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Development and Stability

November 20, 2009


A recent study completed by the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University seems to cast doubt about the strategy of securing peace by helping people engaged in conflict extricate themselves by developing their economy and gaining a stake in the future [“A ‘weapons system’ based on wishful thinking,” by Andrew Wilder, Boston Globe, 16 September 2009]. Wilder is a research director at Tufts and one of the authors of the study. In his op-ed piece, he writes:

“This summer the US government indicated that it plans to nearly double (to $1.2 billion) the main fund military commanders in Afghanistan use to support projects intended to ‘win hearts and minds.’ … The underlying assumption is that aid projects, such as building schools, clinics, and roads, will win the hearts and minds of Afghans, give them more faith in their government, and turn them away from the Taliban. The logic sounds reasonable. But the problem is that there is little evidence to support it. Some colleagues and I have spent the last year conducting more than 400 interviews in Afghanistan trying to understand the stabilization benefits of the billions of dollars worth of development aid that have been spent so far in Afghanistan. While many projects have clearly had important humanitarian and development benefits, we have found little evidence that aid projects are ‘winning hearts and minds,’ reducing conflict and violence, or having other significant counterinsurgency benefits. In fact, our research shows just the opposite. Instead of winning hearts and minds, Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative. And instead of contributing to stability, in many cases aid is contributing to conflict and instability. For example, we heard many reports of the Taliban being paid by donor-funded contractors to provide security (or not to create insecurity), especially for their road-building projects. In an ethnically and tribally divided society like Afghanistan, aid can also easily generate jealousy and ill will by inadvertently helping to consolidate the power of some tribes or factions at the expense of others – often pushing rival groups into the arms of the Taliban. In the southern province of Urozgan, an Afghan government official said to me: ‘In this area the family and friends of Karzai get everything. All aid in these areas is to make them more powerful. They are corrupt and cruel people, but donors continue to support them.’ The most destabilizing effect of aid, however, is its role in fueling massive corruption, which in turn is eroding the legitimacy of the government.”

Wilder’s arguments are actually an attack against corruption, not development. Corruption corrodes any program and undermines any development effort. I certainly can’t argue with that; but Wilder seems to be dismissing the strategy completely — throwing the baby out with bathwater as it were. Fortunately, his arguments don’t stop there. He continues:

“Our research suggests that we have failed to win Afghan hearts and minds not because we have spent too little money, but because we have spent too much too quickly, often in insecure environments with extremely limited implementation and oversight capacity.”

Wilder appears to arguing that, if implemented correctly, the strategy could work. Unfortunately, he goes on to conclude that “foreign aid should focus on promoting humanitarian and development objectives, where there is evidence of positive impact, rather than on promoting humanitarian and development objectives, where there is not. Without compelling evidence to the contrary, the United States should stop wasting money on a ‘weapons system’ that seems to be largely based on wishful thinking and the delusion that money can buy Afghan hearts and minds.” Wilder’s evidence, at least the evidence presented in his short article, doesn’t support his argument, however. The evidence he presents highlights the corrosive effects of corruption not the lack of benefits generated when developmental aid is administered properly. He notes that the Taliban point to corruption as an evil that they will eliminate. He writes, “The Taliban exploits this sentiment, and seeks to legitimize its movement by promising better security, quick justice, and a less corrupt government, rather than more roads, schools, and clinics.” Yet the reason that Osama bin Laden was welcomed into Afghanistan under the Taliban was because he brought money with him and he used that money to build infrastructure and provide social services. There is evidence within Afghanistan that the strategy of winning hearts and minds through infrastructure development can work if implemented correctly [“Afghan Enclave Seen as Model to Rebuild, and Rebuff Taliban,” by Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, 13 November 2009]. She reports:

“Small grants given directly to villagers have brought about modest but important changes in this corner of Afghanistan, offering a model in a country where official corruption and a Taliban insurgency have frustrated many large-scale development efforts. Since arriving in Afghanistan in 2001, the United States and its Western allies have spent billions of dollars on development projects, but to less effect and popular support than many had hoped for. Much of that money was funneled through the central government, which has been increasingly criticized as incompetent and corrupt. Even more has gone to private contractors hired by the United States who siphon off almost half of every dollar to pay the salaries of expatriate workers and other overhead costs. Not so here in Jurm, a valley in the windswept mountainous province of Badakhshan, in the northeast. People here have taken charge for themselves — using village councils and direct grants as part of an initiative called the National Solidarity Program, introduced by an Afghan ministry in 2003. Before then, this valley had no electricity or clean water, its main crop was poppy and nearly one in 10 women died in childbirth, one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Today, many people have water taps, fields grow wheat and it is no longer considered shameful for a woman to go to a doctor. If there are lessons to be drawn from the still tentative successes here, they are that small projects often work best, that the consent and participation of local people are essential and that even baby steps take years.”

As she continues, Tavernise sound likes she is taking direct aim at Wilder’s op-ed piece. She writes, “The issues are not academic. Bringing development to Afghans is an important part of a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at drawing people away from the Taliban and building popular support for the Western-backed government by showing that it can make a difference in people’s lives.” It makes sense that development aid works best when it directly reaches the people it is intended to help and, as a result, the people feel that they can use it to create a brighter future. Another key point seems to be that the aid should be funneled to communities rather than to individuals. Creating prosperous communities is much more important for stability than creating prosperous individuals. Jurm provides a good example of how development aid can help create stronger and more prosperous communities.

“Jurm was tormented by warlords in the 1990s, and though it never fell to the Taliban, the presence of the central government, even today, is barely felt. The idea to change that was simple: people elected the most trusted villagers, and the government in Kabul, helped by foreign donors, gave them direct grants — money to build things like water systems and girls’ schools for themselves. Local residents contend that the councils work because they take development down to its most basic level, with villagers directing the spending to improve their own lives, cutting out middle men, local and foreign, as well as much of the overhead costs and corruption. ‘You don’t steal from yourself,’ was how Ataullah, a farmer in Jurm who uses one name, described it.”

Wilder pointed out that spending too much, too fast was a bad idea. He was right. Tavernise notes that the grants provided to Jurm “were small, often less than $100,000.” She reports that the strategy used with success in Jurm “has already been replicated in thousands of villages across the country.” Wherever it has been tried, she reports, there are “anecdotal accounts [that] point to some success.” The people in the Jurm valley demonstrated that they were willing to work hard to secure a better future. “When villages in the Jurm Valley wanted running water, for instance, they did much of the work themselves, with help from an engineer. A private contractor with links to a local politician had asked triple the price. (The villagers declined.)” Tavernise is quick to point out that “even such modest steps have not come easily.” The path to success was strewn with obstacles. She concludes:

“It took a development group with determined local employees to jump-start the work here. One basic problem was literacy, said Ghulam Dekan, a local worker with the Aga Khan Development Network, the nonprofit group that supports the councils here. Unlike the situation in Iraq, which has a literacy rate of more than 70 percent, fewer than a third of Afghans can read, making the work of the councils painfully slow. Villagers were suspicious of projects, believing that the people in the groups that introduced them were Christian missionaries. ‘They didn’t understand the importance of a road,’ Mr. Dekan said. Most projects, no matter how simple, took five years. Years of war had smashed Afghan society into rancorous bits, making it difficult to resist efforts by warlords to muscle in on projects. … Muhamed Azghari, an Aga Khan employee, spent more than a year trying to persuade a mullah to allow a girls’ school. His tactic: sitting lower than the man, a sign of deference, and praising his leadership. He paid for the man to visit other villages to see what other councils had accomplished. … When it came to women, villagers were adamant. But forcing conditions would have violated a basic principle of the approach: never start a project that is not backed by all members of the community, or it will fail. … Five years later, the village of Fargamanch has women’s literacy classes and a girls’ high school. Over all, girls’ enrollment in Badakhshan is up by 65 percent since 2004, according to the Ministry of Education. The number of trained midwives has quadrupled. Health has also improved. Now, 3,270 families have taps for clean drinking water near their homes, reducing waterborne diseases. The councils are also a check on corruption. When 200 bags of wheat mysteriously disappeared from the local government this year, council members demanded they be returned. (They were.) When a minister’s aide cashed a check meant for a transformer, Mr. Ataullah spent a week tracking down a copy. (The aide was fired.) … Televisions have begun to broadcast the outside world into villages. Phone networks cover more than 80 percent of the province, triple what the figure was in 2001. Perhaps most important, Afghans are tired of war, and seeing the benefits of a decade of peace might be enough to encourage new kinds of decisions.”

The Dutch have also found success in Afghanistan using this approach. Although Dutch troops have been assigned to more peaceful areas of the country, they “have been focusing more on development work and civilian protection and less focus on fighting” [“Dutch troops’ method in Afghanistan gains new prominence,” by Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, 13 November 2009]. Magnier writes:

“In recent months, since the appointment of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as the top commander here, the new mantra for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has become: more development work, more civilian protection, less overarching focus on fighting. This is nothing new for the Dutch, who are credited with using less of a tough-guy approach here in Oruzgan province. … The Dutch soldiers came in 2006 to Oruzgan, a strategically important province north of troubled Helmand and Kandahar that is a power base for both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. The Dutch strategy, hardly rocket science but implemented earlier and more successfully than those of many allies, involved focusing resources on three ‘ink spot’ population centers — Deh Rawood, Tarin Kowt and Chora — then gradually expanding until the spots merge. Dutch planners said they’ve concentrated on community development nearly as much as military security and have worked to ensure that complex tribal, political and governmental interests had a stake in building schools and other civilian projects. This, they hoped, would encourage residents to protect the structures against Taliban attacks, even if the process required far more time and effort than paying foreign contractors to throw up a showcase project. They also sought to engage moderates and Taliban sympathizers long before the U.S. considered talking to its adversaries, trying to ‘turn’ borderline radicals and build up community goodwill. … It’s difficult to quantify the progress in Oruzgan since 2006, given a lack of consistent benchmarks, Dutch military officials said. However, they said, the ‘ink spots’ have expanded; Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital, is safer; there’s more commercial activity; and a growing number of civic groups are working in the province. … Social indicators have also improved, although they’re still rather dismal. The province of 360,000 people has seen a fivefold increase in the number doctors since 2001, to 31 from six.”

Once again the key to success appears to be engaging the community in an effort to help itself. Despite the fact that 75% of the people in the region supported by the Dutch now live in protected areas, the Dutch approach has its critics. Locals fear that the situation will deteriorate as soon as the Dutch leave. Magnier continues:

“Better security may be more a function of the Taliban’s desire for a haven near Helmand and Kandahar provinces than a result of Dutch success, others said. Insurgents recently blocked the main Tarin Kowt-Kandahar city highway for 10 days, tripling food prices, hardly a sign that they’re in flight, the others said. ‘You don’t control anything if you don’t control the road,’ said Arnold Karskens, a Brussels-based correspondent with the Dutch newspaper De Pers, who has reported extensively in Oruzgan. The Dutch, who have lost 21 soldiers in Afghanistan, have also been criticized for staying in their camps too much, leaving U.S. and Australian troops to handle the heavy fighting. ‘The others get dirty hands, allowing the Dutch to play the good guys,’ Karskens said.”

I have argued for some time that security and development go hand-in-hand. You will never have sustained development in a insecure environment; and, lack of development can exacerbate instability. If there is a legitimate beef with the Dutch approach, it is that they have either not appreciated how closely security and development are linked or are simply willing to leave security to others. If there is a thread that weaves its way through all of these stories, it is that aid implemented badly can do as much harm as good. Aid should not be considered dole. It should be used as a tool by the people not as an excuse not to work. The best way to do that, argues Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School and a former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, is to use aid to support local businesses [“Bypassing the aid trap in Pakistan,” Washington Post, 13 November 2009]. What prompted Hubbard to write an op-ed piece was a “recently approved $7.5 billion in aid to Pakistan for social and economic development.” Hubbard writes:

“The bill itself should raise questions. After all, does Pakistan, or the U.S. Agency for International Development, or any other agency that will implement the aid actually know how to successfully spend these funds? In other parts of the world, especially Africa, foreign aid has been a spectacular failure in promoting social and economic development. This bill promises more of the same.”

Hubbard, like Wilder, has seen the evidence of the damage aid can do if implementation strategies are flawed. So what does Hubbard recommend? He continues:

“There is … an example of effective large-scale aid on which to draw: the Marshall Plan of postwar Europe, which is still recognized as the most successful aid program in history. The essence of the Marshall Plan was loans to local businesses, which paid them back to their local governments, which used the money for commercial infrastructure to help those same businesses. The result was economic growth, employment and a stable middle class that opposed the popular communist parties across Europe. With creative adaptation, the same basic model can work in Pakistan. … All of the world’s prosperous countries became rich through the growth of a domestic business sector. India and China are the most recent examples of this. A thriving local business sector is the only known path to prosperity and stability.”

Those who have followed this blog know that is exactly the philosophy behind the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™. A sustainable economy requires a vibrant middle class and a vibrant middle class only emerges when local businesses create good jobs. Hubbard concludes:

“The World Bank’s Doing Business index ranks countries by how easy it is for citizens to start and run businesses. Among the 183 nations ranked, most of sub-Saharan Africa falls in the bottom half. Pakistan, at No. 85, is less anti-business than most poor countries, so a Marshall Plan there has a reasonable chance of success. Right now, nothing in the package suggests that this $7.5 billion will do any better than previous development aid, largely because government and NGO aid projects make it harder for prosperity to take root. Aid projects hire qualified staff away from local businesses. For example, they deliver fertilizer to farmers instead of a local business doing it. And they remove incentive for Pakistan to make reforms that foster business development. After all, why make it easier for business when government and NGO projects give out so much money? But a Marshall Plan would help Pakistan’s efforts to encourage its local business sector. … This is a major shift from tradition, in which the government Planning Commission was solely in charge of economic policy. Foreign aid should work with this new effort rather than at cross-purposes with it. Former secretary of state George Marshall famously suggested fighting the spread of communism in Europe through local business. That strategy could contribute to the battle against Islamic extremism. The current aid package should become a Pakistan Marshall Plan — before it’s too late.”

Afghanistan and Pakistan are not the only countries where a new development approach is required. Aid programs should be aimed first at fostering the local business sector so that jobs can be created. Where governments remain corrupt, work-arounds must be found. Experiences in Afghanistan indicate that working with local councils is a better approach anyway. Communal groups that have full knowledge about available funding won’t allow corrupt politicians to steal from the community because they know it would be robbing their future. Developed nations, who have been supplying billions of dollars in ineffectual aid, are growing both weary and impatient. That’s unfortunate because any new approach will require patience. Nevertheless, a new approach is worth trying.

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