The South Asia Channel

Bridging Afghanistan’s development gap

Bridging Afghanistan’s development gap

Afghan labourers take part in the construction of a bridge at Barikowt, in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province on April 3, 2009.

‘No matter how high the mountain, there is a road to the top’ (Afghan proverb)

In Afghanistan, bridges are important. They link families separated by Afghanistan’s often mountainous terrain, enable farmers to bring crops to market, and allow everyone – from traders to teachers – to move about more securely.

Last month, as Afghanistan’s newly appointed Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, I handed over more than twenty completed projects – including a 460ft bridge and a university community center – to the people of Kapisa province in northeast Afghanistan. The bridge alone will benefit more than 70,000 people.

What relevance does this have for America, especially given longstanding concerns about the reasons for engaging in Afghanistan, the human and financial costs of doing so, and continuing apprehension about plans for transition, and Afghanistan’s future stability and prospects?

Well, despite the regular diet of negative news about Afghanistan as we approach the drawdown of international – primarily American – military forces, I believe significant and sustained developmental progress is being achieved.

You might think, that as a government minister, I would say that. But the evidence is compelling.

My ministry manages five nationwide programs. Last year alone they provided direct technical support and funding to villages and districts in every one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces to help meet community-owned, locally agreed development plans. Rural roads and bridges helped connect two million people; access to clean water and sanitation reached two million more. And we helped almost 60,000 people, a third of them women, launch savings groups that will go on to create small and medium-sized businesses. Our work helps reintegrate former insurgents into communities as productive members of society, supporting stabilization efforts by our civilian and military partners. It is long running and life changing.

The major human development indicators are now moving in the right direction – for example, on the number of children in school, or levels of child and maternal mortality – but after thirty years of conflict Afghanistan has started from very low baselines. There is much more to do.

Afghans are increasingly taking responsibility for security and service provision. Under the third tranche of the Inteqal, or transition process, approximately 75% of the population will have seen security responsibilities pass to Afghan forces. That process is scheduled for completion by the end of 2014 but, as we know, it is not without its risks.

The years from transition to 2025 are already being termed a period of ‘transformation,’ in which Afghanistan moves from heavy dependence on international donors to a state better able to pay its own way in the world, and make its own decisions. Support from the United States and the rest of the international community has been essential to fostering economic growth, social development, and stronger governance, enabling the Afghan government to begin providing support to 38,000 communities in over three hundred districts throughout 34 provinces.

Even in insecure areas, we have devised innovative mechanisms to deliver critically needed assistance, because development can and does address the root causes of conflict. Reducing poverty removes local grievances that can lead to tacit support for violence. Investing in education and training helps Afghanistan’s young men and women find meaningful jobs. For farmers – and four out of five Afghans have a direct involvement with agriculture – promoting alternative, legal ways of generating income, instead of poppy cultivation, reduces insecurity and corruption.

A number of sectoral initiatives – National Priority Programs – are currently being finalized in partnership with international donors. The Tokyo Conference this July will look at those programs, including how they translate into long-term financial support. Discussions will not be easy: a decade more is needed before Afghanistan’s economy can generate a substantial proportion of its own budget needs, and the global economic crisis has changed the donor landscape.

In the run-up to Tokyo, there is much the U.S. can do. I believe the Obama administration and Congress should look at a comprehensive package of support:

  • In the wider context, finalizing the long-term, multi-dimensional strategic partnership, ensuring the U.S.-Afghan relationship will endure well beyond 2014;
  • Bringing rural development funding on-budget, providing greater accountability, oversight and predictability, and increasing the value of aid from U.S. taxpayers;
  • Re-shaping the American development aid program to integrate bottom-up rural development and top-down strategic development, a necessary step to meet Afghanistan’s unique circumstances and needs;
  • Encouraging regional states to join Afghanistan in coordinating cross-border rural development initiatives;
  • Supporting incentives for U.S. firms, including encouraging foreign direct investment in rural economic initiatives such as agri-business.

Now is not a time to cut and run. We know that post-conflict stabilization and development requires decades to complete, but we are a long way from becoming a ‘failed state.’ The real and sustainable progress made so far has been achieved at great human and financial cost: the United States’ continued commitment to our long-term development will be vital in bringing about a secure, stable, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan.

Wais Ahmad Barmak, Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development in the Afghan Government, is currently visiting the United States.