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Afghan aid does more harm than good in wrong hands

As the western pullout from Afghanistan gets started, we are all starting to realize how ineffective and unwise the West's aid strategy has been for all these years.

The unintended consequences of pumping large amounts of aid resources into Afghanistan could have been avoided, if only Afghanistan's national partners had listened to the Afghan people. In conference after conference since 2002, President Hamid Karzai has appealed to the international community to help to build capacity in the country's post-war state institutions and to channel their aid resources through these institutions over time.

The columnist David Brooks of The New York Times recently wrote a piece on this "smart power setback", harshly criticising the international aid system and the way it has operated in Afghanistan over the past decade. Drawing on the recent US Congressional reports on aid effectiveness in Afghanistan, he points out a few major achievements in the areas of education and health care in the country, but argues that "the influx of aid has, in many cases, created dependency, fed corruption, contributed to insecurity and undermined the host government's capacity to oversee sustainable programmes".

It is clear that as Afghanistan's nascent state institutions gradually gained the necessary capacity, they would be able to absorb international aid, increasingly designing and implementing aid programmes on their own. And this continues to be demanded by the Afghan people, who want to see their government's capacity daily grow in order to deliver on their basic expectations.

Indeed, it is common sense that unless Afghans stand on their own to lead and drive the rebuilding and development of their country, the donor community will eventually leave Afghanistan. President Barack Obama signalled this in his recent speech when he announced the phased withdrawal of 30,000 US forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, stating: "We won't try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government." As a matter of fact, because Afghans knew that these announcements were going to be made sooner or later, they had been asking as early as 2002 for an accelerated "Afghanisation" of the reconstruction and stabilisation of Afghanistan so that Afghans could gain the capacity they need to govern and defend their country against internal and external security threats.

The donor community lacks both aid resources and a firm commitment for state-building in Afghanistan. Between 2001 and 2005, the basic institutions of centralised government were established in Afghanistan. But law enforcement institutions, which constitute the face of any government, were neglected from the beginning. Judicial and police reforms - reforms that should have been the foundation on which other state institutions were built - were not implemented and were shelved indefinitely, due to a lack of resources. Consequently, a security vacuum had widened in areas where state institutions were either absent or too weak to protect people, particularly in the south and east - areas that had seen little or no assistance until 2005.

From 2005 on, the donor community has continued to replace, but not build, Afghan capacity. English-speaking Afghan professionals, who must be retained in or absorbed into the government, have been lured away by the high salaries of the donor-related parallel organisations. For instance, if an Afghan civil engineer were earning $150 (Dh550) a month working with the government, he would immediately quit that job to take a cook or driver's job with such private contractors, UN agencies or NGOs, which could pay him 10 times as much. Consequently, rather than helping Afghanistan, the donor community contributed to draining the government of its few competent professionals.

No doubt that a decade after international re-engagement in Afghanistan, the government remains either weak or absent in much of Afghanistan, in part because donors have continued to run their own mini-states in the country. And when they decide to leave the country, their ad hoc parallel structures - which have bypassed and thus robbed the Afghan government of scarce resources for state-building for the past decade - would evaporate, leaving a gap of state failure as wide as the one the international community stumbled upon in Afghanistan in 2001, immediately after the fall of the Taliban.

Hence, there is no way forward in Afghanistan unless international partners rethink the way they have operated in the country so far. To avoid failure and more of the same, they must exploit the strategic opportunity of capitalising on the many lessons they have learnt thus far to replace the "Afghan face" with the "Afghan hands" on getting the job done henceforth.

By now, there should be no excuse of not knowing Afghanistan or how to work there effectively. The largest donors have been in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, and must have built the institutional memory they need to work in full concert with the government and people of Afghanistan in order to implement the priorities of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, which were presented to the international community in last year's Kabul conference.

At the same time, the transition to Afghan responsibility, currently underway, must be based on conditions, since much remains to be accomplished, because of the reasons discussed above, to ensure that Afghanistan firmly stands on its own. When the country is on a sustainable path towards recovery, the sacrifices and memory of so many people, including Nato and Afghan forces that have fought and fallen together to secure Afghanistan, will be honoured. And Afghan history will record forever the gratitude of the Afghan people to their nation-partners for doing the right thing in Afghanistan.

 

M Ashraf Haidari is a senior policy adviser of Afghanistan's National Security Council

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