Commentary

Donor Community Must Allow Afghans to Assume Control

in Program

By Fazel Rabi Haqbeen – In 2001, when foreign militaries – including the American, Belgian, British, Canadian, Danish, German, Italian, and Turkish – entered the country, Afghans welcomed them warmly, strewing flowers as they passed through towns and villages. There was widespread hope that the country would finally see peace and stability after decades of war.

Eight years later however, there is still a consistent failure to establish suitable and effective mechanisms for security and development. Both security assistance and development assistance have taken a short term view – primarily addressing immediate and acute problems rather than identifying and responding to underlying weaknesses. Such a “quick fix” approach has cost time and popular support, and has wasted resources and opportunities. Creation of a parallel governance structure has undermined national authority, inhibited national initiative, weakened security, and slowed development. Prospects of sustainable development are slim.

Underlying the current approach is an assumption that Afghanistan could only be rescued by an enormous international intervention. However the presence of the international community, even if extensive and well-directed, will not be useful if Afghans are not in charge of their own recovery. Although the international community and the Afghan government have rhetorically committed themselves to inclusive nation-building, significant progress has yet to be made in including a wide cross section of Afghan society.

Afghanistan has a traditional local governance system (based on popular consensus) that has resolved conflicts and addressed collective social needs throughout history. Local councils (shuras), chiefs of villages (Maliks, Arbabs, and Waki), and religious leaders (mullahs, imams, and mawlavis) carry great legitimacy and can deeply influence political dynamics and social initiative. These should not be marginalized, but rather incorporated into the overall development and security agenda. Without this missing ingredient, there will be little effectiveness, no legitimacy, and certainly no viable exit strategy for the international community.

Afghan citizens are urgently concerned to find solutions to the dire crisis of law and order. They will support either a local or a central approach to this problem as long as it addresses the still live threat posed by warlords and organized and armed thugs. As a result the public has low confidence in the Karzai administration, as well as suspicion and resentment toward the once-welcomed international presence.

In attempting to establish Afghan capacity for security, the international community rushed to recruit and train the Afghan Army and Police, without regard to issues of ethnic imbalance and corruption. This served to delegitimize the government under which they serve. On the other hand, delay in establishing Afghan security capability forces reliance on foreign military forces, and consequently risks the government being seen as a puppet. Were there an Afghan-led process, this would address the legitimacy deficit and perhaps result in wiser approaches to ethnic balance.

Development strategy has been donor-driven, and this has impeded progress. Afghan government ministries have often had fewer financial and human resources than large donors. In attempting to increase supplies of electricity, donors have placed emphasis on high-cost projects rather than building on existing latent hydropower resources. Electricity is currently purchased from neighboring countries, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Donors have also focused their efforts on urban populations, ignoring the importance of rural reconstruction in a country where agriculture and related rural trade are the major sources of livelihoods. As a result, many and perhaps most Afghans not only resent international presence but also view their government as unfit for delivering the necessary services, governing its own people, or managing external involvement. As a result many disaffected individuals are aligning with insurgent groups.

There are several examples of success that suggest that the helping hand of the international community can be most effective with Afghan leadership and initiative. By the same token, where the international community has run parallel programs or been the dominant partner, sustainable local capacity remains a problem. Examples of the latter include ministries still dependent on external experts for skills such as public procurement and policy formulation. The former include success stories in the private and public sectors such as successful mobile phone companies Roshan, MTN, AWCC and Itisalat, private sector banks, the establishment of fiber optic networks, improvements in revenue collection, and in the training of religious teachers and scholars.

There are many able and knowledgeable Afghans who are qualified and capable of helping lead reconstruction efforts. However, efforts to involve them have faced challenges in national governance – getting the ministries to agree on priorities for example – and in coordination of efforts between the international community and Afghan society and government. As a result, the wisdom of those willing to work in government has been neglected or over-ruled by donors, talented officials have been lured into the private and non-governmental sectors by the vast salary differentials, and efforts to recruit talent into government service have been ineffective, including special programs to provide incentives to Afghan expatriates for temporary public service.

There has been no paucity of donor resources. These resources have generally been ineffective because of failure to adopt a more Afghan-led approach and to address the obstacles to this. Afghanistan continues to require additional commitment of resources. The international community, and particularly the United States, can facilitate peace and stability in Afghanistan by providing technical, financial, and logistical capacity and support. But it is the Afghan people who need to lead in the healing of their country.

photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/3288438788/


Fazel Rabi Haqbeen is with the Asia Foundation in Afghanistan and was a Visiting Fellow with the Regional Voices program at the Stimson Center in 2009.  He was also a Humphrey Fellow in 2009. 

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