The right way to help in Afghanistan
Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report on aid efforts in Afghanistan. Many of the problems they highlight line up with the criticisms we have made of the large-scale, military-dominated aid that has happened in much of Afghanistan:
Even when U.S. development experts determine that a proposed project “lacks achievable goals and needs to be scaled back,” the U.S. military often takes it over and funds it anyway, the report says.
It also cites excessive use and poor oversight of contractors. Although the report provides some examples of successful projects, it is critical overall of what one senior committee aide called the U.S. focus on a rapid “burn rate” of available funding as a key metric for success. The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the report before its release.
…All U.S. development projects in Afghanistan should be reexamined, it adds, to determine whether they are “necessary, achievable, and sustainable.”
The report recommends multi-year congressional funding for the aid program that would plan ahead for the increased civilian responsibilities as the number of troops decreases and calls for “a simple rule: donors should not implement projects if Afghans cannot sustain them.”…
…High turnover among U.S. civilians working in Afghanistan, estimated at 85 percent a year, along with “pressure from the military, imbalances between military and civilian resources, unpredictable funding levels from Congress, and changing political timelines, have further complicated efforts,” it says.
It’s important that the conclusion we draw from this report is not that we should stop development efforts in Afghanistan, but that we focus on what works. In a statement responding to the report, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (of which Peace Action West is a member) noted that the report highlighted programs that are having a real impact in the lives of Afghans:
The report also highlights U.S.-backed Afghan development programs that “exemplify the goals of being ‘necessary, achievable and sustainable:’”
- The National Solidarity Program, which “promotes subnational governance by setting up community development councils and training them to manage small-scale projects funded by block grants,” has been successful in part because of its “transparent, standardized, and streamlined” disbursements, local ownership of development initiatives, and “strong monitoring and evaluation.”
- The Basic Package of Health Services, which provides public nutrition and maternal and child health services on levels ranging from community health posts to district hospitals, has increased health coverage rates to 85 percent in 2008 (from only 9 percent in 2003) nationwide and reduced infant mortality by 26 percent.
- The number of children attending school in Afghanistan has increased sevenfold over the past decade.
I have heard nothing but praise for the National Solidarity Program from all corners, and it exemplifies the kind of aid Peace Action West has been pushing the government to support—Afghan-led, community-based, sustainable projects that are driven and carried out by the people who need them.
Dr. Zaher Wahab, an Afghan-American professor and friend of Peace Action West, just sent a dispatch from Afghanistan that highlights how the work he’s involved in there is helping Afghans transform their country for the better:
But, here and there, there are signs of hope. For the last five years, I have been teaching in a master’s degree faculty development program designed to upgrade the knowledge, pedagogic skills, and professional dispositions of teacher education instructors from Afghanistan’s 18 four –year teacher training colleges. The program is funded by the US Agency for International Development, and implemented by the University of Massachusetts. The program is competitive and selective, and it maintains fairly high academic-professional standards. Each cohort consists of 11 men and 11 women, ages 24-43, representing the diversity in the country. We have graduated two cohorts thus far, and are currently working with two groups .Naturally, people come from different backgrounds, having amazing, diverse and/or tragic histories. Some have never been to the capital Kabul. Most have not touched a computer, and have never been on a plane. Some encounter academic difficulties. Many of the women have never sat next to a strange man, or spoken to one. Travel throught the country is fraught with danger. All are caught in Afghanistan’s endless civil, ethnic, sectarian, urban-rural, and/or imperialist wars and turmoil. Several have been touched by the country’s 35-year turmoil directly. All have been traumatized in one way or other. Most have families who must survive on $300.0 per month. Group members initially harbor fear, anxiety, uncertainty, suspicion, rivalries and distrust about each other. They feel overwhelmed, hopeless and angry about the condition of their wretched country.
But I have been amazed at the personal-professional progress, change and even transformation, among the participants. By the end of the four–semester program, they cooperate, help, respect, trust, like, and seek each other in academic-professional-personal matters. They overcome their fear, stereotypes, prejudices, distrust, sectarianism and identity politics. They begin to coalesce as a professional group and as one people, and talk about the country, the nation and their common humanity. Hardly anyone is ever late or absent; they do not take breaks; and they never whine about the academic rigor or the heavy work-load.They work very hard. By the end of the program, they develop excellent academic-intellectual skills. And they develop professional identities, and a sense of the teaching profession and its educational, sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and ethical role and responsibility toward their students and the ravaged country. They are angry and impatient at the catastrophic conditions of the war-torn country, and they are determined to struggle for change, starting with education and the teaching profession. Group three has started to organize a professional network of all the program participants and graduates, with the intent of establishing an association in the future. The fourth group just developed the following code of conduct for all teachers and professors in Afghanistan. These men and women are energized, motivated, inspired, empowered, and committed to work for educational-social change. The network idea and this code of ethics are a start. The total cost of putting one cohort through the program is probably one million dollars, equal to keeping one American soldier for a year in Afghanistan. Think about it!
The cost of aid and development in Afghanistan is miniscule compared to the massive military presence, especially when funding is directed to this kind of effective program and not squandered on contractors or unsustainable projects carried out by the military. As the White House debates the upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan, they must also make sure that the nonmilitary strategy becomes stronger and more sustainable.