeting all of my immediate colleagues. This includes handshakes, kisses and conversations about their health, their family and following up on what has been happening in their lives. I also pay much more attention to hierarchy. In Afghanistan, it is important to understand that the way you deal with a Deputy Minister, or an older man, is very different from the way you would deal with a junior employee or a colleague with an age or status similar to your own. Everyone needs to be shown respect but it is done in different ways depending on status. In one case, you need to give the other opportunity to show respect to you while reflecting it back; in the other, it is important to initiate that demonstration of respect. This is more than just an exercise about who drinks tea first, or who sits where. It impacts how work gets done at all levels; communication, consultation and decision-making.

Another aspect of my work day that would differ from one in Canada is that I drive to work in an armed car each day and shake hands with about 16 different guards on the way to my desk!

Would you say that hierarchy is the main difference when comparing an Afghan work environment to a Canadian one?

Definitely! It affects everything you do here; from how your colleagues act around you to how cars behave in traffic. As an advisor to the Minister, I never seem to hear the word "no" and I get called into far more things than I probably should. The Minister I work for has had the opportunity to work in the West and as a result, he is very good at delegating authority to those that he trusts. However, in general, many Afghans are micro-managers. This dimension can manifest itself in very different ways, depending on the individual. At times, they will ignore the big picture and put a personal touch on a small detail; other times, they need to be involved in each step of a relatively minor process.

Do you work with Afghan women, and if so, does it change the way in which you approach work?

I only have had the opportunity to work with a few Afghan women and they have all worked abroad. I think that they actually enjoy working with foreigners because it places fewer restrictions on them. I am careful not to be alone in a room with my female Afghan colleagues–certainly not with a closed door. I am also a bit more cautious with smiles, jokes and I wouldn't develop a friendship with them. This can be a bit frustrating as in at least one case, there is a talented young woman who I believe, given some coaching, could take on a much larger role. I can support her in a general way, encourage her colleagues to work more closely with her and to seek her input but I feel it would be inappropriate to act as a true mentor to her. Even if she welcomed it, it would create a very difficult environment for her at the Ministry.

Do you have any sense of what your colleagues really think of you? For example, how they have to adapt to your personal and professional "habits".

This is a great question and the truth is that I don't know. Regardless of the country you are in or the role you play, I don't think a foreigner living and working overseas can ever really know. I have had to adapt in a lot of ways, get used to less direct communications, learn who it is important to make extra shows of respect to and how to do it, learn how to build and use your personal network to get things done. I think that the biggest measure of success is how much you are engaged by your colleagues into their work and if this is correct, I'm fairly well regarded by them because I'm run ragged!

My colleagues have certainly had to adapt to my working style: I'm less patient; I expect them to take far more initiative; I am less likely to accept excuses or delays; and I generally hold them to a higher standard than they are accustomed to. However, I think that this is part of my role -building responsibility. Capacity is more than just the technical know-how to accomplish a task; it's instilling a professional responsibility needed to obtain results.

You likely work with colleagues from cultures other than your own who are not Afghans. What kinds of challenges, if any, does that pose?

It is hard to generalize from country to country but let me try. I see the experts from India and Bangladesh adapting much better to the hierarchy (maybe too much so!). I see Americans and Northern Europeans struggling with indirect communication and "face." The Germans and Japanese are always the first to be on time for meetings and normally end up waiting a long time for their Afghan colleagues. However, the impact on me is very minimal. I am already completely immersed in an ever-changing environment and adding another layer of complexity to it doesn't complicate matters much. What I do find frustrating can be the lack of situational awareness of donors. Often they make what they believe are relatively simple requests (they would be at home) for information or documentation without realizing that it requires removing the one or two key people in a department from the day-to-day work the donors wish to support.

What about organizational culture? How bureaucratic or streamlined is the Afghan bureaucracy?

The Ministry of Finance is pretty good–at least by Afghan standards. The government in general is slow and personal networks are often required to get things done in a timely manner. It certainly lacks sufficient qualified staff. Corruption exists, both at small and large scales. However, Afghans are very clever and the corruption is not overt so you rarely actually see it. We have had good results over the last six months at increasing government revenue collection–much of this was just creating an environment where people believed there would be consequences for poor performance / corruption. Nepotism also exists and again, we are having some luck at creating transparent systems for recruitment. In the end, this ensures that the favoured candidate has the basic skills required to do the job.

What have you come to like or truly appreciate about Afghan culture?

Unfortunately, I would say that most foreigners working here never really experience much of the Afghan culture. The food is good when it is a special occasion. The music is really interesting when you have occasion to see it played live. The real local markets (and not those catering specifically to foreigners) have very little in them and foreigners are not supposed to visit them.

What I like most about the culture are the people–they have a good sense of humour; they will take you in and make you part of their "community" (though only to a point); they can be fiercely loyal; the way they shift from very direct to very subtle communication depending on the matter at hand. I also like the hats–great headgear here!

This is not your first foreign assignment–what do you find particularly hard with this one as compared to others?

The division between foreigners and Afghans. There is far less integration than most places I have been. It would also be nice to have a few more Afghan women at social outings–it really is impossible for me to comment meaningfully on the status of Afghan women as I have no significant interaction with them.

Based on your experience and observations, is there a sense of hope in Afghanistan? Is this a country that is split in two realitiesthe North and the South?

I live in Kabul, so my opinions may not reflect the whole country, but to say there is not a sense of nation in Afghanistan is not the case. Loyalty is first to family, then to your friends, then to your village or region, then to your ethnic group and after that, to Afghanistan. You see people flying flags, talking of Afghanistan. I think that although President Karzai has not had the success people had hoped for with issues such as security and development, he has done a masterful job of balancing all of the different elements of society: the ethnic groups, the tribes within ethnic groups, the religious with the secular, and the technocrats with the former mujahidin. I would definitely say that the country can be divided into rural / urban realities. Mazar-e- Sharif and Herat have little in common with a small village in any part of the country whether Hazara, Pashtun or Tajik.

Is it too early to really tell how this assignment has changed you?

I think so. I perhaps have developed more patience and I am better at understanding how to get things done in a place where hierarchy, pride, and relationships govern most daily interactions. I am also a lot more cautious about what I think can be achieved by an international working outside their country. The volume and urgency of the work, the poor air quality, the continual presence of security–all these factors are ageing me.

I'm sure it is changing me in ways I'll only discover once I have left here and been back home for a while.