On our costly and futile efforts in Afghanistan

afghanistan, new Zealand, defence, reconstruction, prt

Routinely, we are told that the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province has been doing a great job – and maybe they are, with the limited resources they have – but without much being available in the way of feedback from the locals about how they feel about what we’re doing there. Which is why the Listening Project report released earlier this month is so interesting, because the project team asked Bamiyan residents themselves for comment on a range of aid and security issues. The interviews were conducted with 300 respondents overall, from neighborhoods in Kabul city and north of Kabul, and among communities in and around Bamiyan and Badakhshan provinces.

Roughly, the US/NATO forces are estimated to be spending about $US100 million a day on their military efforts in Afghanistan, as opposed to some $US7 million a day in aid and development. One of the main tactical issues is whether aid and development efforts should be used to consolidate progress in peaceful and secure areas – such as Bamiyan – or used instead as a conflict management tool against the Taliban, in an effort to win hearts and minds in more dangerous parts of the country. By the middle of last year, mulilateral donors had spent about US$36 billion on development, reconstruction and humanitarian projects in Afghanistan since 2002, according to the Afghan Ministry of Finance (MoF).

While there is a lack of reliable statistics on aid expenditure, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) says there has been a major disparity in aid spending across the country.

Kabul, for instance, has received almost 20 percent of the development funding while the provinces of Daikundi, Faran and Sar-e-Pol have together received less than 1 percent, UNAMA officials told IRIN.

Not surprisingly, the governor of Bamiyan province Habiba Sarabi, feels that secure areas like her own are being relatively neglected, as aid is funneled elsewhere to win local support amid hotly contested areas. The interesting thing is that Sarabi felt other provinces with better funded PRTs were doing far better than her own province was faring with its New Zealand PRT :

The PRT in Bamyan is led by New Zealand, which, according to Sarabi, has a relatively smaller development budget than the British PRT in Helmand.

Moreover, while the circa 500,000 residents of Bamiyan received more than $47 million in development assistance in 2008, some $15 million of that money was earmarked for building a highway linking Bamiyan, Wardak and Parwan provinces and therefore could not be counted as being for her province alone – thus further reducing the per capita spend for Bamiyan, which was already well below the spend for Kabul, and arguably for troubled Helmand province as well.

So, good intentions and ability notwithstanding, our PRT effort seems to be widely perceived as under-funded, and is thus under-delivering on the expectations it has aroused. Generally, the UN perception has been that more funds need to be spent in Bamiyan, as this report indicates:

“We focus too much on conflict provinces and we spend enormous amounts of money there and it does not have much impact because of the conflict,” said the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, during a recent visit to Bamyan Province. “The balance [of aid spending by donors] is wrong,” he said, adding that development aid had little impact in the insecure provinces but significant effect in stable provinces like Bamyan. “I am afraid that if we don’t spend more money in stable provinces we will also see instabilities here. It should be a warning signal to us all [and] teach us a lesson [to] direct money to the stable provinces,” Eide said.

For years now, the New Zealand taxpayer has been pouring millions of defence dollars into our PRT effort in Bamiyan. This been part of a NATO/US effort that is steadily losing the wider war. Moreover, even in Bamiyan – supposedly the success story among the PRTs – our effort, while appreciated, is also seen to be inadequate. So, what were the locals telling the Listening Project team? One, that being a civilian in a war zone is a damned either way situation :

If we keep our beards long, we’re called Al Qaeda, if we keep our beards short, Taliban say we’re international. We pray to our god, we don’t need aid, we don’t want to be killed.” – Internally displaced person from southern province, speaking in Kabul.

Some in the NGO sector in Bamiyan do see progress :

“There have been big changes here. When I came in 2003, there was hardly any traffic on the roads. We set up some literacy classes and human rights awareness courses for women in the villages around here. They did not allow us to take their picture. We tried to hire female staff but no one came. Women could not move freely then or speak to men. Now there is no problem. We can work with women. What explains the change? Two reasons: the hard work of NGOs and the fact that people in Bamiyan are open to reform. They are tired of war.” – Head of a local development NGO sub-office in Bamiyan.

Others however, see only waste, corruption and a siphoning off of aid and development money through a thicket of sub-contracting, in Kabul and Bamiyan alike :

The donor comes to an international NGO, the INGO comes to a local NGO, the local NGO comes to a contractor, the contractor to a sub-contractor and finally we receive nothing.” – Resident of Kabul

The Listening Project respondents explained how this cycle of corruption worked: procurement officers give contracts to contractors for 10% of the contract amount. People speculated about how such deals are made: “Here is a $4 million contract, give me $400,000” or “Here is a $100 million contract, give me $10 million.” In one conversation, a person hypothesized how an American contractor had won a bid to build a road (the very road the Listening Team was sitting next to) at $750,000 per kilometer but then subcontracted with another foreign company to build the road for $350,000 per kilometer. The individual assumed that $400,000 per kilometer went straight to America for no work other than writing the proposal that won the contract. A number of other people questioned the honesty of contractors brought in by aid providers.

“Why is it that you don’t care about the corruption of your contractors? Why don’t you monitor? Why don’t you come and see?” – Resident of Kabul

“Contractors are bad. The main road near the village is poorly done because they took money out of the budget.” – Farmer and Shura member in Bamiyan Province

“Local NGOs are like robbers. We trust the internationals more, but there is a lot of wastage in international organizations, for example highly paid consultants in the ministries. Some earn $2,000 per day. My boss in the PRT gets $17,000 per month.” – Afghan journalist in Bamiyan Province

“We are unsatisfied with the assistance of the INGOs working through local NGOs and the government. As you know, the large salaries are where the money goes. The INGOs should come directly to the people. A minister buys around ten cars which are expensive but are not needed.” – Shura member in Bamiyan Province

“There have been many promises but nothing has happened. The money has disappeared in someone’s pocket. Government and NGOs are brothers in corruption. Look at the [highway]— it cost more than $1 million and it is falling apart. Money has been spent but it has been wasted. The origin of the problem is lack of honesty of agencies…NGOs bypass the government. NGOs do not understand our needs. The government knows but it is not honest. There is a disconnect between the needs of the people and what agencies are doing. Top-down is not a good relationship.” – Faculty member at Bamiyan University

Nor, it seems is the aid effort within Bamiyan being fairly distributed :

Impact of assistance? Where it has come it has been good. But there is imbalance: if we knew powerful people we would get more. Bamiyan center and Yakaolang are getting much more because the previous governor was from Yakaolang. The current governor does not pay much attention. People demonstrated about the [road being not wide enough], but nothing has been done.” – Farmer in Bamiyan Province

While some aid projects were welcomed and gratitude was expressed to the Listening Project teams, suspicion was also quite common about the motives of NGO donors and the PRTs – and whether for instance the highway in Bamiyan was motivated by a desire to extract artifacts and precious minerals more easily. Again complaints in Bamiyan were common of NGOs and PRTs coming in, taking notes, making promises and vanishing – or if they did return, delivering far less than they had promised. The Listening Project team summarized it this way :

In Bamiyan, people expressed frustration that many households in their village were not counted and so they did not receive the fair amount of funds…They believed that compared to other villages, their projects were much smaller and they blamed the government and its partner NGOs for this error. People often recounted the “promises” made by NGOs, PRTs, and government representatives and expressed disappointment that there were few visible results.

The quality of the reconstruction work being done in Bamiyan and elsewhere was also questioned, and compared unfavourably by some, to the type of aid provided during the Soviet era :

Among many others, a pharmacist in the Fuladi Valley in Bamiyan said he was unhappy that many aid agencies come to Afghanistan, but then provide poor quality work: “We do not have roads, no big visible projects. Their work is bad quality, only a few wells and bridges. If I was the representative of the people I would tell aid agencies to work or get out.” Another person exclaimed, “You wouldn’t build a road this bad in your country, why do you do it here?”

“NGOs should always do best engineering quality. They should do the quality of other places, like where they come from. Low budgets make the quality of the projects bad. They should make the project fit the budget. Each assistance project has to have enough budget. If you have enough for one house, make one house don’t try to make three to four houses. If the budget is small then the road should be shorter.” – Mullah in a village school in Bamiyan Province

“Quality of work is bad. An example is the road in Bamiyan center—only the center part of the road was paved. The basic needs of people have not been addressed. There is no mosque at the hospital, no place for relatives to sit. NGO projects are 80% good, 20% bad. Sometimes the quality is inferior. Bad technique is the issue…NGOs and companies should do better technical work. We want the same quality as in foreign countries. Why is the quality so bad here as compared to your countries? We need to improve from poor quality to super quality…” – Mullah in Fuladi Valley, Bamiyan Province

“No one evaluates the PRTs? Everyone should be evaluated! The Government, the PRTs and the NGOs.” – Afghan government representative speaking at a Listening Feedback Session in Kabul

“In general Bamiyan has been assisted but not how we wanted. There is a well but it is dry and it doesn’t work.” – Driver for an international organization working in Bamiyan Province

Many complained to the Listening Team that NGOs and PRTs were building facilities – hospitals and schools – that many people simply could not afford, and not providing basics such as electricity, good quality roading or enterprises that were likely to generate employment.

“Where has all the aid money gone? The Soviets at least built factories. We need factories, not small projects we can do ourselves.” – Community member in Bamiyan

“Yes, there are changes but compared to peoples’ expectations and what has been done in other provinces, not enough has been done. This is why people are disappointed with the government and outsiders. In terms of civic-political rights, NGOs are doing a good job. But for economic- social rights, big problems remain. According to our annual survey, 50% of families are below the poverty line.” – Staff of Independent Human Rights commission sub-office in Bamiyan province

Nothing is visible, no big projects. We need a hospital but there is no hospital. A PRT promised help with roads and electricity…a few days ago, I went to Mazar-i- Sharif and I saw many things, but why not here. I swear to God, nothing is done here.” – Pharmacist in a bazaar in Bamiyan Province

“[With the] PRTs, people are not satisfied. We do not need their efforts, but peace. “PRT” stands for reconstruction, but we see nothing from their efforts.” – Field worker in Bamiyan Province

All of these responses, are of course, anecdotal. Given the atrocities committed by the Taliban against the Hazara majority in Bamiyan, the Taliban will hardly be welcomed. Still, the Listening Team report is a useful warning, and it provides a necessary balance to the cheery photos ops and glowing p.r. reports about how well our PRT efforts are being received by the grateful locals in Afghanistan.

The reality in Bamiyan, obviously, is less rosy. At a time when we are being told to tighten our belts at home and seeing cuts in social services, we are still continuing to pour millions of dollars down a sinkhole in Afghanistan, in a war that we are losing, day by day. Even in Bamiyan, the locals don’t seem to be all that happy about our efforts.


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