Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Where has all the Afghan aid gone ?
Last month, a senior EU parliamentarian, Pino Arlacchi, said a staggering 70-80 percent of the $34 billion in aid earmarked for Afghanistan since 2002 never reached the Afghan people due to corruption, waste and donors witholding funds.
Although Arlacchi’s figures were only an estimate based on a visit to Afghanistan in March and while few would dispute the fact billions of dollars in aid have been wasted over the last eight years, the numbers can also be somewhat misleading.
According to the Afghan government, $36 billion has been “spent” by foreign donors in Afghanistan since 2002. Of that total, $19 billion was allocated for training and equipping the Afghan police and army and the remaining $17 billion for development and reconstruction. More than half of the $36 billion, therefore, was never destined to reach “ordinary” Afghans in the first place.
“That is quite significant in a way, because of course security assistance you wouldn’t be expecting to reach the Afghans in a developmental type of way. So I think we have to be a bit careful about the terms that we use. I see so many misinterpretations of aid figures,” said Matt Waldman, a fellow at Harvard University currently based in Afghanistan and author of a critical 2008 report on aid effectiveness.
“We also have to be a bit careful about saying that only a small scale of the money is reaching the Afghans. What do we mean by ‘reaches the Afghans?’ It wouldn’t be right if all of it was just distributed as cash,” said Waldman.
Afghanistan has endured three decades of war and what little infrastructure did exist has either been damaged or destroyed. The country also suffered a “brain drain” during years of fighting, with many educated and skilled Afghans seeking a better life abroad.
It is inevitable therefore, said Waldman, a significant amount of aid money will have to be spent on foreign aid organisations and on advisors, experts and contractors who are often doing jobs that Afghans are not yet able to do.
“We’ve got to begin by acknowledging that we’re never going to get 100 percent reaching the Afghans. It’s just not possible, that wouldn’t be a realistic way of working,” said Waldman.
What most critics do agree on, however, is that the money spent on those contractors and experts is often far too high and with often very little to show for it.
According to Waldman’s 2008 report, 40 percent of all aid money leaves the country in corporate profits or salaries, with some contractors costing anything from $250,000 to $500,000 a year.
“Some of the salaries and costs associated with international consultants are not reasonable and nor do they in many cases correspond to their value added,” said Waldman.
Most importantly, this view seems to be shared by most Afghans.
A U.N. report on corruption last January found that 54 percent of Afghans believe international aid organisations “are corrupt and are in the country just to get rich”.
“This perception risks undermining aid effectiveness and discrediting those trying to help a country desperately in need of assistance,” the United Nations said in the report which was based on interviews with 7,600 Afghans across the country.
This resentment by many Afghans of the hundreds of aid organisations and foreign companies that have flocked to Afghanistan since 2002 largely stems from a frustration at the slow pace of development over the last eight years.
In many parts of the country, particularly rural areas, life for most people has changed very little. Take away the cheap Chinese motorcycle parked outside a mud compound or the iron kettle boiling tea on an open fire and most snapshots of rural Afghan life could have been taken 1,000 years ago. Getting clean drinking water for many is a luxury, or at the least a daily
chore and electricty is a distant dream.
Even in the cities, many Afghans still have no running water in their homes and have to put up with frequent electricity blackouts. In the capital Kabul, winter rain and snow turns the city’s predominantly dirt roads into a mud-bath.
So should the international community pour more aid money into Afghanistan? Even if all the aid money pledged over the last eight years had “reached” the Afghans, most people agree the amount still falls vastly short of what the country needs. But simply injecting more cash without monitoring where it is going may not be the answer.
“It’s not a case of the overall volume of aid. It’s not that should be increased now. We don’t have the mechanisms in place to ensure that it would be spent efficiently,” said Waldman.
“It’s a case of making sure its better spent.”