Afghanistan and its Supporters: A Better Way Forward
7 May 2009 - This week, the presidents of the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan with the engagement of their top advisors, hold the second Trilateral Consultations in Washington to address issues of regional security and economic development.
It happens five weeks after a successful international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague in which more than 80 countries and international organizations reaffirmed their long-term commitment to shaping a better future for Afghanistan and its people.
Just prior to that President Obama unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan that presented a more balanced approach than before. It put greater emphasis on economic development, good governance and regional cooperation as critical elements for success. We in Afghanistan have known for some time that increased military action alone would not lead to a durable solution to the conflict. The new US strategy is the right response. However, it was only the necessary first step. The details of the new strategy and how it is implemented will be crucial to its success. We must now ensure that international aid is used more productively. This has never been more critical than today, when the global economic crisis is exerting extreme fiscal pressure on all governments. The Afghan Government and donors must be accountable to both international taxpayers and to the Afghan people for spending funds effectively.
First, President Obama has proposed a “civilian surge” to bring hundreds of experts to the country to build Afghan capacity and institutions. The Afghan government in consultation with the UN has produced a plan to guide this effort and involve the wider international community. The basic objective of this plan is to ensure that experts are provided based on Afghan needs and not foreign supply. The surge must take direction from the local institutions these civilians will be assigned to help, and strengthen the ability of the Government to deliver essential services to the Afghan people. It must have a real and measurable impact on building the capacity of Afghan institutions and the individuals charged with leading them, not serving as a substitute for them. This may seem obvious. However, much too often it has not been the case. Since 2002 close to $2 billion has been spent on technical assistance, but its impact has been far less than expected because it did not adhere to the above key principles. As a result, we have lost valuable time in building Afghanistan’s own capacity and institutions.
Second, a number of national development programs are being successfully implemented, such as the National Solidarity Program. Through this programme, communities in all 34 provinces are trusted with the resources and responsibilities to manage their own development projects. New national programs are now being developed by the Afghan Government to increase agricultural productivity, to strengthen the development of the private sector, expand regional trade and to enhance Afghanistan’s own capacity for revenue generation. However, less than 20% of the economic assistance coming into Afghanistan goes to these and other national development programs. Of the approximately $32 billion in aid that has been delivered to Afghanistan in the past 7 years, 79% has been provided externally (i.e., outside the government budget) with mixed results. We are convinced that if donors work with the Afghan government to develop and deliver national programs the results will be more sustainable and aid will be more cost-effective.
Third, sustained economic growth is essential if the present conflict in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) is to be resolved. This requires a stronger private sector that will generate the employment needed to give Afghans an economic stake in the country’s future and keep them out of the arms of extremists. Many of the basic conditions necessary for doing business are missing or poorly developed. Development assistance should be more focused on establishing an environment that will attract private investment and enable local businesses to develop. Despite difficult conditions, local businesses have made progress and are able to supply an increasing range of the goods and services needed to rebuild the country. Yet the international community, military and civilian, continues to import far more than necessary. Aid going to Afghanistan would have a much greater economic impact if more went to purchase Afghan goods and services, strengthening the local private sector and generating increased employment.
Fourth, greater efforts to reduce corruption will make aid more effective. While the Afghan government must do more to fight corruption wherever it rears its ugly head and be accountable to both international taxpayers and to the Afghan people for the ways that aid funds are spent, donors must also take responsibility and consider adapting the ways that aid is delivered so as to minimize the too often systemic potential for such corruption. The Afghan government is committed to intensify this fight, but needs help from the international community. Some of the most susceptible parts of government, the Ministries of Finance and Interior, have already instituted a policy of zero tolerance of corruption at all levels and are upgrading their internal investigation and audit departments. More ministries will follow suit. But the Afghan Government cannot end corruption on its own. We must address the major causes of corruption that fall outside the Government’s influence, including how aid gets delivered. Last week, President Karzai asked General Arnold Fields, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, to work directly with Afghan officials to strengthen the Government’s capacity to detect and prosecute corruption.
Fifth, this week’s Trilateral meetings represent a strengthening of the regional cooperation to bring peace and progress to the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a few days, it will be followed by a wider conference for regional economic cooperation in Islamabad. There is a tremendous potential in this regional cooperation. Better infrastructure – roads, railroad and powerlines – would contribute greatly to the economic development of Afghanistan and enable the country to stand on its own feet. It would make it less dependent on the aid which today is provided by the international community. Greater use of regional experts, who know the language, climate and culture of Afghanistan, could contribute significantly to building Afghan capacity in key areas, such as agriculture. Their assistance would be less costly and more sustainable than expensive experts from far away without adequate knowledge of Afghanistan and its needs.
The Afghan government has reacted quickly to President Obama’s strategy. Now, we urge the international community to support the government in taking the lead in developing and implementing this plan.
By: Kai Eide, UN Special Representative in Afghanistan & Dr. Omar Zakhilwal, Minister of Finance of Afghanistan