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Paris Conference: Aid Effectiveness Key to Addressing Afghanistan's Rebuilding Challenges

The Paris donors' conference that opened June 12 provides a pivotal opportunity to correct past mistakes in Afghanistan's reconstruction effort. Already, Afghanistan's supporters have pledged additional billions in development assistance. But to ensure that the aid is deployed successfully, a greater level of strategic coordination is needed.

Calling the Paris conference "a decisive moment" for Afghanistan's future, US First Lady Laura Bush opened the conference with an announcement that Washington was pledging $10.2 billion in aid. Overall, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration is hoping the Paris conference can generate as much as $50 billion in new assistance. Karzai also wants foreign governments and international aid organizations to work more closely with the Afghan government. "The current development process that is marred by confusion and parallel structures undermines institution building," Karzai said in Paris.

As Karzai indicated, money is not the only issue. Diligence is also a big part the formula for the success of Afghanistan's reconstruction. Observers of Afghanistan are certain to recall that, from the beginning, the international community re-engaged in the country with a very light footprint. Back in 2001, during the initial planning stages for the war in Afghanistan, coalition member states agreed that a sound strategy had to include and combine combat operations, humanitarian relief, and stability and reconstruction efforts.

In the years since the Taliban was driven from Kabul, coalition members have neither fully committed to the reconstruction task, nor have they ensured that there is a match between ends and means. As former US Special Envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins notes, "mismatches between inputs, as measured in personnel and money, and desired outcomes, as measured in imposed social transformation, are the most common cause for failure of nation-building efforts." This is exactly the direction Afghanistan is heading towards at the moment because too few troops and resources were committed to the country early on.

According to a recent report by Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), for example, Afghanistan received just $57 per capita in foreign assistance, whilst Bosnia and East Timor received $679 and $233 per capita respectively, in the two years following international intervention. Per capita security assistance to Afghanistan remains woefully low with 1.5 foreign troops per 1,000 people compared to 7 per 1,000 in Iraq and 19 per 1,000 in Bosnia.

When it comes to international aid, the numbers can be deceptive. Donors have tended to bypass the Afghan government and funnel assistance to foreign non-profit and private-sector institutions. As a result, an estimated 40 percent of aid has gone back to donor countries in the form of corporate profits and consultant salaries. Overall, some $6 billion has been spent in this way since 2001, according to ACBAR. It should be noted that each full-time expatriate consultant costs $250,000-$500,000 per year.

It is clear that the invasion and occupation of Iraq shortchanged Afghanistan's rebuilding priorities, robbing the new Afghan government of much needed resources. At the same time, the paucity of troops and resources have proven useful for the potential peace spoilers, i.e. the Taliban who have intensified their cross-border terrorist attacks, and who now control parts of the country's territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Almost seven years since the fall of the Taliban, no clear institutional framework for Afghanistan's nation building and reconstruction has emerged. Despite broad international consensus and goodwill for the rebuilding of Afghanistan from the start, the United Nations remained a weak player in Afghanistan until the recent appointment of a high profile special envoy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. This is despite the fact that the United Nations provides the most suitable institutional framework for most nation-building measures, one with a comparatively low cost structure, a comparatively high success rate, and the greatest degree of international legitimacy. While the UN has played major operational roles in the more recent post-conflict countries including Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor, the role of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan remains one of political consulting and promoting human rights.

In the beginning, the UN was deliberately denied an operational role in Afghanistan, perhaps, due to fears that donor fatigue would soon kick in, resulting in undelivered pledges of assistance to Afghanistan. Hence, a lead-nation strategy was adopted, whereby major resourceful countries assumed responsibility for the reform and building of Afghanistan's key state institutions. The lead-nation strategy assigned the United States to reform and build the Afghan National Army (ANA); Germany – the Afghan National Police (ANP); Japan to disarm, demobilize, and fully reintegrate (DDR) former combatants; Britain to fight and eliminate narcotics; and Italy to reform and build the judicial system.

Except for substantive progress in the reform and building of ANA, the other sectors saw nominal or no progress. The lead nations neither established a collaborative mechanism to ensure strategic coordination across their assigned tasks, nor did they bring enough resources to bear on implementing the reforms effectively. In the end, the lead-nation strategy was discontinued, as the designated countries reconsidered their roles as lead-partners – reasoning that only Afghanistan should be the lead-nation with them as its major implementing partners.

A bevy of actors with overlapping mandates, competitive relations, and minimal accountability for performance, have characterized international presence in Afghanistan. The divergent and diffuse efforts of donors have created diverse opportunities for peace spoilers including the Taliban, drug traffickers, and criminals to undermine and derail the nation-building process in Afghanistan. Efforts to enhance structures for strategic coordination on the ground, both within the UN and beyond, have been frustrated by the sheer numbers of actors involved, the limited extent to which these actors accept the coordination authority and the absence of policy coordination structures at the headquarters level.

More than 70 countries, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations are present in Afghanistan. Yet, they have consistently worked outside of the Afghan government. For example, of all technical assistance to Afghanistan, which accounts for a quarter of all aid to the country, only one-tenth is coordinated among donors or with the government. Nor is there sufficient collaboration on project work, which inevitably leads to duplication of effort. This has seriously undermined the Afghan government's ability to build its capacity for effective governance and implementation of the rule of law.

The ultimate aim for both international donors and the Karzai administration is for Afghan authorities to take over ownership of the reconstruction effort. But the lack of international attention to the rebuilding effort from 2001 through 2004 had a detrimental effect on efforts to build the capacity of the Afghan government. More specifically, it enabled corrupt practices to become deeply entrenched. In addition, the scarcity of financial resources hampered the government's ability to compete with the private sector for services of the best minds in Afghanistan. Many of the government's most skilled workers have departed to take higher paying jobs with international organizations. The resulting weak institutional capacity coupled with underpayment, in turn, fuels corruption, which damages the government's image in the eyes of Afghans.

It is self-evident that the Paris conference should be more than just about throwing money at Afghanistan's problems. Donors must learn the lessons of the reconstruction effort to date, and make adjustments. Assistance needs to be better coordinated, and more needs to be done to build the capacity of Afghans so that they can take responsibility for their own futures.

Once neglected before, Afghans do not want their country to return to the chaos and violence of 1990s that made Afghanistan a no man's land, a terrorist base for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. As we learned from the 9/11 tragedy and the suffering of the Afghan people throughout the 1990s, a failed Afghanistan is not an option for international peace and security. Success must be the only way forward.

M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is: haidari@embassyofafghanistan.org

Paris Conference: Aid Effectiveness Key to Addressing Afghanistan's Rebuilding Challenges

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