While the SIGAR reports highlight important cases of waste, they show only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the nearly $93 billion American taxpayers have so far spent on “reconstruction” in Afghanistan, which includes everything from building schools to equipping the Afghan military and securing the government, have had little positive impact on Afghan society. Twelve years into America’s war and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, the country continues to be unstable and insecure, with a weak, fragile government, and millions living in abject poverty.
Exactly how much of the funds have been wasted is hard to pin down, but estimates suggest that up to 80 percent of the international aid to Afghanistan never reaches those who need it most. Reconstruction efforts are mainly driven by donor preferences, rather than responding to evident Afghan needs and priorities. The general aid strategy has been to work on quick infrastructure projects that are “symbolic” in nature and show rapid, visible results, rather than to achieve sustainable development and economic growth. Once projects are designed, they go through multiple layers of contracting and subcontracting, each layer cutting a considerable amount as corporate profit, high administrative costs, and overhead. A major part of aid to Afghanistan has been allocated for building the institutional capacity of the Afghan government; yet much of this assistance has been wasteful, donor-driven and of limited impact.
Qualified individuals are systematically hired away from the government and from Afghan-based organizations because of the wage differentials between Afghan jobs and those in foreign organizations. Large expenditures by aid agencies have driven housing and food prices through the roof, placing a tremendous economic burden on the general population. Because the Afghan government’s capacity remains unacceptably low, and because it is not trusted even by its biggest ally – the U.S. – the Afghan people view their government as both ineffective and illegitimate. In many areas of the country, people are turning to the Taliban, or local power players, in order to settle disputes or to obtain needed resources, undermining the writ of the Afghan state and law.
Even though the U.S. will withdraw most of its military forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year, it is expected to continue giving financial support to the country for many years to come. As the U.S. forces move from leading combat missions to assuming advisory roles in the Afghan security sector, it is necessary for U.S. aid agencies to also shift how they do business there. Two major shifts in aid strategy are absolutely necessary for the U.S. aid money to bring lasting positive change and to ensure better monitoring of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars.
First, there needs to be a shift from emergency and “symbolic” projects to foundational infrastructure programs. Building schools and clinics that are ill-equipped and lack human resources, roads that fall apart in two years, and wells that are never used because the contractor failed to study the area sufficiently, neither win hearts and minds nor lead to sustainable development. Instead, the U.S. should prioritize major, long-term projects that create jobs and employment for the locals, and lead to viable poverty reduction.
Second, future projects should be designed, recruited for, and implemented through close collaboration with the Afghan government, Afghan private sector, and Afghan civil society. Doing so is not simple. The government itself lacks capacity, transparency and accountability. However, there is tremendous capacity within the general Afghan population. The challenges highlighted above can be overcome by cleverly working with the different sectors of the Afghan population, including the Afghan government, to find ways of not only implementing projects successfully, but of developing a shared accountability model, through which the donors, the Afghan government, the Afghan private sector, and the Afghan civil society, work together to oversee the monitoring and evaluation of projects and funds.
This model will inevitably slow down the reconstruction process, at least initially. But the strategy would build the capacity and legitimacy of the Afghan state and the Afghan population, and result in greater aid effectiveness.
Qargha and Sharifi are partners at the Afghanistan Holding Group, an employee-owned company aiming to create a transparent and sustainable service economy in Afghanistan.