Higgins exposes US' comms obstacles in Afghanistan

Trying to persuade mostly illiterate, war-ravaged people growing poppies in the remote Afghanistan province of Helmand to embrace alternate sources of livelihood is one tough public affairs job.

Trying to persuade mostly illiterate, war-ravaged people growing poppies in the remote Afghanistan province of Helmand to embrace alternate sources of livelihood is one tough public affairs job.

This was epitomized by Holly Barnes Higgins, former contract public information officer for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). In the commentary section of the Sunday, February 4 edition of The Washington Post, she described the challenges she faced being an "infidel" in a highly religious place, a woman in a society that likely assumes you're a prostitute brought to the area to the benefit of Western male contractors, and someone who did not speak the local language, Pashtun.

Higgins' Afghanistan-based duties for Chemonics, a USAID contractor, ran from October 2005 to October 2006 and included handling media relations with Western news outlets reporting on aid programs and political circumstances in the region. They also included developing educational efforts directed at local farmers who don't really want to grow poppies, but make 10 times more than they would growing wheat.

Coaxing people with little education to ponder how growing alternative crops could benefit them in the long term - even if the price of cotton, say, does not equal that of poppies, from which heroin is derived and of which Afghanistan is the world's leading grower - has to be done more through visual or dramatic means than simply informational pamphlets, she explains.

"I did create a pamphlet that was sort of pictorial," says Higgins, who worked with translators, but also learned as much Pashtun as she could. "What was really hard about the project is that the concept of alternative livelihoods is just so esoteric. We were trying to define what it would look like, the community, if this was successful."

The troubled history of Afghanistan and the West spans decades and has bred general distrust of the West among the population, obviously hindering humanitarian aid projects. The strict Islamic culture there is also tough to bridge for Westerners, but Higgins said she tried to tap into the locals' sense of loyalty to family and tribe by, for example, developing a radio drama that talked about the generational impact of two uncles who made different decisions about what they grew on their farms.

"That was an experiment and I have no idea how it turned out," she reports.

Higgins' successor lasted just two weeks before quitting, and Helmand is now said to be totally in the Taliban's hands.

Other USAID projects around the world may be very beneficial, she says, but this particular $121 million project, officially known as the Alternative Livelihood Program - South, appears to have been a waste. Besides the major cultural hurdles, security is hugely expensive and largely separates the humanitarian workers from the local populace.

USAID disagrees with Higgins' assessment, said a spokesperson who didn't immediately elaborate.

Higgins, now the director of media relations at public education and advocacy organization Pre-K Now, says going public with her unvarnished account from her stint in Afghanistan means she likely won't ever get a job again with the State Department or USAID. But she felt sharing her experience could do some good.

"After about 48 hours of just a sea of e-mails [following the Post story], I began to think the real story is the kind of response this generated in people," she says. "I've gotten replies from China, Kenya, Afghanistan. Remarkably, a lot of e-mails were from former or current military officials and development experts who just felt like it was a story they had longed to tell or had experienced."

Holly Barnes Higgins

2007-present
Media relations director, Pre-K Now

2005-2006
Public information officer, Chemonics International (USAID contractor)

2004-2005
Comms director, US Global Leadership Campaign

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