Ailing Aid: Afghanistan
Editor’s note: This is Part II of a two-part seriesfocusing on aid provision in conflict zones. The first installment can be foundhere. Ehsan Entezar’s Afghanistan 101, dryly academic though its language tends to be, is nevertheless anilluminating guide to the Afghanistan today. As a scholar born, raised, and educated in Afghanistanbefore obtaining his doctorate in ...
Editor's note: This is Part II of a two-part seriesfocusing on aid provision in conflict zones. The first installment can be foundhere.
Ehsan Entezar's Afghanistan 101, dryly academic though its language tends to be, is nevertheless anilluminating guide to the Afghanistan today. As a scholar born, raised, and educated in Afghanistanbefore obtaining his doctorate in the UnitedStates, Entezar lends the insight of a native son inilluminating the realities of Afghan culture and society, and by doing so,providing some sharp clues as to the likely efficacy of the aid programs thatare allegedly "building" Afghanistan.
Editor’s note: This is Part II of a two-part seriesfocusing on aid provision in conflict zones. The first installment can be foundhere.
Ehsan Entezar’s Afghanistan 101, dryly academic though its language tends to be, is nevertheless anilluminating guide to the Afghanistan today. As a scholar born, raised, and educated in Afghanistanbefore obtaining his doctorate in the UnitedStates, Entezar lends the insight of a native son inilluminating the realities of Afghan culture and society, and by doing so,providing some sharp clues as to the likely efficacy of the aid programs thatare allegedly "building" Afghanistan.
Entezar provides the following description of the politicalprocess in Afghanistan (thereader should keep in mind that, although this is a virtually perfectdescription of the farcical 2009 Presidential election in Afghanistan,Entezar’s book came out in 2007): "Once in power, a ruler tries to stay inpower using any means at his disposal. No Afghan ruler has given up powerwillingly. A ruler will rig theelectrons, force or bribe people to vote, or use other deceptive means to keepthemselves in power until they are ousted from power by force." It should bestated that past performance does not guarantee future results when it comes toAfghan leadership. Nevertheless,Entezar is clear that when it comes to legitimate power transfer, Afghanistanhas a dismal legacy to overcome: Afghannational leaders are historically either murdered or otherwise forced frompower, andlittle work has been done by the Afghan government or the United States and itsallies to build durable democratic institutions in the country. Once inpower, from the national level on down to regional and even local levels, it isroutine for Afghan officials to obtain power for the purposes ofself-enrichment, as in many developing or poor societies.
In one passage, Entezar looks at work habits and explainsthat Afghans, far more at the mercy their physical environment, lack ofsecurity, and the will of their neighbors than those in other developing ormore developed countries, view life more as a matter of chance than choice (p.64). Consequently,Afghans are focused on the immediate and highly concerned with reducing theuncertainty of life. "Planning,especially long term planning, is virtually non-existent in the workplace. Individual competition is disliked, andcoworkers are described very unfavorably" (p. 67). Also notable is how youngpeople (under the age of 50) are generally not trusted with any decision-makingresponsibility. Thus the notion of asmart and ambitious young "go getter" moving into a position of seniority intoday’s Afghanistanand promoting reform is unlikely. Most frequently, those who attain a positionof power and influence consider themselves above the law.
Rules are only to befollowed by common Afghans without access to wealth or influence. Ethnictensions, compounded by sectarian splits and other divides, have led Entezar toconclude that, "the establishment of a strong central government is no longerviable in Afghanistan….Someform of federalism is necessary." Entezar presents a federal alliance built at aregional level, rather than a strong top-down government from Kabul, as the only way forward with a regionalchance of success. This prescription serendipitously aligns with many of Moyo’ssuggested reforms, which eschew central administration of massive aid programsfor leaner and more efficient market solutions, often starting at local levels. To be clear,nowhere in his book does Entezar assert that many, many Afghans wouldn’t loveto see a functioning central government,simply that, as of the 2007 publicationdate of "Afghanistan 101,"he did not believe a strong central government had a realistic chance ofachieving the stability Afghanistanso desperately needs.
Given this analysis, the belief that the 2009 Presidentialelection would provide some thin patina of legitimacy tothe Karzai government now looks hopelessly naïve, as does the threadbare hopethat the Karzai government will ever meaningfully combat corruption, especiallygiven Karzai’s own real and perceived needs to secure support for hisgovernment amongst an assortment of power-brokers. The willingness of Afghan officials to robthe aid community blind should thus not come as a shock (as the Kabul-basedWorld-Bank official somehow found it), but rather something that foreignaid officials who took the time to investigate the currently prevailing socialnorms and political and economic realities in Afghanistan should haveanticipated. In any place where planningis non-existent and corruption endemic, the notion that aid projects could beplanned and run without of meticulous and unceasing personal scrutiny (whichNGO workers hiding behind their blast-walls in Kabul have been signallyunwilling to provide) becomes a near-absurdity.
It is easy to be depressed after absorbing the gloomierramifications of these three books. Fortunately, Moyo’s" Dead Aid" is not simply another vehicle forpolicy-bashing; it also contains prescriptive market-based solutions forweaning countries out of aid-dependency and putting them on the path tolegitimate growth, even countries racked by corruption and civil war likeAfghanistan.
The first, and hardest step, is turning off the aidtap. Governments that think the aidmoney will continue to flow, regardless of how reprehensible their behavior is,have no incentive to reform. Fornay-sayers who assert that shutting off the aid would mean "health andeducation budgets wouldn’t be met, and countries would falter if the aid didnot flow" Moyo notes wryly that, "Thepoor aren’t getting the money and besides…even under the aid regime,(African) countries are faltering" (pg 55).While she admits an abrupt termination of aid would be disastrous, Moyoprescribes a five-year timeline, with a reduction in aid levels each year, tostart to dry up the swamp of corruption and allow market-based reforms to takehold.
One of the startlingly hopeful facts that Moyo relates isthat even in very poor countries, there are vast savings available to fueleconomic growth. Even if the UnitedStates were to considerably boost foreignaid allocations, it would still take 150 years to transfer to the world’s poornations resources equal to those theyalready have. In corrupt regimes, personal funds are stashed under apillow, while aid dollars looted from international donors are usually either placedin a foreign bank, or spent locally on luxuries. Very little of it is put to productiveeconomic use, with the result being, despite a continuing river of aid pouring in,ongoing economic decay rather than internally-fueled growth. Moyo notes, "The core problem with Africa is not an absence of cash, but rather thatfinancial markets are acutely inefficient-borrowers cannot borrow, and lendersdo not lend, despite billions washing about."
Moyo provides a variety of solutions for unlocking thenative wealth, talent, and energy as surely present in the populace of Afghanistan asany other country. Some, such as"microlending," are already in use and need to be expanded. Others, like"Conditional cash transfers," in which specific people (not governments orlarge groups) are paid a cash bonuses afterthey achieve specific goals (e.g. graduating school), or "securitizingcommodities" (e.g. a bond issue secured by mineral deposits) sound at firstblush too complex and rather too investment-bankerish. But Moyo provides concrete examples of whereeach strategy has worked before, adeptly justifying how the collected reformscan generate growth. Africa is not Afghanistan, but readers are leftwith the distinct impression that, if challenged by the hypothetical assertionthat "Growth cannot take place until the security situation is stabilized",Moyo might the hypothetically reply with something like "Security IS absolutelyvital for long-term economic growth, but waiting for the arrival of top-downsecurity before starting local growth initiatives can only delay improvementsin the security environment."
Economic growth, more than anything else, is the only thingwhich will ultimately "build" the good governance Afghanistanlacks and along the way demonstrate the bankruptcy of the Taliban’s hard-linetheocratic vision for Afghanistan.
Taken together, the TheCrisis Caravan, Dead Aid, and Afghanistan 101 reinforce each other and make clear thatfollowing the traditional aid-based approach to nation-building in Afghanistanwill lead to a massively expensive failure. This is not an indictment of the UnitedStates’ use of aid to Afghanistanin particular, but recognition that aid programs around the world, includingthose in Afghanistan,are deeply flawed. Entezar makes plain that Afghanistan, like many developingcountries with weak institutions, has long had a major problem with corruption.Toss tendencies towards autocratic power and ethnic strife into the mix, and itcomes as no surprise that competition for aid dollars has only accelerated anddeepened problems with corruption, precisely as readers of Polman and Moyowould predict.
Before really considering the aid strategies that Moyorecommends for Africa, but which hold equal promise for countries likeAfghanistan that are in similarly desperate straits, the United States firsthas to acknowledge how (unintentionally) pernicious our aid policies are. No quote so perfectly summarizes the need toreject failed aid policies and embrace bold changes as the African proverb Moyouses to close her book:
"The best time toplant a tree is twenty years ago. Thesecond-best time is now."
Art Keller is a former case officer for the CentralIntelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service. He participated incounterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda in the FATA of Pakistan in2006.
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