A woman from Bury St Edmunds has found herself at the heart of helping rebuild war-torn Afghanistan.
Speaking exclusively to the Bury Free Press, Lizz Atwell spoke about her role helping turn around the lives of many struggling families.
She has been volunteering the country with the Department for International Development for the past 20 months.
As team leader for finance and commercial, she ensures projects such as building train lines and roads, developing health services and supporting new businesses are delivered effectively and within budget.
Despite the risks and having been through some ‘hair raising’ nights of violence, she has been determined to help a county scarred by 30 years of conflict turn around its fortunes and stand on its own two feet.
Talking from her base in Kabul, she said: “You will hear how a project has changed lives. It isn’t just the job you’re creating for an individual, it’s the knock on effect for their extended family.”
With a budget of £178 million per year, DFID Afghanistan works closely with other Government departments as well as other international donors and partners.
The work that stands out for Lizz is the support for businesses, which can vary case to case but can include start up grants.
Among the businesses they have helped are agriculture such as poultry and farming as well as carpet factories and producing ice cream.
Lizz witnessed the results first hand when she visited Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north of the country, to see small start-ups - one specialising in mechanical parts and the other was a grocery store.
She said: “The people were telling you how it has changed their lives and how they can now support their families.”
Based in a compound in Kabul, it also gave her the chance to witness everyday Afghan life. She said: “You see the markets, you see the people doing their day to day life and we went around the mosque there which is beautiful.”
The department also aims to support women and girls as they still face enormous challenges including in their ability to participate in politics and decision making.
“Each element of our programme does have something in the business case about how it will support women so x number of jobs for women. It isn’t 100 per cent - the majority of the working population is going to be male here. It’s just making sure there are the same rights for women.”
The spectre of violence still haunts the country and Lizz remembers two ‘hair raising’ nights of attacks nearby with gunfire providing the soundtrack to the evening. She said: “The first one was November last year which shook me quite a lot and the second one was in July.
“We know we’re protected and the local security forces are doing their job.”
Lizz visited the country about four years ago so knew what to expect but admits that with the tense security situation her working day has to be ‘quite flexible’. She said: “If you have to ring up one of your partners and say I’m not coming, they’re quite used to it.”
How did she feel about venturing to the country?
“There was an attack just before I came. They said it’s a voluntary position and probably for about 10 minutes I thought about it but no they’re incredibly professional. If they tell us we’re not going out that day we accept it.
“I’m not completely naive - there are risks and you see it day in and day out but we mitigate it by being sensible.”
Lizz will leave Afghanistan towards the end of the month and return to Whitehall.
She lived in Bury between 1995 and 2006 and still has family in the area, who she will visit for Christmas.
Asked about the overall goal to make Afghanistan self sufficient after decades of turmoil, she said: “With all the countries that we work in we hope it can be sustainable and that the Government can withdraw. You need to be realistic - if you have been at war for 30 years you’re not going to see change over night. However, saying that you do see change - the resilience and determination just in my local colleagues here coming into our office.
“There’s that determination, there’s some hope. People want to see change immediately and it won’t happen immediately. You need to build up infrastructure and build up the economy. There are a lot of positives but it takes time. The way forward is through education and we’re seeing a lot of developments in education.”