Michael Haines admits he’s a bit of an idealist – probably the best philosophy to espouse when working in a country that has been wrecked by decades of civil war and ethnic conflict.
Next week, the 40-year-old Gig Harbor native will arrive in Afghanistan to become the deputy country director for the Asia Foundation, a non-governmental organization.
He will help oversee a staff of about 250 and a budget that routinely handles $25 million in projects at a time.
Projects include anything from running a preparatory course for girls before they take a college entrance exam to production of radio programs that teach about the country’s government and possibilities for citizen involvement.
Development work is a second career for Haines. He left his private-sector job in 2003 and joined the Peace Corps, working business and economic development in Ukraine.
"That’s when I learned that working in these communities instead of just passing through is much more valuable," he said.
He has since worked in Iraq for the International Republican Institute and in Azerbaijan for the Eurasia Foundation.
Haines is visiting family in Pierce County this week before flying to Afghanistan, and he sat down with The News Tribune on Tuesday to discuss his next assignment.
Q: What is the main focus of the Asia Foundation’s work in Afghanistan?
A: Most often it’s developing institutions and capacities for citizens to be engaged, promoting economic prosperity and social justice. We’ll be working with women’s groups in civil society or government to help develop their capacity and skills for potential career advancement. I know there’s a perception that women aren’t engaged in Muslim countries – and that’s certainly true in many countries – but in others, they’re an integral part of civil society.
We also work with youth, who, like women, are also marginalized. We help them get involved in the process, at the school level, municipal level. We’re dealing with countries that have no concept of civil society, and we’re helping to bridge that gap. No functioning democracy works without a civil society.
Q: What will life be like on a day-to-day basis for you?
A: The security situation has denigrated to such a level that free movement in the country is pretty limited, so it’ll be compound life. The fortunate situation for Asia Foundation is that we work closely with the Afghan government, the U.S. government and other entities, so we have a little more flexibility to move around. But I will be more or less confined to the compound because of the strengthening of the insurgency.
Q: You’ve worked in Iraq. What major differences do you anticipate working in Afghanistan?
A: But there are fewer combat troops in Afghanistan than Iraq, and there is a bigger emphasis on communications and negotiations. Development should get more attention as there are less boots on the ground and more experts, more people who help Afghans find their path toward a secure country.
Q: Will you much work often with the American military?
A: Most people have no idea all the things the military does, and much of it isn’t fighting. They work with local councils and local elders to help build consensus to help achieve a degree of stability. But they’re not doing it in a vacuum; usually, they’re working with (the United States Agency for International Development) and contractors like Asia Foundation to provide expertise.
Q: Is there a barometer or timeline for success?
A: Asia Foundation has been working in Afghanistan since the 1950s. We took a little bit of a break when the Soviets and Taliban were in power. But still, those relationships we built are worth gold. Some of these bureaucrats are still around and working for the ministries, and we’re working with them again.
I know sometimes it seems hopeless, but it takes more than one election cycle. It can take multiple election cycles. We don’t have the patience for the kind of progress we want to make. We can do it, we just need the time to do it.
Q: Afghanistan hasn’t known peace in decades. You must be an optimist to believe you’ll have a positive impact.
A: You have to have a tinge of idealism. I’m optimistic because I know it really does have an impact. I’ve worked in Ukraine, in Lebanon. I’ve seen the ball carried over the goal line.
We’re also getting better at it. We’re not going in there and dictating what we think they should do. The United States used to come in with a top-down approach to development, and it just doesn’t work. I think we’ve changed our strategy in Iraq and it worked. I think Afghanistan will more than likely be successful.