With aid to Afghanistan, past performance is a predictor of future returns

A lot of aid to Afghanistan has been squandered. The latest project indicates that the US still doesn't seem to understand the country's basic needs.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghan street children leave Afghanistan's Children- A New Approach (ASCHIANA) center after finishing their school hours in Kabul, Afghanistan, last month. The impending withdrawal of US and other foreign combat forces from Afghanistan means more than a loss of firepower. International aid is also on the decline because of donor fatigue and fears of deteriorating security after nearly 12 years of war.

In Afghanistan, it's not so much that the US is failing to learn from history. It's that it also seems to be failing to learn from the present.

During the past decade of war there, billions of dollars of US spending have been stolen, squandered, or have simply disappeared into well-intentioned projects that were inappropriate for Afghan needs.

So what is the US up to now? Planning more spending, even after US troops depart at the end of next year when it will have even less ability to monitor and account for spending than it does now.

This year the US is planning to spend $10 billion on Afghan "reconstruction" alone. While US plans for the country may begin to get some attention given the fight in Washington over slashing spending, raising taxes, or doing both, US plans for Afghanistan seem to be on auto-pilot. And some, frankly, seem utopian given its experiences there.

Take USAID's announced plan to spend some $300 million on Afghan women's rights over the next five years (which has been in the works for more than a year, with for-profit companies scrambling for the spoils). Considering past problems, the prospect that all this money will be spent wisely, or spent at all, is very low, with US and other foreign troops scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2014. At that point, traveling the country at the behest of the US telling Afghans they need to change their culture will become even more dangerous than it is today.

But even if every nickel was spent as the US government intended, it's still a bad idea. And it reveals the fact that the US, after a decade of war there, still doesn't seem to understand Afghanistan, either in terms of culture or its basic needs.

The cart before the horse

After US forces drove the Taliban from power in 2002, Afghanistan remained a land where warlords wield power in their home districts, where the principal business of government officials is the collecting of rents and the direction of patronage to friends and family members, and where the massive US military presence is nothing so much as an ore-body to be mined, relentlessly, until it's tapped out.

In the absence of law and order, quality health care, and economic opportunity (Afghanistan's GDP is largely driven by aid spending and the opium trade), $300 million on women's rights in isolation seems like a folly. If you can't enforce basic order, or find a way to finance the government beyond foreign handouts, or make major inroads into high maternal and childhood mortality rates (US claims healthcare successes there to the contrary), how are hundreds of millions of dollars going to make any difference?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Afghanistan's women "we will not abandon you." Well, members of Congress are probably not going to start tabling bills to allow Afghan women to emigrate to the US to escape harsh conditions in their home country. And when it becomes too dangerous for young, well-meaning foreigners to travel across Afghanistan explaining to local folk how they're leading their lives in the wrong fashion, what then?

Read this sentence from the USAID proposal and see if you can count the management-speak buzzwords: "WLD will enable women to develop urgently needed leadership competencies that will create a prominent group of female role models and change agents in all sectors who will serve as models for girls and younger women.”

"WLD" stands for "Women's Leadership Development," a $20 million chunk of the USAID plan, and it is highly unlikely it will "enable" much beyond the careers of a few aid workers.

Huge hurdles

Positive role models are nice and all, but the problem for women and girls in Afghanistan isn’t that they’re unaware that women can have successful careers. It's that sometimes they get killed by their male family members for participating in programs like this, or are targeted by groups like the Taliban. In Afghanistan's Laghman Province, the local director of women's affairs, Naija Sediqi, was assassinated last December. She had been on the job for five months, following the assassination of her female predecessor Hanifa Safi.

The USAID document soliciting bids for this large women's rights project acknowledges it isn't just the Taliban that are hostile to their overall goals, noting that a clerical code of conduct for women endorsed by the government "condones wife beating under certain circumstances and aims to restrict women's mobility, causing many Afghan women to fear that transition will herald a reversal of their decade-long struggle for safety and rights." Afghan President Hamid Karzai last year defended his endorsement of the code, saying "it is the sharia law of all Muslims and all Afghans."

USAID's document makes clear that a primary goal of this effort is fundamental social and cultural change: "Achieving a critical mass of women in leadership roles in government, civil society and the economy will make the phenomenon of women seeking and acquiring such roles less unusual, less inappropriate and viewed as a more “new normal” pattern of behavior. When applied to women, the critical mass theory is quite specific about how the advantages of women’s leadership contributions accrue to and thus become apparent to and accepted by family, community, company, and country."

Are women treated appallingly in Afghan society? Clearly. But is USAID up to the task of rendering cultural change in a place that bristles at interference from foreigners?

Even in less contentious areas, aid spending in Afghanistan has a spotty track record, at best.

The Monitor's Ben Arnoldy reported in 2010 on the mismanagement of USAID in Afghanistan, a litany of failed promises: A claim that electricity had tripled for two communities that saw almost no increase in power at all; a road paved for $2.5 million that disintegrated back into a dirt track within three months; huge sums of aid money directed to the protection of engineers and other workers, a necessary response to insurgency, but on that so most goals for development fall short.

Will USAID's plan to use "small-group interventions [to] create large-scale social change through the impact that specific participants have on
those within their personal and professional spheres of influence" work? Well, that's their theory.

From the perspective of women's rights, large-scale social change would be very welcome. But the Afghans may not agree. The one thing Afghanistan (and Iraq) should have taught the US by now is the limits of its own power.

Programs like this one show the US still hasn't learned that lesson.

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