Worldview: An aid worker's courageous success

Norgrove with Afghan elders outside Jalalabad in April. She was killed last week as U.S. special forces attempted to rescue her from militant kidnappers.
Norgrove with Afghan elders outside Jalalabad in April. She was killed last week as U.S. special forces attempted to rescue her from militant kidnappers.

Linda Norgrove's approach was risky - and effective.

Posted: October 14, 2010

In April, I traveled around eastern Afghanistan with an extraordinary British aid worker, Linda Norgrove. I have a photo of her dressed in a long, black skirt and loose tunic, her hair under an enveloping shawl, as she stood beside several Afghan elders. I recall the respect those grizzled men showed her as she discussed their new crops, which had replaced opium poppy fields.

But hard-line militants, who couldn't care less about Afghan farmers, kidnapped Norgrove two weeks ago as she drove to the site of an irrigation project in Kunar province. She was killed during an attempted rescue by U.S. special forces last week. She was 36 years old.

There's an ongoing investigation into whether Linda was accidentally killed by her American rescuers, and the debate over whether she could have been freed through negotiations rather than military action. I may have more to say about this later, but that's not what I want to write about now.

I think it's more important that people know about Linda's commitment and courage, and why the project she directed produced results while so many Western aid projects fail.

I traveled to Jalalabad to visit Linda's program, which was run by the U.S.-based contractor DAI and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, because I'd heard it was totally focused on Afghans. At the time, Linda was deputy director, preparing to take the reins of the $150 million program to improve Afghan agriculture.

There were only two expatriates on the project (and only one after Linda took over) directing 200 Afghan staff, including engineers, architects, and agronomists. Linda lived in a rented Afghan villa, a two-story home with a walled garden, as is common in Afghan cities. Dressed like an ordinary Afghan woman, she traveled in a car without extensive security or a military escort.

Yes, this was risky. But living outside protected compounds and military bases allowed Linda to establish relationships with village elders, who in turn protected the projects. As her colleague Jonathan Greenham noted, "Arriving with several Humvees is not the best way to drink tea with folks."

I saw the results of these relationships. As we stood by the Shamshapoor bridge outside Jalalabad, Afghan elders explained that a previous bridge had been washed away because a foreign contractor didn't know the river could rise five feet in a few hours.

This time, the bridge was designed by DAI's Afghan engineers after consultation with local villagers. It stood firm, enabling 40,000 people in more than 20 villages to get their produce to market and their children to school. The bridge also helped farmers who had switched from growing poppy plants to other crops.

Linda was so modest and reserved that she never told me about her fascinating background. "She wasn't an extrovert, but she was very good at sitting down on a bus and striking up a conversation," her father, John Norgrove, told me by phone from the remote Scottish Isle of Lewis, where she grew up. She was never keen on hanging out with fellow foreigners, he said, "but was attracted to knowing the local people."

Her passion for ecology and travel came from a magical childhood spent learning about crops and wildlife on her family's small farm, but also traveling on far-flung overseas journeys with her parents and sister. She loved trekking in places such as Ethiopia.

After earning a doctorate in ecology, Linda worked for the World Wildlife Fund in Peru and the United Nations in Laos and Afghanistan, but she was frustrated by bureaucratic organizations. "Her love was for people," John Norgrove told me, and she embraced the people and the wildness of Afghanistan. DAI gave her a chance "to be out there" and "cut through the red tape."

After four years in Afghanistan, having learned Dari (or Persian) and studied Pashto, Linda was well aware of the dangers she faced. Village elders could provide security for her projects, but could not guarantee every stretch of road.

No doubt, some will conclude that her death proves all foreign aid workers in Afghanistan should retreat behind security barriers and sharply restrict their movements. I'm sure she would have rejected that conclusion.

Yes, security is important and must always be taken into consideration. But such a retreat would gut projects that are providing vital economic assistance to Afghans. And it would hand a victory to the barbarians who kidnapped Linda - and who murder far more Afghans than they do foreigners.

Those who have the courage she did should be allowed to keep working closely with locals. Linda knew the risks but felt they were worth taking to help the Afghan people.

"She lived a short life and a full life," John Norgrove said. Amen.


Trudy Rubin can be reached at trubin@phillynews.com.

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