Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 22 - 31)




  22. Sadly Sima Simar, the head of the Human Rights Commission, was not able to make it. We now move on to our friends from the BBC World Service Trust who are of course entirely independent and not part of the Government of Afghanistan, but are an independent development charity that is a part of the BBC World Service. Perhaps you could start by giving us something of your impressions of the present situation in Afghanistan, as seen by the BBC World Service Trust and just tell the Committee a little about what you have been doing in Afghanistan.
  (Mr Siddiqi) Thank you very much. I am really grateful for this opportunity and honoured to be here to talk to the Committee about our work in Afghanistan. We started our activities in Peshawar in the North West Frontier province of Pakistan in 1994 by launching an Afghan soap opera modelled on the Archers. This soap opera has been going out for eight years in the two main languages of Afghanistan, Pashto and Dari. The soap was like the Archers, delivering lifeline information to Afghans to help them to cope with the difficulties of everyday life. Initially in 1993-94, we were thinking that the soap opera would help Afghans to go back to their country and rebuild the country and reconstruct, start a new life and build a new home for themselves. Unfortunately, because of the civil war, it did not happen and a massive number of people left Afghanistan and became refugees in the neighbouring countries again. The soap turned its attention and its focus to help them cope with the difficulties of everyday life. It has become quite popular, it has become part of the Afghan culture, it has become part of the everyday lives of the ordinary people. It has chosen to use the language of the countryside, which is equally and universally accessible to all Afghans across the country and in the region, in Pakistan, central Asia and Iran. At one stage during the Taliban it became almost the only means which connected Afghans with each other and gave them something they all shared and all had in common. We expanded our activities when the Taliban imposed restrictions on education and specially on female education. We started a new series of programmes called REACH, Radio Education for Afghan Children, and through that we have been trying to provide whatever possible by radio in terms of educational opportunities so the children can use the natural resources in their own local environment in order to learn. After the interim government took over in December last year, the Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations asked the BBC World Service Trust to go and conduct a needs assessment into the reconstruction of media in Afghanistan and come up with recommendations which were incorporated into the "Preliminary Needs Assessment for Recovery and Reconstruction in Afghanistan" which was presented by the World Bank, UNDP and the Asian Development Bank at the donor's conference in Tokyo earlier this year. We did that and as a result of that the interim government of Afghanistan issued a declaration of intention, a set of policy directions which has been sent to this Committee, which was probably one of the most important and significant steps towards turning the Afghan media into a public service entity. The Afghan Interim Government committed themselves to hold an international seminar which happened in September this year and at this international seminar experts from other countries came and sat with Afghans and worked on a media strategy to build the media infrastructure. The government has asked us to provide an adviser who will help them in the implementation and further development of this strategy. That is where we are at the moment. I would like to ask my colleagues, Stephen King, Director of the Trust, to add a little.
  (Mr King) In addition, as a result of the earlier needs assessment, the BBC World Service Trust have received a grant from DFID to implement a number of media reconstruction activities. From February this year we did four main things. First we delivered training to about 350 Afghan journalists, of whom about one third were women, and we took care to ensure that they were drawn from both Radio/TV Afghanistan, the national broadcaster, plus also from independent media as well and as much as possible from around the country, so reflecting the different provincial interests as well as Kabul. The other thing we did was to provide two digital self-operating studios to Radio/TV Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, after 20 years of war, and the latest military campaign, most of the equipment had either been destroyed or become obsolete. Two radio studios allowed them to continue production of programmes and news broadcasts. The other thing we did was to provide them with some advice and support. We found through the needs assessment that the level of knowledge of the modern media environment unsurprisingly was quite low, so we were really providing a range of options for the future reconstruction. We also produced a number of radio programmes as well to help provide people with information about the Loya Jirga process, to educate people about the process, about elections and what is going to happen. Radio is really the principal medium for Afghanistan; television is not really in operation outside Kabul and radio, through both the BBC plus Radio Afghanistan and a number of other international broadcasters is the way that people get their information where illiteracy rates are very high.

  23. There are still a lot of areas which are completely without electricity at all; whether television or radio you simply cannot get them. I was slightly surprised that no-one seems to have heard of wind-up radios. Do you seem a potential for someone to distribute wind-up radios in Afghanistan? They seem to be very successful in large parts of Africa nowadays.
  (Mr Siddiqi) We did distribute a number of wind-up radios in the Jalalabad area a few years ago just for testing. We did an evaluation at the time of the distribution of those radios and then we went back about three or four months later to find out what had happened to these radios. Quite a number of them were actually broken or converted into conventional radios and they had actually connected them to car batteries to use them. I was also surprised. I was born there, I have lived there, I was brought up in Afghanistan, but I always thought Afghanistan was a very poor country and could not afford many radio sets across the country. However, I was really surprised to see how high the ownership of radios was. The United Nations did a massive evaluation in 1997 aiming mainly to study the impact of our programmes. They found out that out of 60,000 households they interviewed, 50 per cent of them owned a radio and the listenership, given the pattern of the family relationships in Afghanistan, is much higher than that.[4] In most cases people were actually using batteries which created a cycle of employment for people to travel outside the country and import batteries and take them to different areas in the country and sell them. The dominant pattern is using batteries rather than mains electricity or the wind-up radios. Recently people have become interested in testing it further and they have brought in some wind-up radios. Recently I saw that UNESCO had brought in a new model of lantern radio which has a device on top of the lamp and the heat produces electricity which is fed into the radio. That is quite an interesting thing to explore to see whether it works in the countryside. It should work, given the fact that it produces light as well as operating a radio.

Tony Worthington

  24. I remember going to Sierra Leone and being asked what the most effective thing would be to support the return to democracy and we came to the conclusion that it was ensuring radio transmitters were in place. What is the position in Afghanistan about nationwide coverage from Kabul, but also in terms of regional coverage, regional radio stations, transmitting facilities?
  (Mr Siddiqi) The transmission capacity was quite badly damaged unfortunately because of the 23 years of war. Afghanistan used to have nationwide coverage on medium wave, but that was quite badly damaged during the war. Initially they did not have the necessary fuel to generate so much electricity to run that transmitter and achieve that nationwide coverage, and later on, because of the bombing, the transmitters were actually destroyed. At the moment work is under way on a medium wave transmitter which will restore that nationwide coverage of Radio Afghanistan. There are radio stations in different provinces. I am not sure about the figure, I can confirm this figure later, but in at least 19 provinces of Afghanistan there were radio stations; some of them were partly damaged, some of them were totally destroyed. Some of them have been restored, but the most important element in the role of media in Afghanistan, especially the Afghan radio and television, is the credibility. That credibility was actually affected quite badly because radio and television and the media in general in Afghanistan were used by different groups and different governments as their own mouthpiece. That is precisely the reason why Afghans turned to international broadcasters and that is why the BBC became one of the major broadcasters to that region. One of the most important broadcasting activities has been taking place through the BBC World Service Trust in a very in-depth way. The BBC World Service has not only been providing Afghans with quality information and impartial information on what was happening on the political ground in Afghanistan, but also helping people to deal with the difficulties of their lives and helping them find solutions to those problems in the absence of quite a lot of social infrastructures in these 23 years or so.

Ann Clwyd

  25. I was interested to read that you produced something a bit like the Archers. Can you tell us a bit about the message in that soap? Does it run every day, once a week? Is there any interaction with the listeners? Do they tap into you in some way and let you know what they are thinking about the series? Can you talk a bit about that?
  (Mr Siddiqi) The soap opera is called New Home, New Life. It is based in three fictional villages somewhere in central Afghanistan (the reason for that being that both Dari and Pashto are spoken with different accents, so we wanted to go for the accepted accent which used to be used by Radio Afghanistan for a very long time) covering the life of the village communities. We have male characters, female characters. They have their own problems and we have a small evaluation team. The team visits different parts of Afghanistan, different provinces, talking to the members of the audiences and identifying their needs, their problems. Then we use those needs and their priorities to make storylines for the soap opera. The soap opera is being broadcast three times a week in one language and three times a week in another language and then like the Archers we have an omnibus for one language on Thursday, for another language on Friday; Friday is the holiday in Afghanistan. One of the most interesting things that recently happened in the soap opera was that we were running a story line on the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan, highlighting some of the problems within the process of the election leading up to the Loya Jirga. The reaction was very, very interesting. First of all, the special representative of the Secretary General offered to appear in that storyline and play his own role and meet the characters who were selected for the Loya Jirga , which was quite a big milestone for us. Secondly, his message basically was to Afghans to keep up their voice and stay involved in the election for the simple reason that if they choose their leaders, the leaders will have to listen to them. After that message was aired, we had quite a lot of Afghans from different parts of Afghanistan, illiterate people, coming to the BBC World Service Trust buildings and saying they would like to give an interview, they had been denied their rights or giving their point of view on how they could stay involved. It has had a huge impact on Afghans so far.

  26. That is very interesting, thank you. Are the writers Afghans, or are they brought in by the BBC to write and then it is translated?
  (Mr Siddiqi) In 1992 quite a large number of Afghan writers and media professionals came to Pakistan and at that time the BBC World Service Trust was running a recruitment campaign. They brought in a couple of trainers to train these people. Now we have 12 Afghan writers writing the soap opera and three editors and we have a pool of over 100 actors and actresses because everything is being done in two languages simultaneously. So six of the writers write in Pashto and six of the writers write in Dari and we have a team of Pashto actors and actresses and a team of Dari actors and actresses. They are all Afghans.

Chris McCafferty

  27. Something completely different. Whilst we were in Kabul we visited the Afghan Family Planning Service, which was newly re-opened. The head of the service told us most women are illiterate and a lot of the men are illiterate too and they want to advertise the fact that they are now openly up and running again. The way they are going to do that is through radio and TV broadcasts which I understand have been agreed with the Minister of Health. I am aware of the Sexwise programmes which the BBC World Service do and I know that they are broadcast to Pakistan. Are those programmes also broadcast to Afghanistan? If they are not, perhaps they could be. Is there a way the World Service could help broadcast something like the fact that the Family Planning Service is now open and available for people?
  (Mr King) The BBC World Service Trusts Sexwise project has actually now finished unfortunately but during the time when it was on, which was for about three years, it did broadcast to Afghanistan as well. There are plans to launch another series on sexual reproductive health, which would be a global series and we would certainly prioritise broadcasting that in Pashto and Persian. These are also issues which we might cover through the storylines of New Home, New Life.

   (Mr Siddiqi) In addition to the soap opera which covers family planning, safe motherhood and reproductive health related issues, we are also running a number of weekly feature programmes which are basically factual. We go to people, we interview them and then we make a feature programme about any particular issue which becomes a problem for Afghans. One of those features is called Health in Life which focuses heavily on the health-related needs of our female listeners in Afghanistan. Although the Sexwise series came to an end, we have been covering the issue on an ongoing basis, especially with quite a lot of input from those NGOs and UN agencies which are actually working on the ground in this area in Afghanistan.


  28. Could you just help us on this? I have just been reading John Simpson's most recent book, a lot of which is about Afghanistan and the BBC in Afghanistan. It is quite clear that the BBC has a very considerable international reputation for objectivity, impartiality and generally getting there. You have clearly demonstrated that in Afghanistan, although the imagination boggles a bit at what the Afghan equivalent of Eddie Grundy might be. The World Service Trust is clearly something different from the BBC World Service. How are you funded and is DFID supporting you in other parts of the world and are there other parts of the world where you feel you could do more public service broadcasting? For example, prior to being in Afghanistan I was in Ethiopia where they told me they had one of the highest infection rates for HIV/AIDS in Africa, where, simply as a consequence of very high illiteracy rates, it is almost impossible to have a decent public education campaign on HIV/AIDS. We used to have a BBC World Service in Amharic; we no longer have. Does the BBC World Service Trust and all the BBC World Service have a kind of bid list of other parts of the world where you feel you could make a contribution either to post-conflict resolution or to development policies.
  (Mr King) The World Service Trust was set up by the World Service as a separate and independent NGO with really two considerations: firstly, taking account of the very wide audiences the World Service (with a 150 million listeners a week world wide); secondly, the ability to reach communities in developing countries through a very popular medium, radio, and also through a trusted voice. With that combination of targeted programmes with development messages and reach, it represents a very powerful force. The Trust has worked worldwide in 23 countries to date, not only in Afghanistan but in sub-Saharan African, South and South-East Asia and the Balkans and our main focus is on health and educational messages to the poorest communities and that is really the main purpose of the organisation. On the HIV/AIDS issue, earlier this year, in conjunction with Doordarshan, the national broadcaster in India and All India Radio, we launched the world's largest campaign on HIV/AIDS which is a mass media campaign. That was supported by DFID, but is a very good partnership between the BBC World Service Trust, the national broadcasters in India which have a huge reach, plus also the Ministry of Health in India as well. There are plans now and we are talking with DFID at a very early stage about extending those similar kinds of campaigns in Africa as well and Ethiopia is indeed one of the places we shall be considering doing that.

Ann Clwyd

  29. Do you do any sort of political broadcasting at all? Is there the equivalent of Yesterday in Parliament or Yesterday in. . . whatever equivalent organisation they have in Afghanistan?
  (Mr King) We have not done that as the Trust. Our remit is focused very much on development programming, on education and health programming to reduce poverty.

   30. Political development is also important.
  (Mr Siddiqi) That is being done through the Persian and Pashto services of the World Service, so they do have quite a number of series on serious issues, political issues. Our basic mandate is to provide educational or development oriented information and knowledge to the people of Afghanistan.

  31. Political education is also important.
  (Mr Siddiqi) Yes; yes, it is. However, the BBC World Service Trusts remit is to reduce poverty in developing countries through the innovative use and reach of the media. In answer to the earlier question, the equivalent of Eddie Grundy in the Archers is called Nazarim in New Home, New Life.

   Chairman: Thank you very much and thank you very much for that insight into what I think has been an important part of UK PLC's contribution to the post-conflict situation in Afghanistan. Thank you very much for that and for coming to give evidence.

4   72 per cent of Pashto language speakers and some 62 per cent of Persian speakers in Afghanistan listen daily to the BBC World Service (Source: BBC World Service Trust). Back

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