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 An Ariana Media Publication 11/01/2014
 Afghanistan will thrive if only we let it

The Spectator
02/15/2009
By Clare Lockhart

Clare Lockhart, who has advised both the UN and the Afghan government, says that the international aid community needs to trust the Afghan people

Increasingly the media reports Afghanistan as a disaster story. Casualty lists from Helmand and other provinces sit side by side with accounts of millions of pounds’ worth of aid wasted and booming opium crops. No wonder then that politicians and journalists have begun to debate the wisdom of remaining committed to Afghanistan. In turn, the Afghan population has begun to doubt the commitment of its international partners.

But the accepted story is never the whole story, and that is especially true of Afghanistan. The real truth about the country is that despite the many missteps, there is good cause for hope, and reason to believe that the country can pull itself out of its current chaos. The story of hope — the one the newspapers currently ignore — is that, faced with the monumental tasks of stabilising their country and creating better lives and livelihoods for their families, Afghans managed to create a path to peace after 9/11. Between 2001 and 2005, the country climbed up the Transparency International Index, not a suicide bomb went off, and by January 2005 most international partners declared the task of stabilising Afghanistan done. These successes derived not from the international aid system but Afghans.

Afghan leaders committed themselves to public services and designed a series of ‘national programmes’ to alter the country’s fate. Their approach turned the traditional development paradigm on its head. Instead of the money going through layers and layers of contracts, with foreign personnel managing each step of the process, the money went directly to villages. This created a functioning network of support that reached across tens of thousands of communities and millions of people across the countryside, delivering tangible support, both in stabilising their environment and creating a foundation upon which they could build. These Afghan schemes remain the chief source of hope for the future.

The ‘National Solidarity Programme’ is the most notable of these initiatives. Back in late 2001, at the request of the Afghan government, the then President of the World Bank, Jim Wolfensohn, put $100 million and an American anthropologist, Scott Guggenheim, at the disposal of the Afghan government, to help design a programme that would enable citizens to transform their lives. While the UN agencies were focused on preparing hundreds of small projects that expats would implement, Scott and the Afghan government focused on establishing a system for empowering Afghan citizens to take charge of the reconstruction process. The result was an idea that has transformed great swathes of the country. The National Solidarity Programme is in essence a social mechanism that enables the people and the government to synchronise their needs, roles and capabilities and deliver the appropriate aid when, where and how it is most needed by the people.

The rules of the programme are very simple. Money is pooled centrally in a trust fund, and then a block grant of between $20,000 and $60,000 is allocated to every village across the countryside, in a formula that reflects the population of each village. To access the funds, villagers must stick to three rules: have a village council, known as a Community Development Council or ‘CDC’, have a quorum of the village to determine their projects, and put accounts of expenditure up in a public place. The villagers decide how to select their village council, and in most cases choose to have a secret ballot election, as this is seen as the fairest way to put in place a leadership, but this is their choice. Men and women must either work together, or if they wish, they can have councils that meet separately. These regulations allow the village to stick to traditional mechanisms of governance, but still be part of a national system. This solves a fundamental paradox of development: how to render assistance in such a way that the people themselves take ownership of what is constructed, and see it as legitimising the government (and their international partners), without feeling as if they are being imposed upon.

As with any new idea, there have been teething problems but, due to the direct engagement of the people as stakeholders, these are localised, quickly identified and swift resolution is generally the norm. Success is indisputable: in building a new style of bottom-up governance the project has served to emancipate the people. As one villager told me, ‘It is not the money that is important, although that is helpful, but the fact that we are trusted to make our own decisions.’

The programme is now active in 22,000 villages. More than 20,000 projects have already been implemented, ranging from digging wells for clean drinking water and building flood walls to installing solar panels or micro-hydro systems to power houses, schools and clinics, from setting up literacy classes to restoring bridges and feeder roads. Village committees have spontaneously convened to pool resources and collaborate: 37 of them co-operated to construct a maternity hospital and more than 180 to build an irrigation system. Rob Zoellick, president of the World Bank, and Senator Carl Levin, chair of the Armed Services Senate Committee have both visited the programme recently. Zoellick called it ‘a diamond’. Senator Levin said, at an Armed Services Committee hearing: ‘I visited a village near Bagram, Afghanistan, where three local community development councils, or CDCs, from three villages had pooled funds provided through the Afghanistan National Solidarity Programme to build a school for their children. The polished new primary school was a magnificent site — a very, very modest structure though it was. The elders that I met were proud to have given their sons and daughters a place to learn and an opportunity for a better life. And they told me that the extremists wouldn’t dare attack this school because the people of the communities would fight to the death to defend it.’ This sense of empowerment and trust is written on the faces of men and women who had previously only known government to be repressive and dysfunctional.

In November 2007, 480 representatives drawn from villages across the countryside convened under the Loya Jirga tent in Kabul to discuss the future of the programme. They said that the CDCs should be the main unit of reconstruction and development, demonstrating how right it was and is to trust the people to know what’s best for them. The representatives wanted explicit legal recognition for their councils to allow them to take on more responsibilities. They wanted clarity on exactly what services at which standards they could expect Afghanistan’s line ministries (health, education, agriculture, public works, energy and so on) to provide for them. And they wanted a much better understanding of how the resources of the country were being allocated to serve their needs. They knew how to run their villages — with ‘micro-democracy’, participation in decision-making, and clear transparency and accountability in use of resources — and expected the same practices from their government. It will be hard, given the state of things, to meet their demands, but the fact they are asking is half the battle. The programme has manifested that the Afghans desire stability, predictability, and the resources to plan and manage their own future more than anything else.

It is ironic that when the programme was first proposed, many NGO representatives threw up their hands in horror and said, ‘But villagers couldn’t possibly make their own decisions.’ Having seen the results, however, the same representatives two years later retracted their words and said they were now convinced that wisdom really does reside in the people.

The National Solidarity Programme is not a panacea; it is not the magic bullet that can solve all of Afghanistan’s problems. But it was never supposed to be such. It was designed as part of a set of national programmes, each intended to deliver a particular benefit to Afghanistan’s citizens, but also to work together harmoniously, sewing a better tapestry of life. A national health programme ensured a basic standard of health care contracted to cover the country on an even-handed basis; a national transportation programme planned a ring road with spokes that would connect Afghans to each other and their neighbours. A national telecoms programme laid the basis for the distribution of nearly five million mobile phones and proved that transparent licensing is not rocket-science nor the privilege of OECD countries. The Afghan National Army programme was designed to create an institution that would mix citizens from different parts of the country in the same units, to undercut tendencies of different ethnic groups toward separatism.

So if the National Solidarity Programme and related programmes are so effective, why is Afghans’ trust in their future faltering? One crucial part of the answer lies in a decision in 2005 to abandon the national programmes and start a new planning process that sadly got mired in paralysis. The result was a fundamental reversion to the traditional deployment of aid by many donors. The UK’s DFID was an exception: it was not only an early supporter of the National Solidarity Programme but continues to support it, but UK aid only constituted a small part of the fund. In general, rather than finance the fully transparent and audited NSP fund, donors were encouraged to funnel billions into projects run by UN agencies, contractors and NGOs — of whom few if any have yet provided any full accounts for their activities and the results. Rather than invest in state institutions, most of these projects set up parallel organisations that leeched resources from the state.

It is these other types of project and this business-as-usual aid model that have led to the sort of problems that the National Audit Office in the UK, mirroring the Government Accountability Office of the US Congress, reported on recently. What happens in the business-as-usual model is that a UN agency or NGO decides on a project, usually around a desk in a capital city thousands of miles away from the supposed beneficiary. The project is contracted out to foreign consultants or aid officers, who design it, then sub-contract it down a chain up to five or six times. By this time of course, up to 80 or 90 per cent of funds (according to an Atlantic Council report) has most often disappeared in a succession of ‘overheads’. When the project eventually reaches its destination, villagers are told that they must take it or leave it, whatever it is: the well, school or clinic that has been designated for their area. And this is the major problem with non-consultation of the citizenry: what if water-table conditions make a well useless? What if the school or clinic is not in the Education Ministry’s plan? Then there will be no teachers or nurses and supplies, and the schools and clinics will remain shells of buildings. This is exactly what has happened. These installations are the ones that get blown up by the Taleban. Whereas, to date, only one NSP school has been destroyed.

To put Afghanistan back on track, the success of the NSP and its sister programmes needs to be recognised and built upon. The National Solidarity Programme could, for example, become the basis for distribution of renewable energies to up to 60 per cent of villages across Afghanistan, ones that could never be reached by the grid, financed wholly or in part by the carbon credit system. It could also provide a system for distributing micro-credit and other services to reinvigorate agriculture. A new set of programmes is required, to ensure that the considerable assets located in Afghan territory (cement, iron ore, urban and rural land and forests, lapis lazuli, copper, natural gas) are properly licensed, so as to benefit the citizens. Further initiatives are required to put agricultural land to best use and provide infrastructure to market crops.

It is not too late for Afghanistan to regain ground, but it will require a little humility and forbearance from the international aid community: recognising that a 19th-century colonialist view, which relies on local leaders to suppress populations, will not work for an engaged and globally minded Afghan citizenry.

So the international community needs rapidly to agree a common goal on the road ahead: a stable, self-sufficient, country. Barack Obama’s election to the US Presidency provides an opportunity to rethink the approach towards Afghanistan. The solution must include and directly benefit Afghans, in concrete terms. Afghanistan is not a sick patient; it is a country full of proud, capable people, who only need to be given a chance to determine their own future. It is these men and women who can make their own country a success, by stepping up to leadership and management positions rather than being displaced from them. When the military players begin to protect the population, and the international financiers re-examine the reconstruction system so as to empower Afghans, the road to a brighter future will re-emerge.

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