Give smart aid to protect gains in Afghanistan

A few years after 9/11, I worked for an aid agency in Kabul. One of the memories I cherish most is that of Sahar, a soft-spoken Afghan who was 20 then. Her mom didn’t like her working, because she was a woman. But she showed up every morning, her head wrapped in chador and her large brown eyes both cautious and curious. I taught her how to use Excel and convert Afghanis into U.S. dollars. She said she wanted to be an interior designer someday.

One time, she told me in passing that she’d never smoked a cigarette. So I bought a pack, locked the office door, and showed her how to smoke (“Inhale, Sahar, inhale”). I don’t think she enjoyed the taste, but she was thrilled to hold a cigarette.

Withdrawing development aid to Afghanistan now will crush the modest improvements in the life of young Afghan women like Sahar, for which over 2,000 Americans gave their life. The choice facing the U.S. and the international community is not just between full engagement or total retreat.

There is a third option: lean, intelligent aid for Afghan-driven programs that can maximize the impact of money.

There is already a plan in place, too. In 2010, Afghanistan and 40 countries agreed on specific benchmarks and time frame for the government in Kabul to get its act together and take charge of reconstruction. The donors committed to assisting the government tackle corruption, enhance security and protect women’s rights.

Multiple conferences have since taken place to build on the Kabul process. Many of the deadlines have passed, but both sides still need to make good on their words.

It is true that Afghanistan still languishes at the bottom of the UN human development index, after billions of aid dollars (the U.S. alone has dumped $100 billion). A quarter of children die before reaching their fifth birthday; 70 percent of adults remain illiterate.

Yet, I can’t ignore the tiny sliver of progress it has made, if fitfully, in the face of unrelenting violence and rampant corruption.

In a decade, life expectancy jumped from 45 to 49. Maternal and infant mortality rates, although still unacceptably high, plummeted. In 2001, no girl saw the inside of a classroom. Today, 40 percent of all children enrolled in school are girls, even though many of them may not be attending classes regularly.

Violence against women is pervasive, and getting worse according to a new UN report, but women also make up a quarter of parliament – more than in U.S. Congress where 18 percent are women.

Detractors contend that there’s no point in sending aid because we won’t be doing a better job of monitoring the programs with a smaller force (these folks also argue that we should cut the loss and get out of Afghanistan). Independent reports chronicling how vast sums have been squandered bolster their claim.

The sensible response to the shrinking operational reach is not cutting off assistance or outsourcing monitoring; it’s being smart about where to give it. It’s a chance to bravely part from wasteful practices and double down on initiatives that have shown results.

For those who argue that the Afghan government is too corrupt to channel aid, let’s remember that the two of the most successful programs in the history of Afghan development are run by the ministries in Kabul.

The National Solidarity Program, administered by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, has enabled villagers to build small-scale infrastructure in all 34 provinces with just a fraction of the billions. Since Afghans are in charge of implementing and monitoring, it doesn’t require outside inspectors or U.S. troops for protection.

The Ministry of Public Health expanded essential health care coverage from nine percent of the population in 2003 to over 80 percent. It has trained more than 20,000 community health workers, half of them women, who travel throughout the country vaccinating children and helping expectant mothers.

While local development programs like these cannot build national electric grid or railways, they can bring improvements to violent and neglected areas.

Development transpires over generations. Anyone who believes they can parachute into a country embroiled in crisis and make quick fixes by unloading a large amount of cash are being arrogant.

I’ve since lost touch with Sahar. Seeing how easily things could come apart, I’m afraid she might lose the freedom that allowed her to choose her own path both personally and professionally.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2014. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.