Once the prosperous hub of one of the world's most important trade routes, Afghanistan today, after 30 years of conflict, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Reporter TARA BRADY speaks to a woman from Wembley working to try to improve the lives of its people
IT IS 2.30pm at the small British Embassy compound in Kabul and Amisha Patel has taken time out of her busy schedule to talk to me on the telephone about how her work is helping a country move forward after living under the Taliban regime.
The 33-year-old, of Burnside Crescent, Wembley, was deployed to Afghanistan six months ago by the Department for International Development (DFID), a UK government department which aims to promote development and reduce poverty.
The country's economy relies on the cultivation of illegal opium, which makes up about 90 per cent of the world's heroin.
There is insecurity all around and a widespread fear of corruption. Life in this troubled conflict zone is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
"Another big issue here is people trying to jump the Iranian border," explains Ms Patel, who has to be accompanied by an armed guard.
"About 1.5 million Afghans live in Iran. The opportunities there are much greater.
"One day I was on the Iranian border. Five young men had been shot. I asked a relative why they didn't stop it from happening. But they said if they had made it, the benefits would have far outweighed the risks.
"People are prepared to gamble their lives. That is how troubled things are in Afghanistan."
In 2001, under the Taliban regime, less than one million children attended school in Afghanistan - none of them girls.
Half of its 25 million people live below the international poverty line and 40 per cent do not have enough to eat. It remains the second poorest country in the world.
Ms Patel said: "I've been here since February helping the government deliver basic services to citizens in Afghanistan, such as access to health and education. We make sure the government delivers this to the people.
"We don't want to tell the Afghan people what to do. We want to give them the capacity to lead on issues. We want them to take ownership."
Her work also involves championing the rights of women, teenagers and children. She helped set up women only "shura" groups, which make decisions on how villages are run.
Groups like this would have been unthinkable under the Taliban and will improve life for Afghans in the future, Ms Patel said.
"It's not great to be a woman or a child in this country. But things are improving," she said. "About 5.2m children attend school now, a third of whom are girls. The situation was dire but it has improved. They have a long way to go though.
"Not everyone is violent or an insurgent here. Afghans are just like any other people. They want their kids to go to school, they want access to a health system and a job."
Ms Patel's work also includes issues such as anti-corruption, policing, counter-narcotics, justice systems, local governance and elections. She has also worked with the Halo Trust, a charity which specialises in the removal of war debris and mines.
Having previously lived in Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania, Ms Patel said she hopes to return to Africa one day. But she admits she is looking forward to seeing her family when she returns to Wembley in February.
She said: "The British public needs to understand there is a reason why we are here in Afghanistan. We don't want to impose our way of life, we just want to establish fundamental human rights."