Are Afghanistan’s aid millions well spent?
By George Arney
BBC World Service’s Assignment, Kabul
Sunday, 13 April 2008
An array of foreign aid agencies are delivering assistance to the Afghan people to help them rebuild their shattered country.
But are there too many different groups all trying to do the same thing – and are the billions of dollars pouring into the country being well spent?
The sheer number of foreign aid organisations that have gone into Afghanistan since the fall of the Taleban in 2001 – military-led reconstruction teams, profit-making corporations, private contractors, UN agencies and traditional NGOs – is bewildering.
But inevitably, questions are being asked about whether the muddle and waste that arises is contributing to the declining popularity of the central government. And there is a feeling that some of the foreigners are beginning to outstay their welcome.
“People expect their government to deliver services to them,” says deputy rural development minister Asif Rahimi.
“They say yes, we have been receiving aid during the war, during the Taleban, even during the Soviet invasion. Now we have an elected government in Afghanistan, we expect the ministries to come and help us.
“When they see non-governmental actors come in, they say the government is not a very good government. And with the government going to those places, it does not have support among the population.
“Especially if the non-governmental organisations leave that area they create a vacuum, which can be felt by the anti-government elements.”
A typical NGO operating in Afghanistan is British charity Children In Crisis, which is working to provide education to children who would otherwise be on the streets or trying to support families.
Their local director Feizin Amlani stresses that the charity is working on “capacity building” – aiming to train local staff so that they can eventually take over the work.
“CIC prides itself on being an expert in training and building capacity, with the future being them able to run their own projects,” she says.
But it is clear that in other areas, there are few signs of handing over.
Much of the capacity-building is being done in government ministries by highly-paid foreign consultants, some earning as much as $500,000 each year.
In one ministry, four different teams of consultants from four different countries were found unbeknownst to each other – all working on the same project.
And these foreign consultants do not get much chance to mix with ordinary Afghans outside the workplace.
Because of security concerns, they are almost totally cut off from the realities of everyday life in Afghanistan.
“The US embassy staff are in complete lockdown – they cannot go anywhere at all,” says Feizin Amlani.
“Lockdown means you stay in your compound… NGOs are not as restricted, but we can’t walk anywhere. Everything is in the vehicle.”
In a typical Afghan tea house are two young Kabulis: Rush, 22, a guard and interpreter; and Mahdi, a former driver for an NGO who has now joined the Afghan army. Both are very critical of the foreign presence in the city.
“I’m angry – the foreigners came here to help the poor people of Afghanistan, but unfortunately they are spending money in restaurants on alcohol, on fuel for sightseeing vehicles,” says Rush.
“They are spending all their money on themselves.”
And Mahdi adds that he feels “very sad” on seeing foreigners “driving in their big cars and living in their big mansions.”
“That money could help the economies of the poor Afghan families,” he adds.
“All my friends and all Afghans think like this – the foreigners here are acting like movie stars. They drive big cars, use big guns.
“At night they are getting Chinese and Russian girls for playing. They have no sense of where they are and what they are doing.”
According to Matt Waldman, who is Oxfam’s policy adviser, the anger felt by some Afghans about the amount of money spent on what looks to them like foreigners’ luxurious lifestyles is compounded by the inefficient way that much of the aid is delivered.
“We have seen a lot of aid has been wasted,” he said.
“Many of the big donors give a substantial portion of their aid to contractors – and as in Iraq, we see that many of those contractors have very big profit margins, often over 20% – sometimes as high as 50%.
“In one particular project, there may be as many as five contractors.”
Mr Waldman says he knows of Afghan contractors making profits that high, but adds that international contractors would not reveal their figures.
This is one of the flaws in the international aid system. Over the past 20 years, US aid has been effectively privatised – and US contractors are under no obligation to reveal how much profit they make.
However, Bill Wood, at the US Embassy in Kabul – known to some NGOs as “Fortress America” – vigorously defends the US aid efforts.
“We are spending our money to employ experts who are experts, to do a difficult and complicated job,” he says.
“To the degree that we can spend the money inside of Afghanistan to employ Afghans, we do that.”
But Oxfam has warned of a humanitarian disaster unless there is a change in direction of aid effort, and Matt Waldman says that there is a desperate need in particular for more rural aid.
If this is not forthcoming, he believes stability will remain elusive – critically undermining the work in the country since 2001.
“I have no doubt that there is a significant link between poverty and insecurity,” he says.
“I think we have to consider the lives of ordinary Afghans who are living in extremely difficult circumstances. In that case, people will be forced to desperate measures, and that may include fighting for militants or growing poppy [for heroin].”