The Blog

Why Alan Duncan Makes More Sense Than Captain Raveman on Women's Rights in Afghanistan

I still find myself largely in sympathy with Alan Duncan on aid and in particular on women's rights in Afghanistan. You don't have to be a cheerleader for military intervention in Afghanistan (I certainly wasn't) to take this view.

I don't know what you do on Friday nights - all manner of interesting things probably - but I always go through the same end-of-week routine. I drive from London to north Warwickshire (maternal matters arising) and, to ease the motorway blues, I slam on a CD for half the trip then, usually at about where the M25 meets the M1, I switch to Radio 4's Any Questions programme.

For better or worse, that's my routine. I'm probably one of the few people in the country who likes the sudden transition from drum and bass to political debate (Captain Raveman to Jonathan Dimbleby). I arrive two hours later with my head pounding ready to start the weekend!

Anyway, of the last two dozen or more AQ shows, one has stuck in my noise-affected head. It was the 22 December programme where the International Development Secretary Alan Duncan was assailed from all sides over Afghanistan (listen back at 22-36m). In a 14-minute stretch, Duncan is bombarded by the Daily Mail columnist Max Hastings, the Labour MP Frank Field, the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and, not least, by quite a few in the studio audience. The question they're debating is "Has the loss of lives in Afghanistan been worth it?" and Duncan is the only panellist to say yes.

It's a fascinating listen. Duncan is given a hard time over his contention that DfID has been doing valuable work in Afghanistan and this should be seen as important and worthwhile. Under sustained fire from Hastings in particular, Duncan is made to fight a fierce rhetorical defence. The "key statistic", he says, is that from a very low base under the Taleban nearly six million children are now in school in Afghanistan, with 39% of these girls. Yet there's a detectable impatience in the air from both panellists and the audience, and Duncan slightly testily snaps back that this is "a statistic that should not be belittled". Trying another statistic, Duncan then goes on to say that 85% of Afghans are now within a mile of basic health facilities, a significant improvement on the past situation, he says. Again, this goes down quite badly and his riposte is tinged with desperation: "If you want to laugh and sneer - I don't think that's right."

It was all a bit disorientating. A Conservative minister taking a pro-aid position only to be shouted down for doing so. Since at least Tony Blair's famous 1999 speech on military interventions with professed humanitarian aims, the intertwining of militarism and humanitarian aid delivery has of course made a lot of overseas aid work acutely controversial. David Cameron's recent comments about the UK's aid budget being used for military purposes have hardly made the waters any less muddy.

In this world, and in the Afghanistan context, Duncan's difficulties are perhaps unsurprising. People are primed to disbelieve. Meanwhile, his position is not made easier by the steady drip-drip-drip of cases where Nato forces have killed Afghan civilians. With the Taleban routinely propagandising about "foreign invaders who kill Afghan children", ordinary Afghans can themselves be forgiven for being sceptical about overseas aid when it's delivered by the same governments whose troops have in some instances just shot up a village in their province. Meanwhile, as a depressing Channel 4 News report on displaced person camps this week again showed, daily life for many Afghans is still beyond-miserable.

That all said, I still find myself largely in sympathy with Duncan on aid and in particular on women's rights in Afghanistan. You don't have to be a cheerleader for military intervention in Afghanistan (I certainly wasn't) to take this view. Duncan says: "If you don't improve the lot of women and girls in a country, you're never going to improve a country", and this is surely right. In fact, against the appalling backdrop of the Taleban years of the late 90s, key indicators show that there have been limited, hard-won but still extremely important gains for women and girls in Afghanistan in the past 11 or so years. Better maternal health, access to education, more physical freedom, new job opportunities, stronger legal protection, voting rights.

At the risk of sounding Duncan-like, these gains shouldn't be overlooked. Yet, as Amnesty's Kate Allen points out, the gains admittedly start to look fragile when you add in the fact that Duncan's own government department has barely scratched the surface with its work on women rights in Afghanistan, and meanwhile the Taleban appear to be biding their time until the 2014 pull-out (while waging an attritional war of targeted killings of female politicians and other prominent Afghan women). It's why Amnesty is now doing some extra pushing in this area.

Anyway, if I was back in my north-bound car on a Friday night at this point I'd probably think "OK, that's enough", time for a bit more drum and bass. But I'll leave you with this thought: whatever the merits of Captain Raveman's (excellent) Quick 'N' Dirty LP, Alan Duncan makes a lot more sense than him - and many an AQ panellist - on why women's rights in Afghanistan genuinely matter.