The South Asia Channel

Stabilizing Provincial Afghanistan: How to Get It Right

Kabul’s ongoing presidential election negotiations aren’t the only dramatic transition underway in Afghanistan. The ambitious U.S.-led "surge" launched in 2009, which bolstered foreign troops mainly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, has given way to a drawdown, paralleling a major downsizing in the development sphere. Aid budgets are contracting, and provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) and other ...

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Kabul’s ongoing presidential election negotiations aren’t the only dramatic transition underway in Afghanistan. The ambitious U.S.-led "surge" launched in 2009, which bolstered foreign troops mainly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, has given way to a drawdown, paralleling a major downsizing in the development sphere. Aid budgets are contracting, and provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) and other subnational civil-military installations — long key international platforms to distribute aid and engage local politics outside Kabul — are closing down.

As the local-level foreign official presence phases out of more volatile and remote areas, how should donor assistance strategies adjust? A new paper from the U.S. Institute of Peace, which builds upon fieldwork from the past three years, argues that 2014 marks an important opportunity for donors to recalibrate three central tenets of their subnational governance and development strategy.

First, donors should revise their conceptions of assisting Afghan government "service delivery." To be sure, delivering services seems commonsensical in a country that sorely lacks them, but PRT-based projects often confused their ambition to cultivate recurring services with their reality of launching a constellation of unsystematic and often one-time projects. The sheer numbers of foreign personnel and agencies operating at the subnational level — all responding to a higher-level focus on "burn rates" — further fueled the disparate character of aid distribution.

Sometimes PRTs even perpetuated confusion on what "basic services" actually were from an Afghan perspective. The international community’s conception often proved maximalist, and Afghan translators admitted to me that they have disagreed over how "basic services" should even be translated. Further confusion surrounded which Afghan government actors were supposed to provide the services, as PRTs often focused on governors’ offices rather than national ministries.

In addition, there are real questions about the theory that PRTs could imbue the Afghan government with long-term legitimacy through short-term project delivery. Counterinsurgency approaches reflected the Western concept of the social contract: If the Afghan state provided goods, it was assumed the Afghan population would offer their loyalty in return. A remote village’s mobilization to express their requests was thus framed — and logframed — as an indicator of success. As a result, donor focus on "service delivery" encouraged popular demand for projects that frequently exceeded historic precedent or local context. But research suggests that once a group of projects was completed, rural communities did not necessarily pledge their unwavering support to the Afghan government — instead they required continuity in the provision of these projects, and often harbored inflated expectations.

Looking to the post-PRT era, donors must revise their approach to service delivery by acknowledging that in the eyes of local populations, questions of politics, justice, and sectoral services are deeply intertwined. They should shift to a more restrained vision of subnational aid delivery that stresses predictability and reliability rather than maximal outputs. Rural Afghans may harbor fairly low expectations for the government’s provision of services — but for certain vital functions, tolerance is now scant for an administration that is missing in action. Donors should further focus on reforming top-down systems and middle-level processes of service delivery rather than inciting bottom-up demand for discrete projects.

As a second recalibration, donors should reframe their longstanding goal of "fostering linkages" between the Afghan government and remote populations. Foreign military and civilian officials have argued that a major driver of disenchantment among Afghans is their disconnection from national or local officials, which was understood to stem from technical shortcomings. It was believed that Afghan officials required help and encouragement to communicate with their constituents, and, with international support, address their grievances.

Instead, donors must acknowledge that the main obstacles to improving center-periphery communication — and the execution of projects — are often more political and structural than technical. Afghanistan has long featured a "government of relationships" with entrenched personal petitioning, and local capacity for project delivery is often more robust than international programs assume. Foreign leverage must shift accordingly, focusing instead on resolving crucial questions regarding subnational authorities, processes, and incentives.

As a final recalibration, donors should also reconsider how they measure local governance "progress" in contested areas, moving away from an approach that favors snapshots of inputs and perceptions. Foreign and Afghan officials alike have emphasized the need for better accountability of aid spending, and in some ways, decreasing aid budgets and emergent technology are conducive this goal.

But meaningfully improving the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of aid in more remote areas faces several obstacles. First, more M&E does not necessarily mean better M&E, particularly when trying to understand the complexities of subnational governance in volatile areas. Often the central problem is not that donors lack enough information — it is that they lack holistic, synthesized, and verified information. As more and more data-gathering efforts have been launched, valuable pre-existing sources of data have not always been exploited. Donors have often viewed technological tools as a panacea to address their knowledge-sharing problems.

Second, amassing a huge collection of data points does not necessarily help establish causal links between any specific international intervention and local-level changes. Third, experts have long debated the reliability of large-scale quantitative surveys in Afghanistan. But even assuming these tools are accurate, they often over-emphasize perceptions at the moment of the survey, and do little to indicate durability or the direction of progress going forward.

Looking ahead on how best to measure progress, foreign stakeholders should focus on capturing changes to structures and incentives on the ground. Rigorous qualitative assessments will be crucial to understanding context and causal links. Donors should avoid over-emphasizing local perceptions or events that are enabled by fleeting, ephemeral foreign inputs. Further, the international community should reject M&E approaches that are, themselves, fleeting and ephemeral. The past decade’s proliferation of civilian and military reporting regimes has turned Afghanistan into the graveyard of spreadsheets; before launching any new platform, donors should meticulously review and build upon current ones.

Most importantly, as Afghanistan transitions to a post-PRT future, the incoming Afghan presidential administration will bear significant responsibility for defining and enacting a new way forward. If donor-funded local governance initiatives have often overestimated the importance of technical factors and underestimated the importance of political ones, the good news is that, post-2014, Afghan priorities and politics will finally come to the fore. At the same time, there is a growing chasm between Kabul’s increasingly sophisticated deliberations on the one hand — among foreigners and the rising Afghan technocratic class alike — and local governance as experienced in more remote, insurgency-wracked areas. The continuous intellectualization of ideas on paper often stands in contrast to citizens’ experience in austere or violent areas.

Afghan state-building is a decades-long project. The international community should carefully manage the risks the next year poses: hoarding, psychological insecurity, a brain drain, and local political economy shocks are already in evidence. Particularly in more remote locales that previously received large quantities of projects, the aid bubble should not be popped overnight. But more broadly, the post-PRT environment provides an overdue opportunity to get away from the debates about bottom-up or top-down reform and move towards genuinely long-term, multilevel institution-building. Bolstering Afghanistan’s subnational structures requires the same elements it always has: better donor coordination, longer time horizons, the strategic deployment of money, and resolving key bureaucratic procedures. It demands awareness of the limitations of exogenous technical "solutions" compared with Afghan-led initiatives. The end of the surge and the beginning of transition offer a crucial window for these goals to finally be realized.

Frances Z. Brown, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, has worked in and on Afghanistan since 2004. She previously held roles with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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