Is Afghanistan the New Africa?
U.S. dollars and a shiny new airport are not signs of success.
Up until a couple years ago, entering the international airport in the West African dictators' paradise of Equatorial Guinea was a matter of splashing across two inches of muddy water standing on the floor of the terminal, a tin-roof wood shack. Airport workers sat in the unlit gloom inside, glowering. Looking out of the hut, travelers could see a modern building rising out of an adjacent clearing, cubist and glassy in the manner of airport terminals everywhere.
Up until a couple years ago, entering the international airport in the West African dictators’ paradise of Equatorial Guinea was a matter of splashing across two inches of muddy water standing on the floor of the terminal, a tin-roof wood shack. Airport workers sat in the unlit gloom inside, glowering. Looking out of the hut, travelers could see a modern building rising out of an adjacent clearing, cubist and glassy in the manner of airport terminals everywhere.
"Is that the new airport?" visitors would ask, picking their way across the puddles on the terminal’s floor. "No, that is the president’s wing," Equatorial Guineans would tell them.
"It’s named after the president?" visitors inquired. "No, it is the president’s," the Equatorial Guineans would say.
In Afghanistan, some have taken improvements of a kind most noticeable to visitors — a renovation that has brought order and marble floors to Kabul’s airport, cell-phone networks where there were none in Taliban times — as signs that things may be looking up for Afghans. Peter Bergen made that case earlier this month in a blog post titled "The Afghan Phoenix." Bergen wrote of "markers of real progress over the past eight years, which in a small but important way is exemplified by the turnaround at Kabul airport.”
It’s an understandable conclusion — particularly because development work in Kabul until recently has offered up so few other big projects. But the lessons of decades of international aid in Africa teach that it’s misleading to think the airport is a real indicator of economic progress.
With a GDP per person of only $700 a year, few Afghans are going to be rolling their suitcases across the marble floors for flights out. Prestige projects, like airport renovations, that bring comfort to Afghanistan’s foreigners and well-off in themselves are signs only that lots of money is flowing in. The misadventures of aid in Africa show that progress is measured in shrewd, targeted projects that improve the fortunes of ordinary people, in ways that can be seen by eye, accounted for in a spreadsheet, and kept out of the hands of the many seeking a cut.
In five years traveling Africa as a reporter, I learned a flashy airport stands among the top five of every misgoverned country’s development must-haves. That held true even in countries otherwise stomped flat to the ground by war and misrule. Other among the dictators’ development delights invariably were a presidential palace; a palm-lined, paved road connecting the palace to the airport; and a cell-phone network. If the local religion allowed, there would be a beer factory. (In cases of rebel reversal of fortunes for a regime, the airport might take a few mortar hits, but fighting to preserve and control the beer factory would be heroic and to the death.)
For the worst autocrats, that was all the development a country needed. The top-fives allowed a leader to meet his fellow African rulers at his (a.k.a., the country’s) airport and impress them on the drive back to the palace. There, the leaders could drink beer and talk about how well things were going. The cell phones were for dialing up Swiss bankers, to wire out whatever foreign aid or payments for national resources came to hand.
Any trickle down to the public was inadvertent. In Equatorial Guinea’s case, the people were left to line the rutted, colonial-era roads, selling roasted bush rat-on-a-stick to passers-by.
The West wasted much of the more than $50 billion in aid it gave Africa in the Cold War. It shoveled money to corrupt rulers like Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang as long as they stayed on the U.S. side. Actual, measurable benefit to Africa’s people came only in recent years when donors stopped throwing cash out by the handful. Instead, dramatic gains have come in projects when donors made themselves and their clients accountable for the results. A mosquito-net program has halved the malaria rate in countries where it’s being carried out. Antiretroviral drugs have raised the number of people receiving HIV treatment from less than 100,000 to 3 million, despite efforts in some African governments to siphon off the medicine for the black market. More closely monitored aid programs have put 34 million more African children in school, and in Uganda’s case, reduced the rate of the donations stolen from the schools from an unworkable 80 percent to a more tolerable 20 percent.
Kabul, meanwhile, now boasts its own high-dollar airport road, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is notorious for its lack of coordination with the Afghan government. At roughly $2 million a mile, the four-lane road is USAID’s most costly road project in Afghanistan. Foreign contractors had to import construction materials and provide "substantial security to stabilize the construction environment,” USAID states, justifying the road’s cost.
The U.S.-led occupiers of Iraq also managed to redo that country’s airport, and the airport road, even though for the most violent years the Baghdad airport felt like the assembly point for wide-eyed plastic ducks at the end of a long shooting gallery. As in Iraq, where the U.S. Embassy’s economic-development officials touted the boom in the country’s concrete industry without mentioning that it stemmed from the rush to put up blast walls against car bombs, the security spending and gush of foreign aid have boosted Afghanistan’s GDP. That, too, is talked of as a sign of improvement.
But without smarter use of development money, it’s a bump in prosperity that will disappear in Afghanistan, and Iraq, as soon as the foreigners do. Billions of dollars in aid have vanished without effect in both countries, thrown away by the hundreds of millions to U.S. contractors, frittered away in programs such as unending trash pickups in Baghdad’s Sadr City paid for by the U.S. military’s commanders’ emergency response program. The trash remains; the commanders have rotated in and out and in; the money spent is gone. The bomb barriers stand to be the physical legacy of the United States’ dismal occupations.
In Afghanistan, aid efforts since the invasion have some success stories. They include improvements in health care for Afghans, especially at the clinic level. But the lack of coordination and focus among aid efforts has hurt. So has the United States’ military-led insistence on pouring aid into the Taliban-saturated south, to the neglect of central and northern regions that could have more easily been made a bulwark for an Afghan government. Agriculture and other crucial sectors have gotten short shrift.
Some people looking at how to make progress in Afghanistan insist "development must spend more money," said Nigel Pont, a former country director for Mercy Corps in Afghanistan and now a fellow for the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. In fact, however, "we must spend less money, and spend it more sensibly," Pont said.
For Africa, Zambian-born economist and former Goldman Sachs banker Dambisa Moyo, author of the best-selling Dead Aid, is leading a call to cut off aid to the Africa, punishing all those still in need there for the cupidity and stupidity of past donors. For Afghanistan, adherents of the "we broke it, we’ll walk away from it" school express their shock, shock, shock at the squandering of development money, and call for Western leaders to wash their hands and consciences of Afghanistan.
Absent smarter handling of all the money while it’s still flowing, we may soon be abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban and other armed factions — no beer factories, but plenty of opium — and leaving Afghans, as it were, by the side of the road, selling rat-on-a-stick.
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