New Internationalist

Where has the money gone?

Issue 417

Abdul Basir asks the awkward question.

Ali Omid / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN http://www.ainaphoto.org
Agriculture – on which most Afghans depend – has been neglected. Ali Omid / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN http://www.ainaphoto.org

‘At almost every conference since 9/11, international donors pledged billions of dollars to Afghanistan. We don’t know what happened to that money. We don’t even know if it has been paid. There is almost nothing to see for that amount of money,’ says a 40-year-old teacher from Kabul.

Afghans are increasingly sceptical about aid pledges and their impact. Despite the billions of dollars that have reportedly been poured into the country, their lives have changed little. Donors showcase the few roads that have been built, but many Afghans are not that upbeat about the life-changing impacts of roads. They believe that donors see road construction as a military and strategic priority. Other areas which would have a more direct impact on their lives have been neglected. 

Military and strategic objectives would appear to have driven the donor aid agenda from the start. A large part of aid has been spent through the military-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (see page 18). These spend money delivering what they term ‘quick impact’ projects. The money is largely considered wasted. They have built schools which three years later still have no teachers; health clinics with no staff.

‘I am astounded to see soldiers giving out sweets and footballs again and again when those young children need better education, healthcare and nutrition and the country needs the basic infrastructure to be able to provide these services now and in the future. It is clear that the military lacks the expertise for development. So the question is: why is it taking them so long to learn and to change?’ said one man.

Change is what Afghans hoped would come after the international force removed the Taliban and promised to rebuild the country. However, benefits have been lacking in most sectors. ‘For God’s sake,’ the man continued, ‘we have had the most powerful and wealthy nations of the world here for the past seven years talking about reconstruction and development and yet we have less electricity now than we had under the Taliban.’

Insecurity, poor governance and corruption have slowed down reconstruction and development. With the exception perhaps of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan capacity to address these issues remains seriously underdeveloped. Donors channel a significant part of their funds through private construction and security companies that are involved in multi-layered contract arrangements, each keeping a substantial part of the money to cover their administrative costs (see Facts, page 14). The companies are poorly regulated, secretive, unaccountable and have high security management costs. They do almost nothing to help develop Afghan capacity.

Afghan capacity is key to the country’s present and its future. Afghans will participate if they feel that they own the process. They do understand that this takes time and they have reasonable expectations, but they are also eager to see visible progress. One told me: ‘The Afghan Government has got to stop using the Taliban time as a benchmark to showcase today’s progress. This Government has been in power for seven years and the Taliban ruled Kabul only for five. Afghanistan has seen better days and we need to begin to measure if we are getting any closer to the pre-1978 standards.’ (See History, page 9) 

Under the current system of aid it is hard to see how the country will achieve those standards any time soon. Agriculture, on which most Afghans depend for their livelihoods, has received very little investment in the past few years. There is much that Government and donors could learn from the National Solidarity Programme, in which the NGOs are involved. Here people have a say in what happens, make their own decisions and keep a good account of how and where the money is spent. 

Afghans trust those who are open; in 2004 they put their faith in the current Government by turning up in millions to vote in the Presidential elections. Will they bother again? The 2009 elections will be a real test of public mood. Many opportunities have been missed, but not all is yet lost. If the Afghan people begin to see changes that would benefit their lives there might still be a chance to rescue this fragile state.

Abdul Basir is an Afghan aid expert working with the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group. He has written this article in a personal capacity.

Corporate Spree

With scant competitive bidding, USAID has allocated nearly half its Afghanistan funds to five US corporations: Kellogg Brown & Root ($316 million worth of building contracts); Louis Berger Group ($300 million for roads, schools, water wells and destroying the country’s currency); Chemonics International ($600 million for ‘socio-economic assessments’ and ‘food market analysis’); BearingPoint ($39.9 million to ‘help rebuild the country’s economic infrastructure’); and Dyncorp (undisclosed amounts for ‘security’). For more check out The Center for Public Integrity  http://projects.publicintegrity.org/wow/default.aspx

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