26 July 2012

What does Aid's Failure in Afghanistan Teach Us?

The front page of Politico features an article, Afghanistan: Example of How Not to Give Aid, that heavily features opinions and information from Human Rights Watch concerning the lack of human rights gains in Afghanistan.
Ten years after the first Western human-rights workers arrived, “honor killings happen on a day-to-day basis,” Ahmad asserted. “It’s gruesome. It’s really, really bad.” As for those Western workers, “I’m not sure the U.S. or Western footprint can help that at all. It’s not going away.” Ahmad is now with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington. 
The world has spent $55 billion in nonmilitary aid on Afghanistan since 2002. More than half came from the U.S. It’s impossible to know exactly what percentage was dedicated to human-rights work because so much of it is for cross-purposes. Is building schools for girls who had none before human-rights work? 
In any case, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said in his most recent quarterly report that, when security for aid workers is figured in, the total nonmilitary funds Washington has appropriated since 2002 “is approximately $100 billion.”
What has all that spending accomplished? “The short answer is not much,” said Masood Farivar, a senior Afghan journalist. “Undoubtedly some of the work” carried out by Western agencies “has had a positive impact on people’s lives. But this has been the exception, not the rule.”
The article posits that the money spent in Afghanistan coupled with the lack of human rights improvements means that aid has failed. That may be a fair assessment, but that is not new news. The question is why aid has failed in Afghanistan.

Author Joel Brinkley delves into that very question towards the end of the article.
There’s no single reason for these manifest human-rights abuses. Islam is often the excuse for abusing women. But Islam strictly forbids homosexuality. 
Eikenberry and others place part of the blame on the foundations of the modern state, settled during the Bonn Conference in 2002, when Afghan leaders, along with American and other Western leaders, settled on the country’s post-Taliban form of government. 
“The state that was constructed in 2002 wasn’t in accord with realities on the ground,” Eikenberry said. The participants settled on a unitary national government, even though “Afghanistan has never had a strong unitary state. That was an error of the international community and an error of the Afghans.” 
Even now, 10 years later, Hoge said, “the government remains all but invisible in much of the countryside.” The provincial and local governments the West has tried to strengthen, he added, “have not responded very well. There’s a government vacuum.” 
So who’s to keep Afghan men from abusing women and children, sabotaging justice initiatives and committing other atrocities? Human-rights workers? 
“Locals see foreign NGOs and human-rights organizations” with suspicion, Farivar said. “They view them as another arm of the American-led occupation pursuing their own vested interests.”
The structure of Afghanistan's government gets a mention, as always, but there is little examination into the way that US aid is being spent, distributed and employed in Afganistan. That matters significantly as part of the effort is being carried out by a non-traditional aid actor, the US Military. Furthermore, the US has relied heavily upon contractors to carry out both military and aid duties in the country.

NGOs do work in country to make it what can appear to be a confusing mix of aid players with different goals, experiences and incentives. It is no wonder that some locals may believe foreign NGOs to be connected with the United States.

There is little doubt many aspects of aid have failed in Afghanistan. To what extent was success possible when the US invaded and toppled the Taliban a decade ago? It appears that the deck was stacked against aid ever really succeeding. A more interesting article would examine what took place to lay the foundation for Afghanistan as it is today and then try to understand to what extent aid could have helped to move the needle forward. From there an honest assessment of where aid in Afghanistan failed can be carried out.