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The Case Against Incrementalism
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 to benefit a broad public, not just specific groups. While executing projects, the NSP emphasizes partnership between the government and local populations by integrating local preferences and ideas.
The NSP structure was intended to embody the notion of "participatory development," which has become something of a slogan within the development community. Today, the program is almost a poster child for the concept. Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), for example, touts it as giving communities the opportunity to create a new civic infrastructure -- an essential component of any successful counterinsurgency campaign. Some also believe that it strengthens the sense of local ownership in projects and ensures that the gains are sustained over the long term. After a visit to an NSP-built primary school near Bagram, for example, Levin noted that villagers were "prepared to defend [the school] with their lives against the Taliban."
Despite its good intentions, the NSP has fallen well short of expectations. Put simply, it is not very efficient: its wholehearted focus on giving communities everything they want diminishes its ability to deliver what they need. The NSP glorifies the processes at the expense of providing substantive outcomes.
To begin with, rural Afghans have low tolerance for social risk. Local consensus generally favors non-controversial programs, which, in turn, leads to a complete denial of important projects. One striking example is girls' education: a mere 4.34 percent of the total budget disbursed through the NSP since 2003 was directed toward education, and those funds are usually spent on the construction and refurbishment of schools. Only 30 percent of the schools built by the NSP are for girls.
Meanwhile, the NSP is plagued by a lack of expertise among its local staff. The Afghan civil war of the 1990s, and the years of Taliban rule that followed, brought the level of infrastructure and human capital in the country to near zero. Afghan villagers simply lack the skills needed to efficiently implement projects. For example, in 2010, villagers in Tatar Khil spent approximately $55,000 on a school that the NSP later declared "failed" due to inadequate quality. Yet another example is a school that the NSP built in Kapisa province that did not meet the quality standards set by the provincial Department of Education. In Baghlan province, locals received funds from the NSP to build hydroelectric power plants, water supply and irrigation networks, and sanitation facilities. But the necessary skills and equipment to complete such ambitious projects were in short supply and many of them were halted before they were finished -- or didn't work once they were.
Beyond NSP's regular two- to three-year commitment, some communities become eligible for what is called the Cycle III phase, formerly known as Cycle II+, which provides an additional 12 months of need-based support. The extra funds are meant to help communities successfully finish projects that they have already started. But not every villiage and town is assured of this extra help. Without it, the NSP's projects are simply too quick and too short-lived. What Afghanistan needs most is a population with technical skills. Those take longer to develop than two or three years.
Finally, since participatory development projects are planned and carried out at the local level, they are vulnerable to local "elite capture," or embezzlement by program officials. That is especially true for the NSP, given Afghanistan's tribal dynamics and the prominence local commanders gained during the anti-Soviet jihad. In Parwan province, one NSP council member, who was not elected but imposed on the program because of his powerful father was accused of siphoning off program money. He was never held responsible because he claimed to be protected by the police and a member of parliament. Donor representatives believe that local council members regularly hire relatives or friends from other villages for infrastructure projects; this raises their suspicions that they are not reliable partners and hold programs back from being efficient (on the other hand, some members might just trust family members to be more reliable).
The NSP will not put Afghanistan on the path to prosperity. What the country needs is a new program -- one that would overcome the current one's problems. For starters, such a program should reduce the maximum allotment of aid from $60,000 per community in phase one to $30,000. This would minimize the incentive for elites to steal and would allow rural communities to test out specific projects with smaller sums. A new NSP would also arrange for councils to work with communities for five to ten years, in order to transfer professional skills and give social norms a chance to change. (The two modifications would offset each other: increased commitment time would be made possible by a fifty percent cut in the first round of funding. The NSP currently promises $60,000 over two to three years; the new program would total that over five to ten.) A new and improved NSP would also require more community financial contribution to each project. The program would start off asking for a 10 percent payment, as the NSP currently does, but it would increase that ask by 10 to 15 percent every year to reduce dependency. By the time a project was completed, ownership and management would have completely transferred to locals.
The executive director of NSP, Mohammad Ismati, has set the goal of the organization "attaining the landmark of full national coverage" in the next four years. Instead, Afghans must strive for substantive outcomes in each and every community. Quality matters. If designed and implemented correctly, a smarter development strategy could provide for a sustainable transition beyond 2014; otherwise, Afghanistan is doomed to depending on others. And that would lead to a vicious cycle of instability and reduced donor commitment; Afghans, and the rest of the world, would have to start again from scratch.