Post-NATO Afghans need global support

By Ashley Jackson Source:Global Times Published: 2013-6-19 0:18:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

It's difficult to make any concrete predictions about what will happen in Afghanistan after the NATO troop withdrawal in 2014. What we can definitely expect is a steep decrease in foreign aid to the war-torn country.

If Afghanistan is to cope with these funding cuts, amid widespread corruption and entrenched aid dependency, the international community must ensure the hard-won gains for the Afghan people do not disappear as the aid and troops do.

Few can deny there has been progress in Afghanistan over the past decade. The country has seen economic growth and improvements in access to services. 6.2 million children are now in school and infant mortality has decreased by 30 percent. Many of these gains, however, have been delivered through an expansive amount of international aid.

Aid dependency is not a unique challenge, but few other countries have relied so heavily on aid funding. Afghanistan has an aid to GDP ratio of 71 percent, one of the highest dependency ratios in the world.

Reliance is not the sole problem and the government is not entirely to blame. Aid in Afghanistan has been largely driven by the political priorities of donors rather than Afghan needs and oversight has been poor.

Foreign aid has also increased corruption and waste and at times exacerbated local grievances and tensions. 

Worryingly, according to the International Monetary Fund, the Afghan government is unlikely to be able to cover less than half of the government's non-security spending this year because of widespread tax evasion and diversion of customs revenues.

Moreover, not all aid has remained in Afghanistan. One study estimated that 40 percent of aid had returned to donor countries in the form of corporate profits and consultant salaries.

The donor community must realize a massive cut in aid budgets is far from the answer.

Like it or not, the Afghan government's reliance on aid means a drastic decline could lead to political instability as other players wait in the wings, poised to seek control.

It has happened before. The late president Mohammad Najibullah rose into power following the Soviet invasion, but was left adrift without foreign aid or much support after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Unsurprisingly, he was ousted soon after and the country declined into civil war and chaos.

As it stands, a decline in foreign aid is looming over Afghanistan. Few aid pledges stretch beyond 2016, and donors such as the United States Agency for International Development have already decreased funding for Afghanistan-based programs.

A decline in foreign aid could also mean severe cuts in funding for much-needed aid programs and public services. While some aid projects have not been particularly well thought out, culturally appropriate or entirely effective, most notably those carried out under the umbrella of stabilization, many others have provided essential and basic services to the Afghan people in areas of peace and conflict.

In order to keep a hold on the hard-won gains of the past decade, the international community and Afghan leadership must focus on what works.

Funding should be directed to aid programs that are effective. We know that many programs that focus on basic service provision, delivering the essentials for people to survive, are improving the lives of Afghans. Basic healthcare and education have already made an incredible difference.

Instead of undermining local capacity and governance structure, aid programs should help bolster them. The National Solidarity Program provides communities with block grants to allow them to dedicate it to what is needed in their communities, such as improving access to markets, building schools, or providing electricity through hydropower energy projects.

Not only is this shown to be effective, but it also helps improve local governance in a country blighted by corruption and patronage at a national level.

Before foreign aid donors make their budgetary decisions about aid to Afghanistan, they should reflect on the needs of the people in Afghanistan. Perhaps aid will, and must, decrease for the benefit of Afghan governance and donors' recession-hit budgets. But these political decisions cannot, and should not, take place without recognition of the impact they will have on the Afghan people.

The author is a research fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Before joining ODI she worked for several years in Afghanistan with the UN and Oxfam. She can be followed on Twitter @a_a_jackson.

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