Leaving Afghan Development in the Wrong Hands

Why Relying on Locals Isn't the Answer


A micro power facility built through the NSP in Laghman province, Afghanistan. (National Security Program / flickr) 

As the date for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, neither Washington nor Kabul is paying enough attention to long-term development. The lack of a strategy for the day after troops depart will leave Afghanistan unable to sustain itself -- a scenario that is not good for the Afghan people or for the donor population.

The international community, to the extent that it has considered the development question, has hung virtually all its hopes on the Afghan government's National Solidarity Program, which relies on rural citizens to carry out development projects. According to many think tanks, the NSP offers the best way forward, because, in the words of the Center for a New American Security, it "generates institutions at the local level that are crucial to any vision of a self-sustaining Afghan state."

But some major and unavoidable contradictions are built into the NSP framework, keeping the program from realizing its potential. Namely, by relying on unskilled local populations, the program dooms itself to inefficiency. Meanwhile, the NSP's too-short project timelines mean that there is hardly time to transfer any skills to locals, so gains are fleeting, if ever achieved at all. Unless its weaknesses are addressed, the NSP will prove unsustainable and could end up further undermining the Afghan people's confidence in their government -- the exact opposite of what the program was once hoped to deliver. 

The NSP was created in 2003 by the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development after Ashraf Ghani, the country's finance minister at the time, advocated for a community-led development program. He had closely followed the work of Scott Guggenheim, his friend from graduate school, who had successfully used the community-driven approach in Indonesia in the late 1990s. The NSP today consists of 28,884 Community Development Councils, which are elected to consult with locals to establish a list of development priorities. The projects they select together are meant

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