Grantham Journal Big Interview: From Great Gonerby to Afghanistan
While some may think that the UK no longer has a presence in Afghanistan, people like John Belza from Great Gonerby are still out there undertaking work on behalf of the Department for International Development (DFID).
* Tell us about your background and your work in Afghanistan.
I came to Grantham in 1992 after working with the defence force in Namibia, and before that the first Gulf War. I moved to Great Gonerby in 2002, but my neighbours only see me from time to time due to my work. I’m the in-country commercial adviser for the DFID Afghanistan programme teams, a role I’ve also carried out in Sudan, Ethiopia and South Sudan. The goal is to ensure we maximise the funds that the UK taxpayer contributes to the reconstruction of a country which has had internal strife for decades, and where there are still security problems. My remit ranges from working with the World Bank, The Asian Development Bank and UN organisations where the UK places much of its funding, along with other donors, to support the Afghan people. The role also covers working with DFID’s commercial suppliers to implement some of our programmes, as well as developing our local supply base by working with Afghan organisations. Helping support education can provide a better future for the youth and give the country a platform to develop its economy, as can helping in agriculture with things such as dairy products, poultry, honey and growing vegetables. Without this type of reconstruction in infrastructure, economic development, health and education, then it will be difficult for Afghanistan to become a more prosperous and secure country which can trade with its neighbours and the rest of the world – because there is undoubtedly the potential for this to happen and for it to become a commercial and trade hub for the whole South Asia region.
* How have you seen the country change? There have been a number of positive changes. In April 2014 the Afghans had their Presidential elections which resulted in the National Unity Government being established, and in December the military drawdown was completed with only a few UK troops remaining. This has resulted in the Afghan National Army taking over much of the security roles. Our team in Lashkar Gah closed down its office when the military left, but DFID still have programmes in that region.
* What would you say to those who think the UK no longer has a presence in Afghanistan?
To say that is very wrong. When they think about Afghanistan, most people view it negatively rather than positively. The war is very much the focus. The UK is the second biggest donor of aid in Afghanistan which helps many people who live in poverty. It is helping to create a more equal society where women can play a role in the reconstruction. Our aid also helps health and education programmes, and these are just a couple of examples. The UK’s presence is steadfast and remains valuable to the Afghan people. We have had a long relationship with the Afghan people over two centuries. It is a poor country where its people often have multiple challenges to contend with every day. They need the support of developed nations, with everything from mine clearing, road construction and electricity provision, through to the economy, education, investment and job creation. None of these have overnight solutions and we really have to think about the long-term game. I’ve been here for just over two-and-a-half years, am due to finish in May 2016, but that could be extended until May 2017. The people of the UK contribute generously in aid and what I would ask is that they be patient and continue to support the Government’s goal in helping Afghanistan stand on its own two feet.