Courage & Charisma vs Chaos & Corruption: Afghanistan's New Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Seema Ghani, Talked to Jeanne Bryer

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THE NEWLY APPOINTED DEPUTY IN Afghanistan's Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Seema Ghani, is not new to official office. In President Karzai's transitional government in 2003, Ghani was the Director-General of Budget, responsible for the entire budget of the country--serving under the then Minister of Finance, Dr Ashraf Ghani (no relation). When the Minister was shuffled out of government at the end of 2004, Seema also left, not wanting to be in a department in which she had neither confidence nor the authority to continue reforms.

But the government to which Seema is returning is very different now to the buoyant scene in 2002 when Afghanistan's people were brimming with optimism. As 2011 begins we find the 'coalition of the willing' crumbling, accusations of corruption within the Karzai government rife, and hopes of realising women's rights and a secure environment across the country disintegrating amid overt and covert overtures to Taliban leaders. Will human rights be casualties of the realisation that the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan cannot be won there? Are the hard-fought campaigns of civil society activists in danger of coming to nought? Well, not if Seema Ghani has anything to do with it, even if she can only make small changes.

A longtime campaigner and champion of children's and women's rights, Ghani founded her own charity in 1999 in Peshawar, Pakistan, to care for needy Afghan refugee children. Her charity, Khorasan, still operates, having shifted to Kabul in 2002.

You will be working for Amina Afzali, the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs. Are there any major differences in your outlook? How do you see the relationship with her working--and also with your fellow deputies?

What are your specific areas of responsibility?

I am responsible for labour affairs and although there are some overlaps with the other two deputy ministers' work, mine is distinct. The deputy for social affairs and the deputy for martyrs and disabled have served there for many years. I am coming in with a vision for reform and aim to make the Ministry the facilitating body for job creation. Minister Afzali is dedicated and the only woman to win the parliamentarians' vote. The government and parliament have given a woman a chance to change things. I want to help her.

A recent agreement with Amina Afzali's counterpart in Iran will give Afghans the right to work legally in the Islamic Republic. What are your views about this type of initiative and the growing closeness to Iran generally?

My vision is not just for Iran but all Middle Eastern countries because much of their labour comes from South Asia. Remittances that countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh earn from migrant workers greatly contribute to their economies. Qatar is preparing for the 2022 world games and will need a big labour force. Afghanistan should provide some of those workers. Marty emirates, especially Dubai, are centres for migrant workers. I hope to have formal agreements with these countries to facilitate migration.

You have always championed the rights of children and women, and worked to assist them with your own charity, Khorasan. Will you be involved in the new education centre established by President Karzai?

I will have some work related to this initiative but will support youth and civil society mainly during my out-of-office curriculum. Over 68% of Afghanistan's population is under 18, with poor education and no job prospects. I want to help prepare them for taking over the country.

There are many physically disabled and emotionally and mentally damaged children in Afghanistan due to the war years. How do you see their future and what resources are needed to help them specifically?

Many Afghans are depressed because of years of oppression. They have freedom now from the Taliban regime, but conflict is growing. …