Commentary

Fumbling with the Key: Building State Capacity in Afghanistan

in Program

By Amit Pandya – A full five years after international assistance started in earnest,
the government of Afghanistan remains unable to exercise many of its
most basic functions. The international community has invested at least
half a billion dollars to help build Afghan state capacity, but these
efforts have been haphazard, wasteful and ineffective.

 

Recent studies of state rehabilitation and political transitions
suggest that in the inevitable dialectic between the short-term need to
restore governmental processes, through trustee-like transfer of
technocratic packages, and the need for long-term sustainable
governmental capacity, donors will emphasize the former and government
the latter, given the relative time horizons of each party. In
Afghanistan it is important that these imperatives be harmonized
without prejudice to either. 

 

Within government, there must be a clear protocol establishing the
respective responsibilities of individual ministries and other
institutions such as the Civil Service Commission and the Office of the
President, as well as clear designation of leadership and authority for
coordinating this process. An appropriate mechanism for coordination
among donors and between donors and government should be identified.
Specific officials in government and on the staffs of each donor must
be given responsibility – and made accountable – for coordination of
and participation in such processes.

 

Capacity-building must be placed in the context of a systematic
approach to workforce planning for the government as a whole. And a
strategic plan for capacity-building can meaningfully only be carried
out in reference to a broader process of strategic planning for various
ministries and for government operations as a whole.

 

Afghanistan’s government capacity had seriously atrophied in the
years before 2001, owing to conflict, migration of qualified Afghans
and chronic poor governance. In the absence of sufficient intellectual
and human resources within Afghanistan, it was necessary to substitute
imported capacity to jump-start public administration. This expatriate
capacity stabilized the financial system, and established sound
macro-economic policy, rudimentary public procurement systems and the
beginnings of administrative and civil service reforms. However, what
began as an emergency stabilization measure has taken on a life of its
own. Insufficient attention is being paid to the training and
empowerment of Afghan expertise, to transfer of technical and
management functions to Afghans, and to progressive diminution of
reliance on expatriate expertise.

 

Afghans in and out of government now see this assistance as
dominated by expatriates, and therefore both expensive and detrimental
to the building of sustainable Afghan capacity, and resentment against
donors is growing. The government wants more responsibility and
authority. Exacerbating the problems are donor practices such as
uncoordinated payment of top-ups to government employees and high
salary payments to consultants and others in what constitutes a
parallel civil service.  Another frequently encountered problem is that
of multiple providers, funded by different donors, falling over each
other in the same department, which renders effective Government
management of such assistance all the more complex and difficult.

 

Donors are aware – and nervous – that in the absence of progress
from short term outside technical assistance to medium and long term
indigenous capacity, government is likely to remain substantially
dependent on outside expertise and resources beyond the realistic
period that substantial investment from the international community can
be expected. There is a mutual concern that long term capacity has been
sacrificed to short term efficiency, and that the accomplishments to
date will require indefinite extension of expatriate experts, and
continued donor control.

 

The long-term domestication of capacity for public administration
and exercise of state functions has been complicated by the uncertain
security situation and the resulting political instability. The
unstable security situation has also rendered the government more
aid-dependent, and therefore less able or willing to challenge donors
in demanding or assuming greater responsibility for building its own
capacity. And it has compelled the accommodation of varying political
interests in ways that have sometimes detracted from rational
institution-building and civil service reform. For example, there is a
reluctance to shed redundant positions which can now be used as
patronage for ethnic balancing, which can help the security situation.

 

Perhaps most significantly, the uncertain security situation has
prevented sufficient attention being paid to the needs of sub-national
governance, and thus imposed an excessively centralizing perspective on
workforce planning and capacity-building. Because Afghanistan’s
stability, indeed its very existence as a state, has always depended on
a dynamic balance between local and central authority, this excessively
centralized model of government capacity bodes ill for political
stability.

 

The building of sustainable capacity for public administration goes
to the very heart of the sovereign functions of government. Therefore,
the initiative, leadership management and planning for it must come
from the government of Afghanistan. There should be a clear plan,
developed in partnership with donors, with a clear mutual commitment to
collaborate in needs assessment, provision, management, evaluation and
monitoring. What is required is clear allocation of leadership, and a
clear, manageable and accountable system, encompassing all stakeholders.

 

(Photo by Robin Mugridge. Usage does not constitute photographer’s endorsement of work.)

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