Friday 26 October 2012

The pitfalls of development aid in Afghanistan

The publication yesterday of a Parliamentary report on British aid to Afghanistan - mostly ignored by the national press in Britain - paints a picture of failure on an almost operatic scale.
Despite acknowledged improvements to education (five million kids in school, compared to one million in 2001) and falls in child mortality, much of the aid effort is wasted, stolen or simply inappropriate. 

Donors have given around $30bn (£19bn) in development and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan since 2001, with the total rising each year. Afghanistan is now the world's largest recipient of official development assistance; 71% of its gross domestic product is funded by foreign aid. (Military aid over the same period, at $243bn, dwarfs humanitarian and development programmes). The UK is Afghanistan's third biggest donor, behind the US and EU institutions, having committed £178m annually up to 2014-15 and having increased spending in 2010 by 40%.
However, the size of the problems is enormous: an estimated nine million Afghans (nearly a third of the population) live in poverty. Child malnutrition is among the highest in the world; more than half of Afghan children (54%) are chronically malnourished (stunted), over a third (34%) are underweight and 72% of children under five suffer from key micronutrient deficiencies. One-third of the Afghan population cannot meet its daily caloric requirements and is considered chronically food insecure.
The report from the House of Commons International Development Committee notes that almost all the aid bypasses the Afghan government, which limits its ability to build public services and strengthen governance systems. Nor can it accurately track aid expenditure. The Afghan government itself can hardly absorb even the small percentage of aid donations it actually gets to spend. Aid does not get to the provinces and there are substantial problems of corruption and lack of project management skills.
BBC journalist David Loyn told the committee of the "aid juggernaut in Afghanistan, which has corrupted the elite of the country, corrupted people in the countryside and made it far harder for any of the effective international actors, such as DFID, to operate well within the country."
Donors seem to be unable to coordinate their efforts, although the UK's DFID is seen as better than others. And they all appear to have different strategies and objectives. One witness told the committee how lack of coordination was creating more conflict and confusion at a local level than it was solving.
Britain's aim, says the committee, should be to focus less on creating a viable state in Afghanistan and instead work at a local level to deliver "measurable benefits" to people. There should be a greater emphasis on providing services and alleviating poverty. And although DFID has spoken at length about women's rights in Afghanistan, the committee says it is concerned that this has not been followed by adequate action and funding. It recommends that girls' education be made a greater priority and that DFID fund women's shelters and legal advice for women. 

Incidentally, despite the importance of this subject, comparatively few aid organisations appear to have given evidence. Here's a list of witnesses who either spoke or submitted written evidence: 
Christian Aid, Amnesty International,Save the Children, Global Witness, Lael A. Mohib, ActionAid, Human Rights Watch, Met Office, British & Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group, International Rescue Committee, Shapur Amini (Afghan Academy International UK), Abdul Ehsan Mohmand, Oxfam, Naysan Adlparva, Adam Smith International, Afghan Council UK, Parliamentary Outreach,  David Loyn, (BBC Afghanistan and Development Correspondent), Mervyn Lee (Mercy Corps), David Haines, Howard Mollett (CARE International UK), Department for International Development (DFID), David Page (Chair of Trustees, Afghanaid), Professor Stuart Gordon (London School of Economics), Gerard Russell, (Afghanistan Analyst), Orzala Ashraf (Independent Civil Society Activist), Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, (Secretary of State for International Development), Rory Stewart MP. 

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