The Donor Conference and the Politics of Aid for Afghanistan

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Context
The UK is set to announce an increase in aid to Afghanistan to the tune of 40 percent. This is on top of the 500 million pound aid budget already sanctioned by parliament for use in Afghanistan. The move comes just weeks after the US announced aid cuts to Kabul, citing government corruption as the reason. Meanwhile, Japan has announced a dedication of $1 billion of aid in 2010, earmarked for improving security, development and reconciling former Taliban in to the mainstream.

The status of development in Afghanistan and its overwhelming reliance on international aid are course for concern for long-term stability and reconstruction efforts. These issues will definitely on the minds of foreign leaders as they meet in Kabul today for the International Donors Conference. Foreign Ministers of 40 countries are attending. However, aid is foremost a foreign policy tool to achieve the interests of the donor in the recipient country.

Analysis

 

The United Kingdom is pledging a 40 percent increase in aid to Afghanistan to help with the reconstruction efforts in the war torn country. The injection of funds is largely seen as an ‘insurance policy’ for the British government, who aim to have combat troops out of the region by 2014. The theory is that extra money will mean greater development, increased public support for the rickety Kabul government and ultimately a stable-enough environment for British troops to withdraw from without feeling like they are leaving a job half done. It’s a very hopeful, some might say naive, policy.

The UK, who have been fighting in Afghanistan alongside the US and other coalition forces since 2001 are finding it harder and harder to justify the continued presence of combat troops in Afghanistan, especially after the announcement last year of a planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011. After withdrawal, both countries will still maintain a military presence in Afghanistan, but in a training and reconstruction capacity. Many are wondering why, after 322 British servicemen have lost their lives in Afghanistan, more money is being directed to the country.

Afghanistan’s government is reliant on foreign aid for more than 40 percent of its development budget, yet with widespread allegations of corruption and liberal ‘pocket-lining’ by officials, and with the development progress in Afghanistan crawling at a snail’s pace, it must be asked, how effectual is all this aid?

The US has been asking these same questions as it cut it’s aid budget to Afghanistan, amidst fears that the aid is ending up in the hands of those who the US are fighting against. Nita Lowey, the US congresswoman chairing the subcommittee on aid appropriates was quoted by the BBC as saying “I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that US taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords and terrorists.” She may be withholding a lot of ‘dimes’ for quite some time.

The barriers to development in Afghanistan are widespread, and come not just from internal instability, insecurity and corruption, but also the misplacement of aid dollars, and the uncoordinated way in which aid is metered out and projects are implemented; international donors have by and large failed to comprehend that bucket loads of cash dumped on a capacity-less government will either sit there, or be appropriated by the corrupt elements within government.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has strenuously denied allegations of corruption within his government, but the fact remains that over 2.5 billion US dollars was paid by Afghan citizens in bribes to local officials in 2009, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Bribing officials is a day-to-day reality in Afghanistan, and is not uncommon in the region at large, with neighboring Pakistan receiving its fair share of accusations in this manner.

The UK’s announcement of a boost in aid to Afghanistan came with the clause of ‘well spent aid’, which the UK intends to oversea carefully. The basic problems still remains, however, that without a coherent aid deployment strategy, and without legitimacy on the part of the Afghan government, aid will continue to be funneled into ineffectual programs, or more likely into already full official pockets.

The aid story in Afghanistan is beginning to mimic the so-called ‘ghost school’ scenario in Pakistan, where thousands of school buildings were built, pictures taken at the ‘opening’ to show aid donors, but teachers and students were never to step foot inside-worse still, local officials pocketed the money for teacher’s ‘salaries’ equipment and in some scenarios, school buildings were never even built-they existed only on paper.

The US is also conducting an internal deliberation of how to administer aid to Pakistan, and according media reports, the country has decided to inject money through the Pakistani’s as oppose to using the USAID bureaucracy. However, US will maintain a strict oversight of how the projects are selected and also on how the money is spent. Before heading to Kabul, Hillary Clinton was in Pakistan as part of the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue, and announced an additional aid of $500 million. Most of the projects announced yesterday attempt to deal directly and visibly with the problems being faced by the people of Pakistan. According to US officials, this approach best helps counter the negative US perception in Pakistan. The projects include: the first phase of a water project to cover seven locations at a cost of $270 million, the second phase of the U.S. Signature Energy Program at the cost of $60 million, the first phase of a three-year, $28 million Signature Health Program, and several other projects.

While the Afghan scenario differs from Pakistan in the minutiae (i.e. they’re not running non-existent schools) the underlying problem is the same-aid beneficiaries with not-so-egalitarian agendas quickly learn that donor money will keep flowing if so-called ‘Quick Impact Projects’–ideally with a good picture op–are undertaken, rather than the not-so-glamorous undertakings that will have more tangible long-term results for the people of Afghanistan.

Another grave area in need of attention for the aid flows into Afghanistan to have any real impact is government capacity building. At present, Kabul is not only dependent on foreign aid, but also on foreign minds to reconstruct the dilapidated country. To further the problem, aid development is by no means undertaken in a cohesive, planned manner, and increasingly aid is being metered out by donors to private institutions to try and circumvent the corruption in the government. The less capacity the government has to deal with the aid effectively, the more likely it is to misappropriate aid.

Aid dependency is another critical concern in Afghanistan, as dependence on foreign aid has shown in places like Africa to undermine societal structures, reduce pressure on governments to reform, encourage rentier behavior and undermine democratic progress, according to Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid. All of this combines to give a scenario where the credibility of the government (wrongly or rightly) is also severely undermined, both at home and abroad, which further alienates the government form the people and donors alike.

Conclusion

Like most other donors, UK will have a hard time, accounting for the increased funds into Afghanistan, unless of course they undertake development projects themselves. It should be noted that foreign aid, for the most part, is a tool for furthering the foreign policy interests of the respective countries in Afghanistan. The donors have a big say in how the assistance gets used, and thus where the money is spent is an indicator representing the future policy of these countries in Afghanistan.

To counter these moves, Mullah Omar has already announced to capture or kill Afghan civilians working for foreign forces or Afghan government. By doing so, he is attempting to offset not only the political resolution of the conflict with the use of foreign aid, but also the recently created civilian village forces for maintaining security. The Afghan Taliban want to make clear they are the real wheeler-dealer in Afghanistan and without them there can be no political or military solution to the conflict. It is quite possible, sooner rather than later, Pakistani Taliban and Jihadist might resort to similar tactics. The Pakistani Taliban have targeted a number of local militias, raised with government help to fight the extremists, with deadly results. We can now expect to see more of this in Afghanistan as well.

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