Aid flows to Afghanistan, in drips

Total donations so far are less than half of the $1.8 billion that nations pledged to give by the end of the year.

In the shade of a canvas tent, Bilqees and 30 other girls in her second-grade class clutch gifts from America. One little girl writes in her notebook with a No. 2 pencil. Another scribbles with chalk on a chalkboard. And Bilqees, a bubbly green-eyed 12-year-old, pulls out a jump rope from her bag.

All the supplies came from America's Fund for Afghan Children, donated by kids in the US to the American Red Cross. Giving by the fund already exceeds $10 million.

Across Afghanistan, donations like these school supplies are making a difference in the lives of Afghans. But for every school that receives supplies from an international aid group, there are hundreds that do not.

At the Tokyo donor conference in January, the world's richest nations – including the US, Britain, the European Union, and Japan – pledged to give $1.8 billion in aid by the end of this year. The US stands out as the single largest donor to Afghanistan, with all of its promised $280 million already delivered, and another $250 million coming next year.

But overall, only $570 million has actually been delivered, putting many long-term projects on hold. The pace of aid is dangerously slow, local officials, aid workers, and village chiefs say, because after the fall of the Taliban, Afghan expectations were exceedingly high.

"The reaction of the donor nations was not bad, but [the] needs of Afghanistan are phenomenal," says Aidan Cox, a UN official on loan to the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority under the Finance Ministry. "Afghanistan is ... a country on the edge of the abyss. So you don't need a normal response, you need an exceptional response."

Amassing billions of dollars in aid takes time, foreign donors say, and most democratic governments demand scrutiny of how the money is spent. But Afghan officials say their country doesn't have much time. If the world's rich nations dawdle, the mood will quickly turn into a backlash against President Hamid Karzai's fragile central government and the American-led coalition that promised to rebuild the country.

"For the ordinary men and women, the key issues that make a difference in people's lives are these: How long does it take to get home from work? Is there clean drinking water? Is there electricity?" says Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai, Afghanistan's finance minister, giving an interview in his car on the way to a meeting with Mr. Karzai. "These are my measures for deciding what our priorities should be and where the money should go."

By those measures, Afghanistan has a long way to go. It has one of the lowest levels of development in the world. The situation is worst for rural Afghans: 95 percent have no access to safe drinking water, and 83 percent have no access to medical care. Only 32 percent of the adult population can read

Turning these numbers around will take time – to dig new wells, train more doctors and nurses, and build new clinics and hospitals, schools and roads. Afghan officials have groused that most of the aid has gone to short-term humanitarian relief. Only one-third of this amount, around $150 million, has been devoted to reconstruction.

"The question is making sure that reconstruction gets as much attention as emergency aid, so we can deal with both the symptoms and the causes of Afghanistan's problems," Mr. Ahmedzai says.

But the picture is more complex than that, says James Weatherill, a food-aid expert with the USAID program in Kabul. Food-for-work programs can serve the goals of rebuilding while also making sure that Afghan families have enough food, he says.

"If we provide food, these people won't have to go out and get a job somewhere else," Mr. Weatherill says. "If these people were off working someplace else, instead of cleaning that canal, they wouldn't have water for their fields next year. This food is helping them to create food for next year."

More than half of America's aid comes as bags of surplus wheat, much of it distributed through the UN's World Food Programme.

While some aid workers worry that food aid could hurt Afghan farmers – since Afghans are less likely to buy grain in the market if they can get it from the US for free – others worry that even aid money may not go where it's most needed.

Rents of houses and offices in Kabul have skyrocketed, as aid groups have flocked to Kabul by the hundreds. Salaries for qualified English-speaking Afghan office workers have also risen dramatically. "In the early stages, a lot of the money goes to rents and salaries and starting up an operation, and very little actually gets to the people who need it," says Mr. Cox, the Finance Ministry adviser. "The hope is that this will improve with time, as we buy goods and services here instead of importing [them] expensively from abroad. And as people become more skilled, we'll be able to employ more [Afghans]."

At Aschiana, an Afghan-run vocational program for street-working children in Kabul, some of the best-trained workers have already left for other programs. Aschiana has already had to move out of its main office in the now-fashionable district called Shar-e Naw, as its rent rose from $130 per month to $4,000 per month.

"Foreign aid groups should understand the needs of the people of Afghanistan," says Yusuf, director of Aschiana. "A lot of them come here and make their proposals and get their funding and spend the money, and it is not what the Afghan people need."

At the school in Mohammad Agha, west of Kabul, much of the work is going ahead without money from Kabul or aid agencies. More than 1,300 boys have enrolled in the school, compared with just 600 during Taliban times. In addition, more than 300 girls have enrolled in school for the first time in six years.

Some teachers have gone without salaries for months on end. One of the better-off teachers has donated his salary to pay rent on a nearby house, which has been converted into a girls' school.

Despite this willingness to rely on local resources and individual generosity, Vice Principal Abdullah Ilham says that many local Afghans are growing frustrated with the slow pace of aid. Until the American Red Cross packets arrived, the school had received no aid since 1994, when a Swedish charity delivered some desks and chairs, which have since fallen apart.

Villagers are watching now to see if the world's donor nations honor their promises and start delivering aid to rural districts like their own.

"The Russians came; we tested them, and they failed," says Mr. Ilham. "Now it is the time for the Americans to be tested. We hope we can remain helpful to the US in the war on terrorism, and we hope they will also help us."

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