Building on strength in Afghanistan

By Anna Kramer
A boy carries bread in Faizabad City, located in the Badakhshan province of northeast Afghanistan.

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"Make no mistake: life is very difficult for most Afghans," says Matt Waldman, Oxfam International policy advisor in Afghanistan. "This was one of the poorest countries in the world even before the wars and upheavals that began in 1978. These wars, which lasted for over two decades, brought Afghanistan to its knees."

Waldman's assessment will reinforce what many Americans believe: that long years of struggle have put the Afghan people in a position of hopelessness. But when Waldman talks about the people he has met in the course of his work, what he emphasizes most is their strength and resilience.

"The Afghan people have a great strength; a dignity in their lives, and a pride in their culture....In many ways, I'm impressed by their determination to make the best of the situations they live in."

Hope for the future, despite the obstacles

Waldman himself is British, a former foreign affairs advisor for the UK Parliament. He is in the midst of a whirlwind US trip to promote Falling Short, a report he wrote exposing the $15 billion international aid shortfall in Afghanistan.

He looks a little weary, but speaks calmly and assuredly about leading a team of Oxfam policy and advocacy specialists who work both in the capital city of Kabul and in rural areas of Afghanistan. Their job: to listen to people's concerns, conduct research, and advocate for change at the national and international level.

In the mountain provinces of Badakhshan and Daikundi, Waldman and his team visited families who survive long, harsh winters on a diet of mainly dried bread and tea; communities where the life expectancy hovers around 44 years old; places where children and pregnant women often die due to malnutrition and a lack of medical care.

In other regions, thousands of civilians have fallen victim to acts of violence by militants and criminal groups. Oxfam and local NGOs are implementing peace-building programs to end violence at the local level.

Despite the obstacles, many Afghan people are determined to build a secure future for their country and their families. "I know of individuals working for human rights, who have been subject to considerable pressures, who nonetheless continue their fight," notes Waldman. "And ordinary Afghans who work long and hard to ensure their families are well kept and their children can attend school."

The US also plays a role in securing Afghanistan's future. "The US is by far the largest aid donor to Afghanistan," Waldman says. "Without US support, it is difficult to envisage Afghanistan achieving stability in the near future."

Improving US aid in Afghanistan

Right now, though, US support for Afghanistan is not living up to its promises. US military spending there far exceeds spending on aid—and the US has only delivered half of the $10.4 billion in aid it committed between 2002 and 2008. To achieve real change in Afghanistan, Waldman says, the US must increase funding for aid projects that lift people out of poverty.

And effective aid is about more than just dollar amounts. "The way aid is spent is crucial," says Waldman. "Right now, there are a number of ways aid is failing to maximize its potential."

To live up to this potential, the US needs to approach aid differently in Afghanistan:

  • Be efficient. Make sure aid money goes directly to helping Afghans, not to purchasing US-based goods and services.
  • Distribute aid evenly throughout the country. Don't just focus on the cities.
  • Use aid not to achieve military and political objectives, but to reduce poverty.
  • Work with the government, instead of bypassing it, to build capacity and produce better results.
  • Coordinate more closely with other donor countries and groups.
  • Set up a separate, independent body to monitor aid delivery and identify where we can do things better.

It's essential, Waldman says, that local people are the owners and leaders of the aid projects that affect their lives. "Let's face it: nobody wants to feel that anything is imposed on them. Communities in the developing world are no different. In order to have a project that is really relevant to the lives of ordinary people living in difficult circumstances, you have to ensure that they are fully involved."

If we take these steps, Waldman says, we can build on the strength of the Afghan people and help bring peace after decades of conflict.

"I am cautiously optimistic," he says, "primarily because of the sheer resilience and determination of the Afghans to achieve peace and development. But there are no shortcuts, no quick deals that will lead to a lasting peace."

The facts on aid in Afghanistan

  • Donor countries have only delivered $15 billion of a pledged $25 billion in aid since 2001.
  • The aid shortfall—$10 billion—is 30 times Afghanistan’s annual national education budget.
  • Of the aid delivered, an estimated 40 percent goes back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries.
  • The US military spends close to $100 million a day in Afghanistan, yet the average amount of aid spent by all donor countries is just $7 million a day.

Source: Falling Short: Aid Effectiveness in Afghanistan