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Change the Pattern of Aid to Afghanistan

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  • June 28, 2007

    Nearly six years after the toppling of the Taliban regime and the completion of the Bonn Process, the situation in Afghanistan continues to remain fragile. A recent visit to provinces in Afghanistan and 'person on the street' narratives in Herat, Kabul, Balkh, Parvan, Baglan, Samangan, Kapisa, and Nangarhar portrays a general sense of resignation amongst the people as they watch their nation sliding backwards. Despite a massive international effort with a total pledge (Grants & Loans) of US $29,304.9 million, the goal of rebuilding a stable Afghanistan remains distant. According to United Nations and World Bank data, post-Taliban Afghanistan continues to trail at the bottom of every economic indicator list, with life expectancy at 46.4 years, GDP per capita of just $315, 70 per cent of the population below the poverty line and official unemployment rate at a conservative 30 per cent.

    The problem essentially lies in the lack of "unity of effort" on the part of the international community in developing a well-coordinated long-term strategy to strengthen the Afghan government and bring the state back "in" to the development process. In rebuilding conflict-ridden states like Afghanistan, the use of 'alternate delivery mechanisms' like Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) [around 189 INGOs and 367 local NGOs operate in Afghanistan], or direct delivery through embassies and community-based groups plays a crucial role in providing immediate humanitarian relief and assistance. However, for long-term stabilization and reconstruction, it is important to route aid through the state machinery to shore up and enhance the government's legitimacy rather than rely on these parallel structures of governance. In a report last year, the World Bank forewarned of the dangers of an 'aid juggernaut' leading to the creation of a parallel world operating independent of the state, with Afghans not even able to bid for major infrastructure contracts such as building roads.

    Aid delivery and implementation in Afghanistan is characterized by the presence of a multiplicity of actors, both internal and external, which has led to a highly dissipated and fractured nation-building effort. The use of aid as an 'instrument of influence' - delivered with the stamp of the donor's flag to meet the donor's agenda irrespective of the needs of the community - is not only undermining the international aid effort but is also eroding the credibility of the Afghan government. The United States and its development arm USAID, which are mainly responsible for spending money outside of Kabul's budget through the process of contracting and subcontracting to American companies, end up building sub-standard schools as can be witnessed in Kabul.

    In some villages, the discrepancy between a community's actual needs and the aid given to it is far too evident. This was highlighted by residents of a village near Mazar-e-Sharif, whose principal need was for drinking water but were instead bestowed with a school. Donors are merely interested in meeting targets and priorities set out in their national agenda rather than working on the needs of communities. On the other hand, operationalising projects remains problematic and, despite negative perceptions about the ruling dispensation, there is a need to involve the Afghan government through participatory and incentive-based mechanisms for joint coordination and effective implementation.

    The huge gap between short-term high visibility projects, which heightens people's expectations but without any follow-up action in terms of job creation or building an indigenous industrial base is fuelling discontent among the local populace. Moreover, the lack of capabilities in domestic production has compelled Afghanistan to open its domestic market to nearly tariff-free imports from Pakistan, China and Iran. This further strangles its attempts to rebuild the job-creating manufacturing sector. The World Bank estimate of Afghan exports at around $1.6 billion and imports at $3.9 billion projects a sharp trade deficit that makes up over 30 per cent of the GDP.

    There is thus a need to build the local agricultural and industrial base for employment generation and the development of a sustainable economy. Otherwise, Afghanistan would continue to depend on outside aid for decades to come. In addition, leaving the Afghan government out of the loop erodes its credibility among the people and undermines its legitimacy. Firstly, it displays the state's incapacity to deliver basic goods to the people. Secondly, it prevents the Afghan state from extending its reach to the grass root level, while at the same time building up of parallel structures of governance. And finally, it does not impart 'enabling' lessons to the government, which will have to sustain the reconstruction effort after the international forces withdraw.

    India seems to have understood the need to involve the Afghan state in reconstruction. Indian aid is directed primarily through the Afghan government and includes community participation, capacity building and long term development projects. Totalling up to $750 million till 2006, it is contributed in sync with the Afghan government's needs and priorities. Indian aid includes: humanitarian assistance like the delivery of biscuits to school children through the World Food Programme; the building of infrastructure projects like electric transmission lines, a road linking Zaranj and Delaram, etc; small scale projects like the digging of tube wells, building schools and hospitals with community participation; and long-term projects like the construction of the Salma Dam in the Chesht district of western Herat province. The last of these includes the important component of on the job training to Afghan personnel.

    If long-term initiatives and projects are not focused upon, Afghanistan, even the more stable northern part of it, could slide back and go the 'southern way' on the wave of popular discontent. And the Kabul government would find itself assaulted on multiple fronts - armed opposition groups in the north, the Taliban in the south and east, as well as the active interference of neighbours like Pakistan and Iran from the east and the west respectively.

    The need, therefore, is to stabilize Afghanistan through active contributions to the state-building process and thus strengthening the reach and capabilities of the Afghan government. The international community should endeavour to deliver aid through the mechanisms of the Afghan state like the Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS) and the National Solidarity Programme (NSP). This would help both donors and the Afghan government to prioritise, coordinate and streamline aid delivery.