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Afghanistan war: USAID spends too much, too fast to win hearts and minds

In the Afghanistan war, it's quantity vs. quality: The USAID battle for hearts and minds is being lost just as President Obama's 'civilian surge' prepares to more than double annual assistance to $5 billion.

By / Staff Writer / July 28, 2010

In the Afghanistan war for hearts and minds, too much money, given too fast may actually lose the battle for USAID. A girl fills a water jug in the village of Kor Kah, where locals voted to use aid on a clean water project. That project was part of the National Solidarity Program -- funded by Western countries, including the US – which gives small grants and lets Afghans decide for themselves how to use the money.

Monique Jaques/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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Kabul, Afghanistan

The US government strategy for improving its struggling reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan relies heavily on spending more money. More on bigger and quicker projects, more on aid workers, and more on monitors – a "civilian surge" to win hearts and minds.

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That should be welcome news to development professionals who have spent careers toiling in ravaged regions with only band-aid budgets.

But in Afghanistan, some aid workers actually argue that the aid flow has become a desperate gambit – throwing too much money with too little thought at the problem. They say that perhaps less money is more.

Even consultants hired by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to evaluate its Afghan projects drop such hints. Tucked near the bottom of a new report on a four-year, $60 million aid project in the remote northern province of Badakhshan (detailed in the Monitor's investigative piece "How USAID loses hearts and minds") lies the argument in almost haiku precision: "It would have been better to do less, but endow what was done with more staying power."

That's not the message USAID is getting from above, however. With a 2011 deadline for a troop drawdown, US military strategy is putting a lot of pressure on the agency – the biggest reconstruction actor in the country – to show more quick impact to help pacify the insurgency in time.

Related: How USAID lost hearts and minds in Afghanistan

A firehose of spending has been unleashed: Through an account called the Economic Support Fund, US spending on Afghan development rose from $1.4 billion in 2008 to roughly $2 billion in 2009 and in 2010, and President Obama is requesting it jump to $5 billion in 2011. Some in Congress are starting to balk, questioning any more aid until Afghan corruption can be curbed.

Among the skeptics of the surge is Andrew Wilder, a professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who has conducted fieldwork in southern Afghanistan. His research questions the whole notion that development will win over Afghan hearts and minds and contribute to stability.

"The main drivers of instability in southern Afghanistan are not largely related to poverty or lack of reconstruction or social services," says Mr. Wilder. Instead, corrupt government is a large part of the problem.

But, the current thinking that lack of development is an irritant has the United States spending what Wilder calls a "tsunami of cash" – a response that may actually be making things worse.

The danger is that large amounts fuel perceptions of waste and corruption among Afghans when projects don't live up to the price tags. The big budgets also scare off experienced nonprofits that don't want to jeopardize quality by scaling up too quickly.

"We should do as much as we can effectively and accountably, and no more. When we start spending money unaccountably, then it's having a lot of negative consequences, including perceptions of corruption. That then delegitimizes the government, which causes instability," says Wilder.

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Spending larger sums of money through USAID diminishes the quality of assistance in several ways, argue critics.

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