CIDA’s Summative Evaluation and On-the-ground Realities in Afghanistan

In March 2015, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development released the Synthesis Report: Summative Evaluation of Canada’s Afghanistan Development Program. On April 14, CIPS and its Fragile States Research Network (FSRN) held a panel to discuss the evaluation’s methods, findings and recommendations. This series of blog posts by Nipa Banerjee, Stephen Baranyi, Sarah Tuckey and Christoph Zuercher summarizes key issues discussed at the event, with the aim of fostering informed debate and learning about Canada’s involvement in fragile and conflict-affected states.

The following are some reflections on the evaluation in light of my several years of field experience on conflict and development in Afghanistan.

First, the evaluation does not adequately reflect the fact that Canada’s signature projects from 2008-11 were conflict-insensitive. These operated at the sub-national level in Kandahar as mechanisms parallel to those of the Afghan government—and somewhat sidelining the Afghan national government’s efforts to connect with people at the sub-national level and gain popular support (especially in such a conflict-intensive region as Kandahar).

Not learning from mistakes of the past, covering up failures and a relentless rhetoric of success appear habitual with the international community operating in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the analysis provided in the report is also inadequate with respect to certain critical factors found to damage peacebuilding through development in conflict-affected states. Central among these factors are the securitization and politicization of aid, which result in loss of humanitarian space (an outcome much in evidence in Afghanistan).

The report states that Canada’s nearly $2 billion development investment in Afghanistan from 2004-2013 bore low returns. The evaluation findings indicate that while generating short-term benefits (many of these only quick and visible fixes), the extent of Canada’s contribution “to a more secure and democratic Afghanistan, able to deliver key services to Afghans and better provide for its longer term stability and sustainable development” was very limited. My own analysis on the basis of my direct experience with CIDA’s Afghanistan development program, as well as information gleaned from this report, is that most elements behind the failures were within CIDA’s management control but were either ignored or not detected in a timely fashion.

But this evaluation pays little attention to efficiency factors such as management and cost efficiency. Indicators of management inefficiency, however, are strewn across the evaluation report. Factors that  limited development programs’ contributions include missing documents (including strategy documents), incomplete files, poor record keeping and quick staff rotation (all resulting in loss of corporate memory); lack of baseline data for measuring changes; extreme security restrictions for field staff limiting monitoring; and risk-adverse management.

While the report presents no cost efficiency analysis, the cost efficiency of some Canadian programs (even at output levels) is questioned by Afghan officials who argue  that for $90 million spent by Canada for constructing 50 schools (some in uninhabited areas) Afghans could have built hundreds more schools.

These deficiencies, some resulting from an inadequate knowledge base for operating in fragile conditions, suggest that the Canadian government over-stretched its capacity to manage a program of such large magnitude and complexity. Canada’s venture in this conflict-affected country was also poorly defined, as reflected in quick changes in development program objectives (which changed four times from 2004-13, with no rationale cited). Future engagement in fragile states should take into account Canada’s capacity to deliver.

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The most serious weakness in the list of lessons results from incorrect analysis of the National Programs of Afghanistan, financed by CIDA. The National Programs, which were designed and implemented by the Afghan government, are the means of connecting people at sub-national levels with the central (national) government. They build a support base that contributes to legitimacy-building for the government and help establish its authority. These programs are indispensable tools of the government to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the people, drawing ordinary Afghans’ support for the government. The National Solidarity Program (NSP), as the name implies, was the most vivid example of solidarity-building between the government and villagers in the remotest corners of the country.

However, the evaluation adheres to CIDA’s categorization of the NSP as an economic growth project for employment generation, which was actually only a secondary and temporary benefit produced by the program. This is the second time since the 2008 Manley report on Afghanistan that Canada has lost the opportunity to learn from the best programs that earned popular support for the Afghan government, which is so essential for building a secure and stable state.

Not learning from mistakes of the past, covering up failures and a relentless rhetoric of success appear habitual with the international community operating in Afghanistan. In the words of a high-level Afghan government official, “this evaluation is only one example of less than successful international efforts—we have 40 such examples”.

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