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Q & A on aid in Afghanistan

Matt Waldman, Oxfam International policy advisor in Afghanistan.

You're the author of Falling Short, a report about the $15 billion international aid shortfall in Afghanistan. According to the report, the US has spent just half of the $10.4 billion in aid it promised. What are the reasons behind this aid shortfall?

Well, the US is by far the largest donor to Afghanistan—and we must acknowledge and credit the US with this generosity. Without US support, it is difficult to envisage Afghanistan achieving stability in the near future.

I think it's clear that not all of America's pledges to Afghanistan have been fulfilled. Of course, there are reasons why—partly due to the lack of capacity on the part of Afghan ministries and the security environment. But I think there is a clear need for efforts by donors, first of all, to fulfill their aid pledges wherever possible, and second, to focus on building the capacity of the government both at a central and a local level.

We also need to bear in mind, regardless of pledges, the levels of aid. The average level of US aid in Afghanistan for the last six years has been around $7 million a day, compared to the fact that the US military spends around $100 million a day in the country. Now, we can't immediately put that right, because a large of influx of aid would be a dangerous thing—it could lead to waste or corruption. What we need to do is incrementally increase the level of aid.

Where is the aid money going? How is it failing to reach the people who need it?

This brings me to perhaps the most important point: the way aid is spent is crucial. There are a number of ways in which aid is failing to maximize its potential.

For example, efficiency: too much aid is wasted on large contractors who make significant profits. Large numbers of expatriate consultants absorb a lot of the aid in high salaries. Now, we're not saying that you don't need consultants or contractors in Afghanistan—you do. But you've got to rigorously assess the extent to which they are providing value for money, in each case and in every program. And around half of aid is “tied”: donors require the procurement of goods or services from their own states. This is inefficient, and as a result we estimate 40 percent of international aid goes back to donor countries.

Also, we have been looking at the ways aid is delivered. In many cases, donors fail to ensure that aid is addressing Afghan needs, rather than being supply-driven and prescriptive according to donor preferences. In many cases there has not been an even distribution of aid. Aid has been used to achieve military and political objectives, rather than for the fundamental priority of reducing poverty. It's been urbanized, rather than prioritizing rural areas where the vast majority of Afghans live. Some two-thirds of aid bypasses the government, and only half of aid is actually in agreement with the government. Then there are problems with coordination: of all technical assistance, only about one-third is coordinated, and there is a clear lack of coherence among the donors in a number of areas.

What solutions can we put in place to make sure that more aid actually reaches poor people in Afghanistan?

Aid is essential to Afghanistan, and it actually needs more aid, but at the same time there have to be concerted efforts to improve aid's impact and its efficiency and its effectiveness. Donors need to provide full transparency about what they're doing, what they're spending their funds on, and how they're spending them. We need to establish indicators of aid effectiveness, tracking impact, efficiency, relevance, sustainability, accountability, ownership, and use of Afghan resources.

There should be a separate, independent body—which could even be located within an existing institution—which monitors aid delivery, evaluates aid, identifies bad practices, and issues recommendations as to how they can be put right. Donors should take steps to improve coordination, which will require efforts by each individual donor, as well as a strengthened UN and Joint Coordinating Monitoring Board in Afghanistan.

Where you have you seen aid projects that work?

I've seen local NGOs working at grassroots level with simple projects that are according to Afghan preferences and Afghan needs; they're often led and actually implemented by Afghans. Even if it's just a simple water supply project or irrigation project, I've seen some really impressive results that benefit an entire community. And I've been impressed with the commitment of the people at these kinds of NGOs. They're really hard-working, dedicated to what they do. Of course we do need the big infrastructure projects, but the ones that strike me as particularly well-done have been these small-scale projects.

You talk about the ownership and involvement of citizens in aid projects. How does this ownership relate to making aid more effective?

I think this is actually at the heart of effective aid. 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 engaged, fully involved, and if possible leading projects. And then indeed they will make sure—because this is of direct relevance to their lives—they will make sure that the project is addressing their needs, and in the future they will fully use it and ensure that they get the benefits from it.

Let's face it: nobody wants to feel anything is imposed on them. Communities in the developing world are no different. We cannot impose solutions; we have to really make strenuous efforts in terms of engaging people. There may be some trade-offs in terms of efficiency, but it's worth it to ensure that what we do is effective.

How do the priorities of the Afghan government intersect with those of aid donors?

There has been insufficient coordination between the government and the donors. I think there is now recognition of this problem, and there will be efforts to improve and address this. It's crucial that there is a strong partnership, and wherever possible, the Afghan government takes the lead.

But at the same time there is no doubt that there have to be efforts to improve the capacity of the Afghan government, to improve its public administration, to increase transparency, to build accountability, and to reduce corruption. Donors should be conscious of this; it requires considerable efforts on their part to help the Afghan government address some of these problems.

What about US aid in Afghanistan: has it been effective?

Certainly there is significant scope for USAID to improve its aid delivery in Afghanistan. There should be efforts made to increase the amount of aid that goes to the Afghan government, and this can be done through international trust funds, which offer a means of protecting against corruption or waste. Britain and Canada both devote the vast bulk of their funds to the Afghan government through these trust funds, and we would encourage the US to do likewise. Right now, only 6 percent of US aid goes to the Afghan government. It's hard to see a sustainable government in the future if we're not building up its capacities.

USAID should ensure that all its projects are in alignment with national or provincial plans, and fully engaged with government or local authorities. It should ensure that it is reducing the amount of aid that is delivered through military teams, and increasing aid to civilian-led development processes. It should attempt to ensure real transparency in the activities of the large contracting firms, and ensure that their profit margins are fully justified. It should ensure that there is a proper assessment of whether consultants are fully justifying their considerable salaries. It should reduce tied aid requirements, so that projects do not require the use of American firms of materials. It should seek to increase the extent to which it coordinates with other donors and the Afghan government.

We would also encourage USAID to support the call for the establishment of indicators of aid effectiveness, and support an independent mechanism for monitoring the performance of donors. We believe it's in everybody's interest to identify where aid could be better spent, and how it could be better spent, which ultimately will lead to stability and allow the US to over time reduce its commitments in Afghanistan.

Americans tend to think of Afghanistan as a place of war and conflict, especially since 9/11. Can improved aid help bring about a lasting peace?

There is undoubtedly a link between insecurity and persistent poverty in Afghanistan. If aid is effectively delivered, and there is strong rural development, I can guarantee that is the best foundation for a future of peace in Afghanistan. There no shortcuts, no quick deals that will lead to a lasting peace. An essential component of peace is strong development, which we can achieve if we increase the level of aid and use it well.

Although violence has been increasing in recent years, there is a real prospect of achieving more peace in Afghanistan. The international community needs to recognize that a major change of direction is required. They, together with the Afghan government, need to take a number of steps. They need to support the proposals we have made and other NGOs have made about humanitarian priorities, development, peace-building, and aid effectiveness, and there needs to be a sense of urgency in order to put things on the right track. I am cautiously optimistic, primarily because of the sheer resilience and determination of the Afghans to achieve peace and development. But we have to raise our game in order to help them to achieve that.

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