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Analyzing Afghanistan, Part 2: Moving Forward

Analyzing Afghanistan, Part 2: Moving Forward
Rural Business Support Project in Afghanistan: Farmers working in a field in Surkhrod district of Nangarhar, Afghanistan, January 2014.Asian Development Bank

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, speaking to CIPS in April, finished his presentation (see part 1 here) by touching on the Afghan government’s over-dependence on aid and inability to pay for and perform the two main hallmarks of a viable state: the provision of security and the delivery of basic services. According to the World Bank, with the current state of its institutions and revenue earning capacities, Afghanistan will be unable to meet these ends until at least 2030. This bleak prospect undermines the ultimate legitimacy and authority of the government.

Sopko observes that donors mightily contributed to this phenomenon by dumping too much money, into too small an economy, with too little oversight and without a comprehensive analysis of the social, political, economic, and cultural realities of Afghanistan and its state institutions. Experts question the wisdom of the untimely introduction of political (democratic elections) and economic (free market) liberalization in Afghanistan in the absence of institutions with the capacity to handle the political and economic forces that might be unleashed. Elections have been fraudulent and deeply divided along ethnic lines while corruption riddles the private sector.

The Canadian government’s 2015 evaluation of its development program highlighted a lack of understanding of the realities of Afghanistan. The adverse impact of pushing too much aid money onto unprepared ground might also be sobering for Canadian scholars and civil society organizations advocating for faster progress towards the 0.7% foreign aid target. While a higher aid budget is clearly desirable, the capacities of recipient countries to absorb funds and our government’s capacity for realistic programming and oversight must be considered.

SIGAR empathizes with the current Afghan leadership, which inherited a state with dangerously poor governance, security, and an unprecedented economic decline emanating from the withdrawal of foreign troops. However, NATO and the Afghan government knew at the 2010 Lisbon Conference about the plan for gradual troop withdrawal. A Transition Planning Commission (Intequal) under Ashraf Ghani’s leadership was therefore mandated. What was their plan to manage the transition in the economy and national security? Has any part of the plan been implemented? Or did they just hope for the best?

Sopko is concerned that just as donors pushed in too much money too fast, they might also withdraw support too fast, with equally harmful effects. He advises against such moves and instead strongly recommends parallel investments in anti-corruption measures, in which Canadian Ambassadors have been taking the lead. Such information might help strengthen the legitimacy of our Afghanistan aid program. Transparent information on anti-corruption measures, with indicators, will do more to earn Canadian public support than continued reference to the now-rejected data regarding Canadian aid contributing to capacity development and the enrollment of 11 million (ghost) children in school.

SIGAR also noted that the current Afghan leadership is co-operating with donors in curbing corruption. Legitimacy and support, however, can only be earned by results visible to the Afghan people who have lost faith in their country’s leaders.

Last week, an Afghan-Canadian man delivering food to my house noticed a replica of the Bamiyan Buddha on my wall, prompting him to talk about the deplorable conditions in his homeland. He knows that young people are unemployed while Afghan officials are pocketing aid money, their helicopters at the ready to leave the country when Kabul collapses, leaving Afghanistan to Taliban occupation, with no foreign troops to protect them. He is pleased to have escaped Afghanistan. If he had stayed, he most likely would have joined the Taliban, which is always recruiting angry, young, unemployed men disenchanted with the government. How does the Afghan government expect to survive, he asks, without the people’s support? This young man speaks halting English, has no degrees, and never attends conferences but we can learn much from his frustration.

Sopko says that donors must ensure that multilateral organizations receiving money for large-scale projects in Afghanistan — the UN, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank — follow the money, perform regular project audits, and submit reports to donors. To underline Sopko’s point, from the audience, an ex-foreign service officer raised concerns about the Canadian government neglecting oversight, for example regarding ghost police with the UN-managed Law and Order Trust Fund (LOTFA).

In the Fragile States Research Network’s recent experience of organizing this meeting with SIGAR, Global Affairs Canada clearly showed interest but National Defense did not. Without co-operation between these two departments, Canadian dollar investments are at serious risk of being wasted.

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