Saturday, May 2, 2009


Last week I was sitting in a meeting with one of our major clients (who incidentally is one of those clients who is never happy with performance) and they raised the issue of our guards being unaware of some of their basic responsibilities.

First of all, I would vigorously contest that characterization. Our guards, while not exactly elite Special Forces-types, are well-trained by local standards and are more than capable of executing the routine tasks assigned to them. However, they are not blessed with initiative and free-ranging thought*, so there are some limitations on what one can expect of them.

*This lack of initiative and personal responsibility (from a Western standpoint) is not limited to the uneducated from the provinces. It's a cultural thing, and it pervades even the highest levels of business and government.

Secondly, even assuming that the guards were not performing up to the requirements of the contract, the solution proposed by this client bordered on the assinine. "Why don't you just post a list of rules at each site, so that the guards can check it and be always aware of any changes to their responsibilities?"

Sounds reasonable, right? And in most countries it would be, a simple fix to a simple problem. But, as they say, TIA: This Is Afghanistan. Nothing is simple. Here's the thing: the educational value of a posted list of rules and regulations is considerably degraded when the vast majority of the guards are functionally illiterate. Instead of a list, it becomes something more like a talisman, held out in front of the body with reverence to ward off irate supervisors and frustrated clients, much like a exorcist would present a crucifix.

This is not a knock on my guys, or on Afghans in general, simply a fact of life here in A-stan. According to the UN and the CIA, Afghanistan has a 28% adult literacy rate, which puts them at the roughly the same rank as Niger.* And that number includes the far higher percentage of (allegedly) educated Afghans who live within the major cities.

*Sure, you beat out Chad and Burkina Faso, but it can't be a good sign when you get bitch-slapped on the UN's development index by places like Sierra Leone and Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, the urban elite is not the segment of the population from which your average security guard is recruited. Most guards come from the provinces and have little to no exposure to education in any form.*

*Perhaps that's the reason that some of the rural Afghans feel compelled to prevent little girls from going to school, sometimes by throwing acid in their faces. There is a serious inferiority complex at work here, something about which I intend to post a bit later.

So suggesting that the guards simply read the posted rules is somewhat akin to suggesting that Americans obey traffic signs written in ancient Greek. Just not going to happen.

And the kicker is that this suggestion came from an Afghan, who works for an Afghan company. One would think that he, of all people, would know better. Needless to say, we all nodded sagely at his advice and then laughed our asses off on the way back to camp.

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