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How an Overabundance of Foreign Aid Is Killing Afghanistan Font Size: 
By Joshua Foust : BIO| 27 Feb 2020
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Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Non-Governmental Organizations have filled in the gaps left by an otherwise absent government—schools, health care, employment, and so on. After the American invasion in 2001, billions of dollars have flowed into the country, funding a massive reconstruction effort. The story of aid in Afghanistan is not all unicorns and sunshine, however. Its very abundance—over $8 billion pledged this year alone—is harming the country's ultimate chances of success.

Overabundance is not a problem traditionally associated with humanitarian missions. Indeed, quite often the opposite is true with programs lacking the funds required by their mandates.

The unfortunate reality in Afghanistan is that, no matter the amount donated, it would be too much. This is because Afghanistan's biggest problem is not poverty, but government.

Before the 2001 invasion, there were no institutions to speak of—no government, no services, no formal economy. There was simply no way to provide basic services, like police or fire fighting or medicine.

Yet even after years of what the IMF calls "building capacity," Kabul cannot manage its resources effectively. Trying to unravel the financial mess, the World Bank in late 2005 drafted a report on Afghanistan's public finances. It contains some sobering statistics: domestic revenues are only 5% of GDP, the fiscal deficit is financed entirely by a foreign aid, the entire operating budget is managed by a trust fund. The government cannot directly channel the reconstruction money, so it delegates to NGOs and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). As a result, it exercises no control, no accountability, and, most ominously, no legitimacy over the reconstruction process.

Normally such a state would be ideal: keeping aid projects outside the corruption associated with a developing country's government should be a good thing. Except in Afghanistan. Here, the separation of aid and government, rather than minimizing corruption and creating legitimacy, is doing the opposite. As a result, the central government is still barely recognized outside Kabul, and corruption is rampant everywhere.

In Afghanistan, the NGOs operate as their own quasi-governments, with private security forces (either foreign or local), rule sets, and disbursement guidelines. While USAID projects are watched over, it is difficult to calculate how smaller NGOs operate. A facile comparison would be between an AIDS clinic in Uganda, which ultimately answers to the government; and a girl's clinic in Uruzgan, which answers to its sponsor. Kabul is cut out of the process, essentially exercising zero control over funds, strategy, or projects.

This is a bit of an oversimplification, as the national government itself performs some of these functions, in a limited context in a limited area. But the result is the same: when a well-meaning NGO moves in for a new project, often with NATO support, the villagers are in effect told the government controls nothing. In other words, keeping aid and government separate keeps the government illegitimate, making it extremely difficult to establish Kabul's relevance in other provinces.

Aid must therefore have some connection to government policy. Because the World Bank runs Kabul's finances, there is already a record-keeping system in place, which would stymie fraud. Most corruption in Afghanistan stems from opium anyway, and not necessarily aid money. Because of that, local governors and officials are loathe to get too involved with the reconstruction teams, as it makes them a target for the drug lords and Taliban. Making all aid projects budgetary line items—turning them local, instead of keeping them foreign—would make the reconstruction more about Afghanistan itself and less about the interests of the donor countries.

President Bush has requested about $8 billion for Afghanistan. This should be used to reinvigorate the Ministry of the Interior so it can properly channel and coordinate reconstruction efforts. The ultimate providers—USAID, its contractors, or private NGOs—don't have to change, but how they're coordinated should. All projects should be coordinated through various local government ministries, essentially turning them into contractors of the national government. This would introduce two improvements: a domestic budget to keep track of how money is spent, and an additional layer of legitimacy for the central government.

In this way, a much clearer message can be sent: the NGOs are there to accomplish goals approved by and in coordination with the government in Kabul—Afghan projects for Afghans. Hamid Karzai's government will be made responsible to its people, in that it will have to answer for whatever happens at the local scale.

The problems of foreign aid are never simple, so it's not easy to do them proper justice in any short format. But the aid flowing into Afghanistan desperately needs to be allocated with much more care, with coordination from the central government instead of the international donors. Building confidence in Afghanistan's government, not the NGOs, is a key to achieving peace in Afghanistan.

Joshua Foust is a writer living in Washington. He contributes to The Registan, a blog focusing on Central Asia.
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