A buyer working for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in war-torn Afghanistan has described the similarities between his job and his previous career as a soldier.
John Belza spent 23 years in the military and said his current role as commercial advisor for DFID Afghanistan was “very much like coming home for me”.
Belza, who attained the rank of regimental corporal major in the British army's Life Guards, said he even went to visit his old regiment, which was serving in Afghanistan when he joined the British aid effort in the country.
“With the army you had to be really flexible because tasks were changing constantly,” he said. “What I like about working for DFID, in my role I find that environment very much similar to the military. Things can change overnight, whether it be the security situation or everything we have planned has fallen apart because there has been an incident.
“It’s a matter of being flexible, and this is what you have to be as a commercial advisor working in a fragile state such as Afghanistan.”
Based in the British embassy compound in Kabul, Belza’s role involves supporting the teams that draw up and deliver the many aid programmes sponsored by the UK government, which cover areas from tax collection to encouraging farmers to stop growing opium to empowering women and girls. He helps with planning, business cases, the tender process and contract management. But his work extends to helping with contracts supporting all the UK government’s activities in the country, including fuel, security and canteen services.
“The environment that international staff live in is often called ‘the bubble’, and that is because we live in compounds with the occasional visit out,” said Belza, speaking to SM from Afghanistan. “Some people can adjust to compound living, some can’t.”
Belza arrived in Afghanistan in May 2013, having previously worked for DFID in Ethiopia. Originally due to stay for three years, he intends to extend his tour for a further year.
After leaving the military in 1993, where he served in Northern Ireland and the first Gulf War, he did a number of jobs before embarking on his purchasing career, beginning at a private hospital and then in the civil service from 2000.
Central to Belza’s work is building the capacity of Afghan suppliers to bid for DFID contracts, as the security situation makes it much more difficult for international organisations to operate in the country, and this has involved encouraging collaboration between national and international suppliers.
This has the added benefit of building the country’s economy, which Belza said would help stem the tide of refugees from that part of the world.
“The domino effect is if they have work here, the need to migrate is less and the standard of living will improve,” he said. “A good standard of living, where people are spending money in the city, cascades out because you need stuff from the country to support people in urban areas, so the farmers are getting paid. The farmers won’t want wars going on in their areas; the consequence is it reduces the influence of the Taliban and others.”