October 6, 2012

The Post-War Ghost Towns of Foreign Aid

Within the context of Post-Conflict Reconstruction, it becomes difficult to isolate the best solution to a given problem. There is a necessity to balance demands for immediate change alongside the benefits of steady, consistent progress.   I see the consequence of billions of dollars of investment into direct urban and economic development everyday in my neighborhood in Kabul Afghanistan, and it leaves me unconvinced that the most direct solutions are always the best or most efficient.  Take for example the Kabul neighborhood of Sher-Pur.  

A "single-family" residence in Sher-Pur, Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2012.
Originally a low income neighborhood of informal, mud brick housing, Sher-Pur was subject to government land grabs around 2004 and is now Kabul's wealthiest neighborhood.  Built up using mashup of imported architectural designs from Dubai, the neighborhood is full of massive poppy palaces and narco palaces, a reference to the illicit capital flows that drive the construction of these buildings.  These single-family houses frequently contain as much as 45 bedrooms, and many were constructed primarily to facilitate the interests of the international humanitarian regime.  For years, NGOs commonly pay anywhere between 12,000 USD and 100,000 USD per month to rent these structures for their staff.  Yet now as the international community pulls out ahead of the 2014 NATO withdrawal deadline, many of these elaborate mansions are sitting empty.  Sher-Pur is already becoming a ghost town of opulence.

Sher-pur Poppy Palace For Rent. Source Unknown.
At the time of initial construction, Sher-Pur was the simple, direct solution to a given market demand. People were making more money and aid agencies need secure housing for their staff. But it was not sustainable.  Who knows what the future will be for this neighborhood, but I suspect it will deteriorate in scale, but always remaining a haven for wealthy government officials and organized crime.  Nonetheless, Sher-Pur will forever remain a disproportionate concentration of wealth and power in a city where informal housing shelters between 60% and 80% of the population.

Notably, this is not the first time that the influx of foreign aid and new urban development schemes did more to reinforce the dominant power structures than meet the interests of those in greatest need.  When Cambodia began to stabilize, the same thing happened, with foreign aid workers filling the city's colonial mansions and paying inflated rents.  When the aid market dried up, the foreign elite vacated and the houses were empty, ghostly vessels that eventually scaled back into the urban fabric.

Can this process be circumvented?  For example, as Somalia opens up to international aid, will Lido, Mogadishu become a neighborhood for the disproportionately wealthy and then likewise regress?  Or must we continue to distort land use and real estate markets according to the interest of dominant power-structures?  

Building Facade, Sher-Pur Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus. 2012