Dead Aid for Afghanistan?

In her book Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo argues that aid to Africa should end. It creates dependency, she argues, and stifles free enterprise: "more grants mean more graft." I hope that at least some of those gathering in London tomorrow will have read this book, and its message that "unfettered money…is exceptionally corrosive." Is ‘unfettered’ an ...

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

In her book Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo argues that aid to Africa should end. It creates dependency, she argues, and stifles free enterprise: "more grants mean more graft." I hope that at least some of those gathering in London tomorrow will have read this book, and its message that "unfettered money...is exceptionally corrosive."

In her book Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo argues that aid to Africa should end. It creates dependency, she argues, and stifles free enterprise: "more grants mean more graft." I hope that at least some of those gathering in London tomorrow will have read this book, and its message that "unfettered money…is exceptionally corrosive."

Is ‘unfettered’ an unfair description? After all, at the last London conference on Afghanistan, back in 2006, the Afghan government signed up to a set of commitments in return for donor funding. The trouble is, almost none of them have been realized. "A clear and transparent national appointments mechanism will be fully implemented within 24 months… by end-2010 a fully constituted, professional, functional and ethnically balanced Afghan National Police… the Afghanistan Independent Electoral Commission will have high integrity, capacity and resources… A permanent civil and voter registry by end-2009…"

Not all these achievements were really in the gift of the Afghan government — but to read about one that was, which is the commitment to implement the U.N. Convention against Corruption, here is the latest U.N. report showing that a quarter of Afghanistan’s GDP is paid out in bribes every year: "Drugs and bribes… amount to about half the country’s (licit) GDP." Half the Afghans surveyed said that they had paid a bribe in the past year to a government official.

Why, then, do donors continue to fund that government’s programs? To be fair, the U.S. and other donors appear to be trying to find ways to work from the bottom-up and circumvent the national government. But when the Afghan government is ultimately the necessary partner for peace and development, it can’t be circumvented completely. As Moyo says, "The aid relationship tips in favor of the corrupt government almost to the absurd point where the donor has a greater need for giving the aid than the recipient has for taking it."

Karzai’s advisers think this tipping-point has been reached — that the U.S. needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the U.S. Such at least is the impression given by the cables of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who in November expressed his "deeper concern about dependency" and noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai "shuns responsibility for any sovereign burden,": Eikenberry added that both Karzai and his advisers hope and assume that the U.S. will continue to shoulder those sovereign burdens, in furtherance of its own long-term objectives.

Moyo argues (in reference to Africa) that foreign aid undermines society, encourages rentier behavior, siphons off talent, reduces pressure for reform, and undermines democracy. Does this sound familiar, Afghanistan-watchers? 

There is no point, of course, in another exercise in hand-wringing at the fecklessness and corruption of the Afghan government. Afghan government officials must be immune to criticism in the U.S. press by now, though the fault is not only on their side. The whole nature of the dialogue between Afghanistan and its Western donors is hopelessly jumbled. Like the HSBC advertisements that show an image and the opposite messages given to that image by different cultures, so our aid effort says to the West "altruism" and to the Afghans "national interests, deviously pursued." Eikenberry illustrates this himself, when he suggests that Karzai’s circle "assume we covet their territory… for military bases." It is in that light that state-provided aid is bound to be seen, by many Afghans, after so many years of neglect pre-2001.

Consequently the fact that over half of Afghanistan’s licit economy is supplied by foreigners (footnote 4 of this NGO report) — and that the military strategy in the country often appears to be wholly run by foreigners — is one that should urgently be corrected. If economic dependence on foreign donors is corrosive, how much more so is dependence on foreign forces for the security of one’s own country?

That dependence cannot be ended overnight. But President Karzai’s circle is wrong to suppose that it can continue forever. It is far better, for Afghanistan’s long-term future, that they learn this sooner rather than later.

Two steps can be taken now to show Afghans and the Afghan government that the West is serious about encouraging Afghan self-sufficiency. First, alongside the new Western faces that will emerge as somehow coordinating efforts in Afghanistan — a U.N. Special Representative, an E.U. Special Representative, a NATO Special Representative — there should be at least one new Afghan face. In 2005, Iraqi generals began addressing journalists at press conferences on security — instead of U.S. generals. It was an initiative launched by the otherwise wholly Iraqi team at their Prime Minister’s office, in which I was working at the time. We should now, likewise, have an Afghan face to the Afghan security and civilian strategies.

Second, even though Afghanistan’s resources are thin even by African standards, it could benefit from some of Moyo’s prescriptions (encouragement of micro-credit, and facilitating remittances from Afghans abroad). It could certainly benefit from a clearer road-map of how and how quickly Afghan self-sufficiency can be built, not least in preparation for a U.S. troop drawdown starting in 2011.

The new NATO civilian chief in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, should therefore examine not only how aid and military assistance to Afghanistan can be coordinated more effectively, but also how its purpose can be communicated more effectively to Afghans; how it can become more responsive to the wishes of Afghan communities; and how and in what time-frame Afghanistan can be weaned off it. For in the end, Afghanistan — with all its problems and its opportunities — must be for the Afghans.

Gerard Russell is a former British and U.N. diplomat, and is now a Fellow of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He publishes a blog at www.gerardrussell.com.

<p> Gerard Russell is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the New America Foundation. His book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, a portrait of the disappearing religions of the Middle East, will be published by Basic Books in November 2014. </p>

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