In Afghanistan, think small

The chaos around Afghanistan's raucous loya jirga (grand assembly), which ended late last week, reflects the messiness of state-building. Insecurity remains rampant there, and consensus has not yet emerged for the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force beyond Kabul. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has asserted that American forces would not be part of any peacekeeping force. Instead, Western governments plan to help build an indigenous army and police force to suppress quarreling warlords and bandits already exploiting the post-Taliban security vacuum. But building an effective police force will take years, and security is an urgent concern.

There is a better way. Instead, a recovery strategy aimed at security should focus particularly on returning refugees outside Kabul, and on building community-based small businesses.

The repatriation of refugees and internal exiles will undoubtedly drive recovery efforts in Afghanistan. Given the size of the exile population – 5 million refugees and internally displaced persons out of a population of 26 million – a large return could either exacerbate the chaos or contribute to Afghanistan's stability. At the outset of 2002, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees planned for the return of approximately 1.25 million persons. But more than 1 million refugees already have come back. As individuals return to war-torn communities, they will become a force that will greatly influence the future of Afghanistan and the quality of recovery for its people.

Afghanistan needs a rehabilitation strategy that takes into account both the pervasive climate of insecurity and the dramatic scale of repatriation. For that reason, microenterprise, such as small manufacturing and agricultural projects, which have proven to help the poor in developing countries, should be an important component of the recovery strategy. As local people are provided with the means to repair houses, plant crops, or obtain and use tools, a vested interest in stability can spread throughout the community.

There are many advantages to a grass-roots focus. A fully developed financial sector, something Afghanistan will not have for a long time, would not be needed. Initiatives can be taken quickly since the general level of impoverishment wouldn't require an elaborate needs assessment. Both men and women would benefit, although the exclusion of women from public life under the Taliban means that they are likely to benefit even more. And projects such as small-scale farming or carpet-weaving are too small to be targeted for looting or diversion.

Small projects represent an interface between highly divergent relief and development perspectives. Development experts think in terms of national plans and economic strategies that require years to implement; small projects are designed to build confidence among returnees and receiving communities and can contribute to economic development in the places where returning populations set down roots.

The international community offers recent rebuilding experience to draw upon from places such as Cambodia, El Salvador, and Mozambique. The United Nations Development Program funded similar small projects in Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule, expending approximately $20 million throughout the country by working with local community structures to undertake a variety of small-community development initiatives. Projects such as repairing irrigation channels and drilling water wells were small enough to stay off the Taliban's radar, but important enough to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. Small viable projects like these could now be expanded. In contrast, the multidonor trust fund to be administered by the World Bank, beginning with a committed $10 million for contractors to develop financial accountability in Afghanistan, will take a considerable amount of time to implement.

Significantly, relatively few of the projects submitted to donors by international organizations and NGOs for funding this year explicitly feature microfinancing. But smallness, giving loans to small businesses and making small grants for public works, is a proven approach in postconflict recovery and refugee repatriation operations.

An Afghan-American who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan told me, "If you give the Afghan people $10,000, they can use it more effectively than if you provided $100,000 to international groups." A community-based approach would directly provide the Afghan people with the means to achieve their own aspirations and rebuild Afghanistan.

• Arthur C. Helton is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of 'The Price of Indifference' (Oxford University Press, 2002).

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