Time for Effective Aid in Afghanistan

In this interview, IPS intern Daniel Atzmon discusses the situation in Afghanistan with Gyan Bahadur Adhikari (G.B. for short), who is the country director for ActionAid Afghanistan.

ActionAid is one of the world’s largest development agencies, helping over 13 million of the most disadvantaged people worldwide, working with local partners to make the most of their knowledge and experience. G.B. has worked with poor and marginalized people for the past 17 years and has been living in Afghanistan for almost 6 years.

DANIEL ATZMON: What is your view of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy thus far?

G.B. ADHIKARI: People were very hopeful during the U.S. elections. Everybody is still hopeful, but the huge war supplemental and continuation of some Bush-era policies is cause for concern.

ATZMON: What do you make of Obama’s plan to send more American civilians to Afghanistan, in what is being called the “civilian surge”?

ADHIKARI: I don’t believe this is a good idea. Most of these civilians will be working closely with the military and I have found that many “civilians” have military backgrounds, and still operate with that mindset. There are many nongovernmental organizations in the region with a lot of local knowledge and experience. The U.S. government should utilize these organizations for development work, rather than sending inexperienced people for short periods of time to do work that are unfamiliar with in a place they don’t understand. Americans don’t need a large presence on the ground to help.

ATZMON: Do we have the right balance between military and humanitarian spending?

ADHIKARI: Not at all. You can’t compare the two. The military expenditure is massive. According to 2008 data, it comes to $100 million a day, while $7 million goes to development, and 40% of that $7 million is lost to administrative costs. So only around $4 million goes to the community. And of that $4 million, less than 5% goes to agricultural development, yet 80% of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood. Spending in Afghanistan is completely misdirected; that is our biggest problem. Human issues have been ignored and only military considerations have been given priority.

ATZMON: So could less military and more humanitarian aid also help the U.S. fulfill its military objectives, such as defeating the Taliban?

ADHIKARI: To a certain extent, it’s a little too late for that. That should have been the policy earlier, but we should still shift our resources to the development sector. The best way to get people to reject the insurgency is though human development, which creates legal alternatives to violence. Not only that, it is important that we have a clear-cut development strategy.

The main goal of international community after the invasion has always been to develop the country and provide good government. If we put the development effort first, Afghani citizens will be eager to join in. Many Afghans feel that they don’t need the military, and resent its presence; however, they do need basic services, education, and jobs.

If we focus on development and involve the citizens of Afghanistan, we can tap their creativity and energy and shift the focus from violence and begin the reconciliation process.

ATZMON: Why is it so important to maintain the distinction between civilian and military operations?

ADHIKARI: After 30 years of war, Afghanis are afraid and distrustful of military personnel, no matter their intention. Blurring this distinction creates a lot of confusion for the people on the ground. When the military engages in development work, it makes it harder for Afghanis to differentiate between development workers and the soldiers, which leads to distrust and makes it harder for NGOs and civil society to do their work. Also, once we begin to be identified with the military, our job becomes much more dangerous. The military compromises our humanitarian mission.

In addition to distorting the perceptions of Afghans, the military fails to conduct need assessment and has very little accountability in their aid projects. NGOs focus on delivering the most needed services to the neediest areas. We have oversight systems the military lacks.

ATZMON: Could you elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages of the current system of aid distribution in Afghanistan?

ADHIKARI: The country is very poor after 30 years of war, and services and infrastructure have vanished. It is a new start for the country and for this reason foreign aid is very helpful if it is utilized properly.

The downside is, if not implemented properly, Afghanistan can become very dependent on aid well into the future. So far, aid work has not properly addressed the poorest of the poor. Too much money is getting lost in the aid mechanism itself. It’s going to overhead and to too many unnecessary contractors and consultants.

ATZMON: What have been the most successful aid projects in Afghanistan, and what has made them so successful?

ADHIKARI: Aid programs that have mobilized the people have been most effective, like the National Solidarity Program (NSP). The NSP seeks to empower the grassroots of Afghan society by facilitating the establishment of local governance bodies in villages across the country. The Government gives cash grants directly to these elected bodies to help them build and restore rural infrastructure that communities choose through an inclusive decision-making process. Funding from this program allows Afghanis to use their local knowledge to implement the programs needed most. There are also some successful health programs with a similar approach. Wherever the people participated in the process, we’ve seen the most success.

ATZMON: The Afghan government is heavily reliant on foreign support and is still in the process of consolidating its power. Given the current situation, should the U.S. and international community focus our aid efforts through the central government of through local communities, that is, to the center or the periphery?

ADHIKARI: It might not be correct to say either, but very little focus has been given to local governance. The central government has been given lots of support, and it still need to be supported, but we must also aid local governments. They have the most important role, as they are closest to the people and the situation. They implement needed services, dispense justice, and have direct ties to the people.

The main actors should definitely be the Afghan people, but support, technical assistance and know how, should be provided, from international aid agencies. This approach will allow people to take ownership in community resources and projects, and will transfer responsibility to the people for their own development. This system will also be more accountable. Yet, this kind of work has not really started.

ATZMON: How do we get NGOs and civil society to play a larger role?

ADHIKARI: Space has to be provided for NGOs to operate and the Afghan government has to be cooperative. Government has to understand our role and goals, which are to empower the community. The military and foreign governments have showed an inability to listen and respond to the people. Until they find a way to allow NGOs to assume more of a dominant role, development efforts will be hampered.

ATZMON: What would be the best platform or way to facilitate cooperation between governments and civil society?

ADHIKARI: We have been raising this question with governments and their ambassadors. Currently, each government has their own plan, agenda, and strategies. A better approach would be one plan, reinforced by each government. There needs to be coordination with all parties so resources are utilized effectively, and aid is given to the neediest people. The UN would be the best arena for inter-governmental and NGO cooperation, and would allow us to develop a single strategy we could follow with a united effort. They are considered a neutral body, and they have the international mandate necessary to bring all parties to the table. A unified strategy will save money, identify areas of focus, and allow all parties to talk in the same language.

A unified strategy will also help the Afghanis recognize and understand the foreign actors, and their strategy. With so many different governments and groups pursuing different goals, it is very confusing. If they understood our goals and strategy maybe there would be less resentment of the foreign presence.

ATZMON: In the course of our efforts to help Afghan agriculture, many inappropriate crops have been introduced. How were these crops brought to Afghanistan, and what has been their impact on food security?

ADHIKARI: Many organization and people, in their effort to help Afghanistan simply imported knowledge from their home countries, without sufficiently studying the local conditions and consulting the people. Therefore, they imposed inappropriate crops on farmers. The indigenous system is completely different.

This has had an impact on food security, as more water, labor, and fertilizer-intensive crops have diverted resources from indigenous crops which are much more successful

ATZMON: 80% of Afghans get their living from agriculture. What are some things the international community can do to help the local small-scale farmer?

ADHIKARI: We have to use their local knowledge. They mostly grow fruits and nuts and raise sheep, from which they make some of the world’s finest carpet. We should promote these industries by buying these goods. Developing the market for Afghan goods will increase employment and encourage people to work in legal areas. This would empower people, as they will have their own income, and they would be able to support themselves without direct foreign support.

ATZMON: To what extent is infrastructure a problem, especially with regard to agriculture?

ADHIKARI: We have to improve the agricultural industry. We can do this by encouraging cottage industries, like dairy products. Fruit used to be a major export for Afghanistan but it has a huge bulk. Fruit processing centers are a great way to decrease the volume of a harvest, making it much easier to transport in a region with poor infrastructure and could be a good investment looking forward.

In general, we have to focus on the road infrastructure to make it possible for farmers to safely transport their goods at a low cost. As this will most likely take a long time, processing centers that could decrease the bulk of agricultural goods, will make it easier for farmers to transport their products.

ATZMON: What is the outlook for Afghanistan over the next few years?

ADHIKARI: First of all, foreign governments and militaries have to put emphasis on decreasing civilian casualties. Too many innocent people are dying, and this needs to stop immediately in order to gain the trust of the people. They also need to start focusing on dialogue and reconciliation as the building blocks for the future, as the military option is not proving to be a viable solution.

If the U.S. strategy does not change, given the present situation, the forecast is gloomy.

ATZMON: Would you like the see international forces leave Afghanistan?

ADHIKARI: There has to be a proper strategy for withdrawal, but the day has to come when all forces leave. Unfortunately, an exit strategy is still nonexistent, but good a strategy will leave mechanisms on the ground that can maintain stability.

Daniel Atzmon is a student at Wesleyan University and an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies.