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Why the aid drawdown in Afghanistan could be a good thing

Mullah Najibullah, a member of the shura council in Pashtun Kot district in Faryab province, northern Afghanistan, stands before a cemetary. He says people in northern Afghanistan regularly die of hunger, cold and poverty, but have received less aid than
(Heba Aly/IRIN)

One hillside in Pashtun Kot District in the northern Afghan province of Faryab stands out. Dotted with graves, it is the final resting place for the victims of underdevelopment: Villagers travel from far-off mountains by donkey to bury their dead here - people whose demise was hastened by chronic hunger, undernutrition and lack of access to health care.

The most recent addition, according to a village elder and member of the district `shura’ council, Mullah Najibullah, was a 30-year-old mother of two, victim of a chronic cough and probably an illness she never knew she had.

Villagers here face harsh winters without warm clothes or heaters. They have to walk to the city (Maimana, capital of Faryab Province) to collect water. Hit by drought over the last few years, they sometimes eat only one meal a day. Meat is out of reach for many of these farming communities. Mobile phone coverage is patchy.

While donors have poured US$57 billion into Afghanistan since 2001, much of it into the volatile southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand as part of the international forces’ “hearts and minds” strategy in their fight against insurgents, residents of northern Afghanistan complain they have not benefited fairly from development aid.

“In the south, there is fighting; many people have been killed; and millions of dollars go there,” Najibullah told IRIN at the edge of the graveyard. “But we keep calm and support our government, so no development projects come here. People are unhappy about this.”

The gradual drawdown of US-NATO troops, and the planned handover of full security responsibilities to Afghan forces in 2014, has had the aid community worried about a corresponding drop in aid funds. But many aid workers also see the transition as an opportunity to reset aid delivery in Afghanistan, which for too long, they say, has been channelled through the NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and driven by short-term political and military objectives.

“A lot of countries have focused efforts in areas where their troops have been operating, or where it has been easier to operate, instead of looking at it from a needs-based approach,” said Aidan O’Leary, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan. “Going forward… the people who are most vulnerable have to be at the forefront of the agenda.”

Uneven aid

The World Bank predicts the reduction in aid flows will have little impact on poverty levels in Afghanistan, because much of the aid was never targeting the poorest to begin with.

In 2008-09, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), for example, spent half of its development funding in Kandahar Province, where Canadian troops were stationed for five years. It managed its programmes and projects through its embassy in Kabul or within its PRT in Kandahar, Amy Mills, a spokesperson at the embassy, told IRIN.

CIDA says Kandahar is one of the poorest places in Afghanistan, but according to the World Bank, less than 23 percent of the population of Kandahar lives below the official poverty line, compared to 60 and 61 percent in the northern provinces of Balkh and Badakshan respectively. The poorest areas are the eastern provinces of Laghman (67 percent), Paktika (75 percent) and Logar (75 percent), according to the Bank.

Mills acknowledged that part of the reason for the aid focus on Kandahar was that it was “a key strategic province in Afghan and international efforts to stabilize the country.”

Aid has been so disproportionately spent on the volatile provinces, said one member of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), that a northern provincial governor asked him: “Shall we create instability to bring aid here?”

Some donors dispute this critique. The UK Department for International Development (DFID), for example, says about half of its nationwide funding is channelled through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, managed by the World Bank.

But you would not know it from life in the north.

In these quieter areas, every few years, drought forces villagers to leave their farms for informal settlements outside urban centres where they are often dependent on humanitarian aid. Their migration could well be avoided with the development of water management systems in their communities.

This past season marks the eighth in the past 11 years that northern Afghanistan has had poor rains.

At a cattle market in Maimana, villagers sold their cows earlier than usual and at lower prices, out of desperation.

“We don’t have enough water, food, animal feed,” Abdul Hamid Shaqul, told IRIN, as he put his only two cows up for sale in January. “I have no choice but to sell.”

“Many people died of hunger this year,” he added. “If they are alive, they are working as beggars on the street.”


"People need to stop thinking about 2014. They need to start thinking about 2012… The agenda is being set now"


Faryab Governor Abdul Haq Shafaq denied such deaths but told IRIN about one-third of the provincial population was vulnerable, mostly because they could not afford to feed their families.

“PRTs have lots of money, but are they doing what’s really needed?” an aid official who preferred anonymity asked. “If you go out, can you see any impact of this money? The answer is no.”

A silver lining?

Still, government officials are quick to point to progress in the north. Shafaq, for example, listed the dozens of school buildings constructed, the tens of thousands of families that now have electricity, the hundreds of kilometres of roads that have been built or reconstructed, and the many contracts signed for investment projects in his province alone.

In the capital of neighbouring Balkh Province, Mazar-i-Sharif, you cannot drive down the main road more than a few metres before an internationally-funded project hits you in the face: the park built by the Turks; a new engineering faculty funded by Pakistan; the library built by Iran.

The investments here have been small compared to the needs, but the good news, aid workers say, is that in its neglect, the north was spared the bad aid policies which drove the large-scale development effort in the south.

“It’s the big money that ruined the country,” an aid worker from the north said. “In the north, there has never been big money… There was no war. So development aid was driven by needs.”

Many of the PRTs working in the north made a distinction between the military and aid. The Norwegian government, for example, does not fund any humanitarian or development projects through the Norwegian PRT, and has capped at 20 percent the amount of its aid that can be directed towards Faryab Province, where its PRT operates.

Misguided approach in the south?

Aid workers and researchers paint a very different picture in the south, where roles are mixed systematically, as one diplomat put it. “One day you’re shooting and the other day, you’re putting band-aids on.”

So-called quick-impact projects implemented by the military have run contrary to long-term development strategies; and because so much money needed to be spent so fast, consultations with remote villagers to determine needs were often forgotten or left aside.

“I’m afraid Afghanistan is a perfect example of how messy the international community can be when it comes to coordinated efforts, getting its priorities right, and really looking in one direction,” said Laurent Saillard, head of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm (ECHO) in Afghanistan. “[Some] development actors also have been highly influenced by political decisions… Big players here are trying to impose their views… You have all sorts of actors delivering humanitarian assistance with no competence, no understanding, no concern about the possible repercussions on the security of the very population they were assisting.

“A lot of aid from the US government, the British government, the Canadians has been spent where their troops were,” Saillaird continued. “It was supporting the boys basically… At the end of the day, it did not achieve stability. It did not come to address the basic needs of the population.”

When approached by IRIN, all three donors pointed to a long list of achievements: new police stations built, irrigation channels repaired, water sources improved, foreign direct investment generated, more taxes collected, more children vaccinated, a much larger percent of the population with access to health care within a two-hour walk.

A spokesperson with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) told IRIN the US government has helped Afghanistan achieve “real progress” in the last decade, including a jump in life expectancy from about 42 to 62 years and in school enrolment from 900,000 boys and no girls to more than eight million children, more than a third of them girls. CIDA pointed to a more secure and economically stronger Kandahar Province.

Still, many observers say the progress has been narrow and unsustainable. According to the International Crisis Group, donors must change their approach.

“The impact of international assistance will remain limited unless donors, particularly the largest, the US, stop subordinating programming to counter-insurgency objectives, devise better mechanisms to monitor implementation, adequately address corruption and wastage of aid funds, and ensure that recipient communities identify needs and shape assistance policies,” ICG wrote in an August 2011 report.

Another report, published in January 2012 by the Feinstein International Center, a research and advocacy body based at Tufts University in Massachusetts, found that many Afghans viewed aid projects negatively.

They saw an injustice in the perception that “a few corrupt officials and powerbrokers were benefiting disproportionally from international assistance at the expense of the majority of Afghans,” the report said.


"A lot of aid from the US government, the British government, the Canadians has been spent where their troops were.… At the end of the day, it did not achieve stability. It did not come to address the basic needs of the population"


Aid, it argued, is actually destabilizing the country by fuelling massive corruption that delegitimizes the government and generates competitions and conflict over aid resources, often along factional, tribal or ethnic lines.

Even uneducated villagers in the north were quick to tell IRIN that when projects are implemented in insecure areas, money is diverted to conflict.

A new way forward

Aid workers hope that less aid money post-drawdown will be better focused and less rushed, giving organizations time to talk through their projects with village elders and engage the communities they work in, which would help manage corruption and perhaps ease an increasingly hostile view of foreigners in Afghanistan.

Michael Keating, deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General and humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, says the drawdown in aid will entail serious risks for Afghanistan, but might just have some positive effects, by forcing the aid and development community to look more closely at sustainability and impose a higher degree of discipline.

He suggested those national and international NGOs that have been working with communities in Afghanistan for decades - and “haven’t been listened to enough” - will finally have more of a voice.

But given the risk that Afghanistan might get forgotten once more, Keating told IRIN: “We have a responsibility to try to maintain [funding] levels, especially for the chronically poor.”

Many of those donors whose funds were not tied to the military (like ECHO) intend to maintain their levels of funding. The UK’s DFID says it has no plans to cut aid to Afghanistan - its current operation plan runs until 2015. But others, like CIDA and USAID, are expected to cut their aid spending in Afghanistan substantially. Both donors told IRIN post-2014 funding decisions had not yet been made, but one well-placed source put the cuts at two-thirds and half, respectively.

For many, this continues to be cause for concern.

“If the transition takes place, and [international] NGOs withdraw, there will be again a disaster because government doesn’t have the capacity,” Ahmad Shakeb, education project coordinator with the Norwegian Refugee Council in the eastern city of Jalalabad, told IRIN. Civil war is another very real possibility.

The World Bank projects a financing gap of 25 percent of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2021-22, with security-related costs, as well as operations and management, eating up nearly 18 percent of GDP. Security sector assistance is a particular concern for the bank, and will continue to require outside funding.

“If these levels of foreign assistance for security and civilian expenditures are not forthcoming, then the [government of Afghanistan] will need to make extremely difficult and possibly destabilizing tradeoffs - either grossly underfunding or significantly shrinking Afghan security forces, or crowding out essential civilian spending, or both.”

Still, it insisted the transition should be viewed as “an opportunity to enhance the coherence and effectiveness of international assistance”. Otherwise, it said, "it will be difficult for the Government to achieve more sustained development objectives over a longer time horizon.”

The ICG echoed the urgency of a new, long-term development and humanitarian partnership with Afghanistan “that goes beyond a narrow arrangement with the Karzai administration”.

O’Leary, head of OCHA in Afghanistan, said the transition did offer an opportunity for change, but insisted: “People need to stop thinking about 2014. They need to start thinking about 2012. A lot of the key decisions are going to be made this year.”

In May, at a conference in Switzerland, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Afghan government hope the international community will endorse a new strategy for finding sustainable solutions for Afghan refugees. G8 and NATO summits in Chicago in May will look at the security transition; and a conference in Tokyo in July will look at how economic assistance should be focused in the years ahead.

As O’Leary put it, “the agenda is being set now.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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