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Afghanistan: How To Spend Wisely

by Anne CarlinNew York Times
January 26th, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan - Washington has announced that it is accelerating the disbursement of $1.6 billion in new assistance to Afghanistan in an effort to produce visible improvements in stability and governance by early summer.


The seemingly laudable plan is part of the Bush administration's rush to show measurable progress in Afghanistan by number of schools and clinics built, miles of road paved and tons of wheat seed distributed. But in terms of sustainable development, such numbers are far less meaningful than one might think.


Just about everyone wants progress in Afghanistan, a country that ranks near the bottom of every indicator on the United Nations Human Development Index. But rather than spend hundreds of millions of dollars on hastily constructed schools that may collapse in earthquakes or on roads with temporary surfaces that will crack under the weight of heavy trucks, the United States should use the money for better long-term development programs.


There are plenty of good candidates. For example, the government's National Solidarity Program is providing block grants for community programs allowing nearly 8,000 towns and villages to identify their most pressing needs and put in place projects that take care of them. This work complements other government programs around the nation on education and health.


In recent interviews, a wide range of Afghans and aid workers told me that they worry most about two critical deficiencies that are hard to quantify on a quarterly report: a lack of security and a lack of local capacity to carry out development programs. The shortage of teachers, doctors, accountants and engineers outweighs the lack of schools, clinics and computers, because without the specialists, the institutions are worthless.


The important point is that Afghans should be given the opportunity to carry out the programs they find vital, even if it takes a little longer than Washington wants.


Critics may say that giving the Afghans all that money is courting disaster. But the government here has shown in recent months that it is worthy of trust. While international advisors provided much needed transitional assistance, the recently concluded constitutional loya jirga showed that Afghans are capable of dealing with critical issues concerning governance and their future. The process took longer than it might have if the United States had used a heavier hand, but in the end the participants produced a solid document, in their own terms, with lasting legitimacy.


In addition, President Hamid Karzai has shown that he understands the necessary pace for progress in the country, where moving too quickly could set off a rebellion by local warlords. Mr. Karzai's slow expansion of central authority has allowed him to replace recalcitrant governors and gain the agreement of other regional leaders for his policies.


However, the government in Kabul has too little real control. Large donors and lenders like the United States Agency for International Development, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank have returned to Afghanistan, but they are focusing on quantifiable results and relying on expensive international consulting firms for progress reports.


These consulting companies have a great deal of control over the country's purse strings; they also rewrite major government policies and give the aid agencies the numbers they need for annual reports. But many of these activities limit the ability of Afghans to establish the corps of experts and specialists so desperately needed. A handful of international consultants working side by side with Afghans to forge new policies is reasonable, but the consultants shouldn't be the architects of new programs, especially before an elected government is in place.


It is worth remembering that some of the best leaders in Afghanistan are returned exiles, many of whom spent years working for Afghan relief and development from Pakistan. They have an administrative style that is new to Afghanistan a combination of Afghan and Western thinking. They may be the key to long-term progress.


The international community, especially the United States, should realize that progress in Afghanistan should be measured in the number of successful homegrown projects that assistance makes possible, not in the mileage of roads built or the amount of aid dollars spent.


*Anne Carlin is the Afghanistan project coordinator for the Bank Information Center, a nonprofit group that promotes accountability and transparency at the World Bank and other development banks.



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