By Henry Villacorta
Two weeks ago, James L. Creighton, COO of the EastWest Institute, spoke at the International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy in the UN. Mr. Creighton’s speech, titled “Best Intentions: The Impact of Aid and Development Support to Countries in Crisis,” offered a fresh perspective on development aid in Afghanistan. While he recognized the efforts of Western countries to help Afghanistan, he also expressed his concern over the unique challenges facing development in the country.
In his speech, Mr. Creighton highlighted the discrepancy between the amount of aid given to Afghanistan and the progress of development. He gave clear examples of improvements in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. These examples include: major upgrades in road infrastructure, an increase in children attending schools, better access to electricity and strong economic relations with neighboring countries. Although these advancements show valuable gains, Mr. Creighton outlined the challenges in moving forward. The biggest concern is how greatly these improvements contrast with the amount of development aid given to the country.
Afghanistan is one of the biggest recipients of development aid in the world. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported a total of $52 billion in aid flow to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013. Of those $52 billion, the United States provided $21 billion, making it the top donor in aid flow to Afghanistan. According to a 2015 Congress report, however, the total amount of US aid given to Afghanistan since 2002 is even higher—reaching approximately $110 billion. These funds have been used to support Afghanistan relief and reconstruction projects which focus on development assistance.
One of the tools for measuring development around the world is the Human Development Index (HDI). The most recent HDI statistics from 2013 value Afghanistan’s HDI at 0.468—ranking at 169 out of 187 total countries included in the report. This is a major improvement since the 2000 report which valued Afghanistan’s HDI at 0.341. These official reports suggest a promising future for Afghanistan. As more money goes in, the more improvements we see in development.
Large aid agencies tend to highlight this positive view on Afghanistan reconstruction. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, states that the reconstruction projects are “an excellent example of how the American people are helping the people of Afghanistan build a better future.” However, is this statement true? Have the American people really helped build a better future for Afghanistan? Mr. Creighton’s perspective sheds light on the challenges faced in Afghanistan that propose a different narrative.
One of the concerns Mr. Creighton expressed is the ability and capacity of Afghans to manage the large amounts of aid coming in. Western countries have shown good intentions by providing large amounts of development assistance; however, these intentions are counterproductive if they are not supported with sustainable development programs to ensure effectiveness. Simply phrased, “we cannot just throw millions at some village and expect them to develop.” Development aid can often be misused if not properly managed, especially in countries like Afghanistan that suffer from high levels of corruption.
An example Mr. Creighton used to illustrate the dangers of unsupervised development aid is the black-market for medications. Doctors are provided with necessary medical supplies and medications for the purposes of improving public health, but leaving these programs without proper oversight enables doctors to make more money by taking the medications and selling them illegally on the black-market. There is no system of accountability for these cases of fraud.
In an article for World Affairs, Joel Brinkley explained how $50 million were wasted after USAID failed to follow through with a program aimed to help young generations become productive members in Afghan society. The program was intended to operate for three years, however little results were seen after the first two years. The inspector general for USAID reported that “USAID had handed the project over to a contractor and then paid little attention.” The rhetoric of successful USAID projects in Afghanistan does not coincide with reports of failed programs and wasted funds. Unfortunately, this problem is true for a majority of projects in Afghanistan.
In the most recent quarterly report, issued in July 2015, SIGAR—which oversees the funds used for projects in Afghanistan— determined that nearly 80% of the healthcare facilities funded by USAID provided incorrect information. This discovery reveals a major flaw in USAID’s programs—without reliable information, USAID is unable to accurately account for the development aid going to healthcare programs.
In the same July 2015 report, SIGAR also identified over $37 million in questioned costs. This amount only accounts for findings for the fiscal quarter. To date, the total amount of questioned costs identified by SIGAR since 2008 is well over $279 million. John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General, says that Afghanistan reconstruction is “the single most costly reconstruction program ever undertaken by the United States.”
So if investigations conclude that a substantial amount of development aid is ineffective in achieving the goals of reconstruction projects, how is it that, according to HDI reports, development in Afghanistan has improved greatly in the past decade? A key point Mr. Creighton outlined in his speech is the prevalence of inadequate data sources. Unfortunately, there is not enough data coming out of Afghanistan that can help provide factual evidence of failed development. While SIGAR’s investigations are providing crucial information on development in Afghanistan, their scope is limited to US-funded projects. There is no information providing a wider scale analysis of Afghanistan’s development at large.
The Human Development Report Team at UNDP, which is responsible for research and data analysis, has failed to produce accurate reports. A quick glance at their HDI report shows a major increase in development in Afghanistan from 2000 to 2013, although a closer analysis of the data collected for the HDI reveals erroneous reporting. Surprisingly, a majority of the data for Afghanistan is missing from the detailed data sheets used to calculate HDI. This is a problem because without this data, UNDP is producing inaccurate reports. The HDI value of Afghanistan therefore becomes distorted by depending on the few data points they are able to collect, instead of producing a wholesome figure representative of the many dimensions of development.
The most salient point raised by Mr. Creighton at the UN was to emphasize the harmful role of providing aid without supporting sustainability. The amount of aid flowing to Afghanistan does reflect the good intentions of the Western countries. However, the lack of sustainable programs of development considerably hinders the progress of these intentions. The danger of continuing to fund reconstruction projects in Afghanistan without ensuring their success is that it can lead to more corruption and violence which has devastated the country for decades. “We are fueling violence through good intentions,” noted Mr. Creighton. He encouraged paying more attention to Afghanistan—attention that goes beyond simply providing financial assistance. As we look forward to building a better future for Afghanistan, it is not a question of more funding, but a question of more commitment.