Posted by: Christian | October 1, 2007

Villagers and Distrust of Government and NGO Development Projects

October 2, 2007.

The following was written about Afghan villagers by a former American Airborne soldier from North Carolina:

Local and foreign experts cannot really be blamed for being duped by villagers, who, over many generations, have developed excellent defensive mechanisms to protect themselves from the outside world. For example, villagers willingly accept any and all suggestions for technological change, because they realize that the sooner they accept, the sooner the “developers” will leave. […]

The village builds a “mud curtain” around itself for protection against the outside world, which has often come to the village in the past. Sustained relations with the outside world has seldom been pleasant, for outsiders usually come to extract from, not bring anything into, the village. […] As a consequence, most villagers simply cannot believe that central governments, provincial governments, or individual local or foreign technicians want to introduce permanent reforms. Previous attempts have generally been short of duration and abortive, for once the “modernization” teams leave, the villagers patch up the breaks in the “mud curtain” and revert to their old, group-reinforcing patterns. […]

In addition, an outsider seldom meets the true power elite of as village unless he remains for an extended period. When outsiders approach, the village leaders disappear behind mud walls, and the first line of defense (second line of power) come forward to greet the strangers with formalized hospitality, which surprisingly, enough also serves as a defensive technique. If the central government identifies the village or tribal elite, control becomes easier […].

Contrary to popular belief, villagers are fundamentally non-cooperative creatures outside their kin group, and not communally oriented. […] Seldom can villagers be persuaded to work for (to them) an abstract, distantly (for the benefit of future generation) achieved common goal. The villager wants to benefit now. […]

The introduction to the passage neglected to mention that this was written in 1973. The Airborne soldier mentioned as author earned his PhD in anthropology from Harvard University before becoming somewhat of an institution in Afghanistan studies and in the country itself (prominent enough for the Communists to throw him in jail before expelling him from Afghanistan). When he died one month after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan the New York Times published his obituary and a tribute to him was read on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The passage is from page 248-251 of his 804-page book Afghanistan.

Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton University Press. (1973). Most recent edition (2002) is published by Oxford University Press.

                Louis Dupree

David B Edward’s write up of Dupree can be read here.

Dupree’s book is a general introduction to Afghanistan, not a guide to development work in that country. The questions that this passage raises are:

1. What has changed in the way of village attitudes with the passage of over 30 years (i.e., changes in communication and media) and many years of war (i.e., spending time in a foreign refugee camp)?

2. How has the change in the market system in (some of) Afghanistan’s rural areas affected village attitudes?

3. What differences are there between villagers of different ethnicities?

4. Do more economically successful villagers have different attitudes?

5. What differences can be seen between villagers who live near urban areas and/or major transportation routes and those isolated villagers?

6. Are the new breed of outsiders viewed differently?

7. Are Afghan villagers more desperate than they were when this passage was written (and therefor more open to outside “assistance”)?

8. Do villagers who are from a group favoured by the government hold different views?

9. Are any of these views just plain incorrect?

10. Despite spending half his time outside of Kabul, are Dupree’s views too heavily influenced by educated urban Afghans?

11. What do dissenters have to say about the above excerpt?

12. Etc…

For some this passage may answer questions. While it does the same for me, it also raises the above questions (in addition to those questions I can’t think of at the moment). Works as old as Dupree’s usually have a long list of detractors. There are two reviews of his book in two different academic journals. However, they want you to pay about $30 each to read their reviews. For that price you can buy a used copy of Afghanistan online.


  1. […] is just one small excerpt of a blog entry by Afghanistanica that discusses Dupree’s analysis and adds numerous caveats. The most important being […]


%d bloggers like this: