Michael McKean: We'll be here as long as Afghans need us

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It's a tough time to be an aid worker in Afghanistan, but 36-year-old Michael McKean, who works for Edinburgh-based charity Mercy Corps in Kabul, tells us why the Afghan people need our support now more than ever

People often have the idea that there's something glamorous about international aid work. But, when it comes down to it, I work in an office and manage a team, like any number of other people in Edinburgh. It just so happens that my office and team isn't at the Gyle, or on Lothian Road - we're in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan.

Rather than tram works and hoards of festival tourists, my commute to work can be disrupted by gunfire and bomb blasts.

I've been working in Afghanistan for Mercy Corps since 2008, helping ordinary Afghan families, affected by years of war and conflict, get back on their feet and pull themselves out of poverty. I'm passionate about my work and know how important it is, but inevitably, events like last Friday's killing of British aid worker, Dr Karen Woo, and nine others in north-western Afghanistan make me think hard about why I'm here.

Coming to work out here in the first place wasn't an easy decision. Even though I'd been working for Mercy Corps for years in Edinburgh, and at offices in Bosnia, Kosovo, Africa and the Middle East, during my first trip to Afghanistan back in 2006 I was still absolutely terrified. It's hard not to be when you have no idea what to expect, and all you have to go on are pictures in the news of soldiers coming home in bodybags from Helmand.

But, in the course of that first trip, and the years since, I've seen what isn't covered in the news quite as much: that the people of Afghanistan face huge, immense levels of poverty, and desperately need our help.

I know what I do is risky, and however much my team and I do to be careful, security is a concern we face every day. But conditions here for ordinary Afghan people are appalling, and I do this job because I know that we can help.

Poverty is everywhere. It is immense. The average Afghan lives on the equivalent of just 56p per day and has a life expectancy of just 43 years. Almost 70 per cent don't have access to clean, safe water, and 40 per cent don't have access to even the minimum acceptable amount of food each day.

My work takes me out across the country, and it's clear to see that the 31 years of conflict and war that Afghanistan has suffered has had a huge impact on people across the entire country.

Mercy Corps has been working in Afghanistan since 1986, helping local communities survive and recover from the impacts of war and poverty. Right now we're helping 2.5 million Afghans to stabilise and rebuild their lives, through a whole range of projects, from training local farmers to make the most of their land to provide for their families and avoid dependence on opium growing, to building irrigation systems and roads to make taking goods to market easier. We know that these kinds of projects can help local people pull themselves out of poverty.

Back in the UK it can be tough to remember that most Afghans aren't Taliban terrorists and militants. But I know, from working with them every day, that the vast majority of people here are good, ordinary people with families, struggling to make a living and feed their children.

Two years on from moving to Kabul as an aid worker, the explosions and gunfire haven't got any less frequent. But, like so many of the restrictions that working out here brings, I have started to get used to them and they worry me a little less.

The fact remains though that Friday's incident, whatever the motives, is certainly the worst attack on aid workers that I can remember. At Mercy Corps we take the security of our staff seriously, but still, most nights sitting in our offices you can feel the vibrations of distant bomb explosions rumbling through the floor like thunder, and hear barrages of gunfire.

We can't, even in Kabul, walk about the streets of the city - cars take us the few hundred metres from our guesthouse to the office, or to buy our shopping, wait for us, and take us back, for fear of attacks. It's a sad fact, though, that it's often ordinary people in the most conflict-ridden and dangerous places that need our help most. And at least as an aid worker I can leave when I need a break, a luxury that the people we work with simply don't have.

However tough it is to work in Afghanistan, I know that if I and our team can manage to make a difference here, we can do it anywhere.

Despite the risks, I'm proud to be here, and of the work we do. As a Scot I'm particularly proud to be part of an aid organisation based in Edinburgh.

The people of Afghanistan need us now more than ever. We're making a real difference, and our team will continue to help them as long as they need us.

&#149 For more on Mercy Corps' work, and to find out how you can help, visit www.mercycorps.org.uk

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