Thursday, November 02, 2006
Through the fog of peace?
Last night I was drinking tea with three journalists from The New York Times, The Times (UK) and Associated Press, respectively. Between the three of them they have years of experience in Afghanistan (as well as Iraq, Chechnya and all the other fun places), but each of them has been out of Afghanistan for some time and had recently arrived back. So I was listening carefully to their assessments of the current situation and their prognosis for the future. The outlook was not cheery; they had been taken aback by the level of disappointment, anger and resentment amongst the population here, apparently a dramatic shift from recent years. They felt that defeat of the Taleban insurgency would require a long term (i.e. 15 year) commitment of thousands of troops. Another day I will write more about the ensuing discussion about military strategies for fighting insurgencies – first I need to find and read a book they were referring to which apparently sets out recommended rules of engagement for such situations. But for now, I was left reflecting on this anger amongst the Afghan population. My question to them was whether this was a general disappointment and anger at lack of progress in making basic improvements in their lives, or whether it was a more specific set of complaints against this Government (are they perceived as corrupt, as selling out Afghan values to the Americans and the other foreigners?). They told me what I’ve heard before many times, people are furious at what they see as the massive waste in the implementation of development assistance. People believe that a lot of aid money disappears through embezzlement and corruption, and they accuse not only the Government and the big contractors, they also accuse NGOs and their implementing partners of this corruption. People also criticize the mutli-layered structure through which much development is delivered. Delivery of development assistance here is complicated. Firstly there is the question of how the money comes into the country. Some money comes (or is supposed to come) to the Government through commitments under the Afghan Compact. The Afghan Compact is the multi-lateral donor agreement with the Government of Afghanistan which provides for the government’s, very modest, operating budget and some even more modest funds for implementing development and infrastructure projects). Other funds come to the Government through bilateral assistance from the big donors. But in some cases donors insist on maintaining management of the implementation of their development assistance, so that USAID directly manages much of the USA’s development assistance in Afghanistan. But neither the Government of Afghanistan nor the big donor government development assistance agencies are actually able to implement all the projects – so the next layer comes into the picture. The GoA, for example, contracts with implementing partners, private companies and NGOs. In some cases the projects are so big (like the National Solidarity Programme) that one large implementing agency is contracted to coordinate implementation through another layer of direct implementing partners. The same is true for the large projects funded and managed by USAID and others. At each layer of this structure you have a mix of organizations. Some are extremely efficient and effective with minimal overhead costs and great track records on delivery, monitoring and evaluation. Others are less efficient, and carry heavy overhead costs which obviously eat into the funds available. One significant factor that affects overheads in development and infrastructure projects here is the cost of security. Again there is a huge variety of approaches taken to security. Some NGOs like ActionAid adopt a strategy of low visibility to protect the security of their staff, beneficiaries and projects. Recently here in the west World Vision has decided to shift to a lower visibility approach after four of their staff were killed in past months. At the other end of the spectrum projects directly implemented by the US Department of State, like the Justice Sector Support Programme, adopt a very different approach with armoured vehicles and armed close protection agents for even the civilian staff (one came to our office with some JSSP team members recently and completely freaked out our staff – his resemblance to Rambo was striking). Construction projects also utilize very different approaches to security, some rely on the Afghan National Police and Army (ANP and ANA) for protection, and others employ expensive private security companies. Consulting firms and private construction companies also employ huge numbers of private security guards for their guesthouses. Most NGOs, on the other hand, employ local guards who are not armed, or rely on the ANA and ANP. The UN has a policy of working with national security forces to provide security for missions such as UNAMA, so we also work with the ANA and the ANP. But with all these different layers, and the expense of security arrangements, you can start to see why people here use the image of a snow ball being passed through many hands to describe the way that development assistance makes its way to communities in Afghanistan. I don’t know how much actual embezzlement or corruption goes on, although I hear constant reports and rumours, but I can see that even without dishonest being involved it is reasonable for Afghan people to feel they are not getting the full benefit of the aid dollar. The debate about implementation of humanitarian aid and development assistance in Afghanistan has many other facets. While citizens complain that private companies cost too much money, the Government continues to sub-contract its large education, health and infrastructure projects because it doesn’t yet have the capacity within its own structures to implement such large scale projects (and don’t governments in other developed and developing countries also sub-contract out major infrastructure projects?). Meanwhile NGOs argue that the involvement of the International Security Assistance Forces in humanitarian aid and development assistance (through the PRTs – Provincial Reconstruction Teams) is blurring the lines between military and humanitarian intervention, confusing the population and increasing the security risk for humanitarian workers (who offer much ‘softer’ targets than the soldiers), some PRTs respond that if there were some NGOs present in the areas in which they operate then they would be more than happy to leave the humanitarian work to them, but since there are not they figure someone has to do something. Of course, the response to this is that the confusion of military and humanitarian action is making it too dangerous for NGOs to return to some of those areas so the cycle is self-perpetuating. The question is whether it could be done better. This is the question that the journalist from The New York Times asked me. He wanted to write a story about the critical role of development in determining success or failure in Afghanistan. After long discussion about the military strategy and the prognosis for its success (it seems these guys think that a definition of what will actually constitute success would be a good start) they wanted to hear from me about the other major strategy – development. He wanted to know what was being researched, written or talked about in development ‘circles’ as offering a better alternative. Are there any models out there that have worked to provide effective development at low cost? I thought about the community-based participatory approaches taken by organizations like ActionAid and the efforts made to build those elements into the National Solidarity Programme here. But I want to hear from my friends who know more about current research on development assistance in post conflict settings (Amanda and Immy, I’m pointing at you in particular). I would argue that alongside what is conventionally thought of as development assistance (building bridges, roads, water and sewerage systems, dams, schools and hospitals, training teachers, midwives and engineers) there is a need to emphasize human rights in any strategy to stabilize this or any other post-conflict country. When I talk about human rights I’m thinking of everything from the traditional sphere of civil and political rights (strengthening the justice system and rule of law) to the need to integrate a human rights approach into all economic and social development projects. It sounds like a mantra, like a rhetorical flourish that I’ve practiced and repeated through years of working in human rights organizations. But whenever I really sit and think about what went wrong with an intervention, or what could have been done differently, I find myself thinking of barriers that constitute barriers to full enjoyment of human rights. Conversely when I try to creatively imagine where the opportunities lie for leveraging meaningful changes with small interventions, I find that I am imagining opportunities that translate into steps towards better realization of human rights. At least I know that I’m working in the right field – the question still remains whether I’ve worked out how best to apply myself to the field. But that seems like a life-long question. So I won’t try to answer it today.