|Though school attendance for girls has increased, the country still faces severe poverty and malnutrition, NGOs have told Al Jazeera [GALLO/GETTY]
As the Afghan government and the international donor community meet in Paris on June 12 to decide the future nature of assistance to the war-ravaged nation, NGOs and rights groups are urging that the needs of ordinary citizens come first.
Some $15 billion has been spent on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan since the US-led coalition deposed the Taliban and set up a democratic-influenced government in 2000.
But international aid groups believe donor priorities continue to overlook the needs of the people.
Oxfam, the international development agency which has maintained a long-term commitment and experience in Afghanistan, is critical of both the quantity and quality of aid that has been disbursed in the country.
"So far international aid to Afghanistan has not gone far enough to alleviate the poverty and suffering of the Afghan people," Matt Waldman, Afghanistan policy advisor for Oxfam International, said in a statement provided to Al Jazeera.
"The amount of international aid has been wholly insufficient given the huge job of reconstruction in Afghanistan. Of the aid that has been given too much has been driven by the priorities of the international community and its security concerns rather [than] meeting the needs of the people and building a more effective state," he added.
Though donor countries cite the return of six million children to school and the expansion of medical services and construction of roads as major achievements, there are limitations to the "success story".
The percentage of the population living below the minimum dietary level has increased from 30 to 35 per cent in the past year, increasing the need for food aid.
According to the National Human Development Report of 2007, literacy levels have fallen from 28.7 per cent in 2003 to 23.5 per cent in 2007.
Life expectancy figures have also fallen from 44.5 years in 2003 to 43.1 years in 2007.
Chrissie Hirst, the Chief of Policy and Advocacy in DACAAR, a development NG, says that while donors are willing to spend some amount on food aid, "they are not prepared to fund long-term intervention to provide for long-term food security".
Though 70-80 per cent of the country is dependant on agriculture, the total investment in this sector since 2001 has been only $400-$500 million.
"The agriculture sector is seriously underfunded," Hirst told Al Jazeera.
Drastic change needed
The Paris conference will be the venue for new benchmarks to be set as the final Afghanistan National Development Strategy, the roadmap for the next five years, is rolled out and fresh donor commitments are made. The follow-up to the London Compact of 2006 is expected to further cement the partnership between the Afghan government and international donors.
|Some 35 per cent of the population are at risk
of malnutrition, agencies say [GETTY]
Participants are also expected to use slogans like 'Afghan first' and 'Afghan ownership' to reflect their commitment to Afghanistan. However, not everyone is convinced that Paris will result in the much-needed tectonic shift needed to bring about an alignment between donor and Afghan priorities.
Lorenzo Delesgues, the director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an Afghan NGO that is committed to "increase transparency, integrity and accountability in Afghanistan's reconstruction process," says the status quo hinders the country's development.
"More of the same is not an option," he said.
Though foreign aid accounts for 90 per cent of all public expenditure in Afghanistan, Delesgues says "it remains highly unpredictable and too much aid is channelled outside of the government's priorities and of the core government budget".
USAID, the American aid agency, accounted last year for 40 per cent of the aid to Afghanistan. However 90 per cent of USAID spending remains outside the government budget, something that Delesgues says, must change.
"It is very important for them to increase aid but also their accountability to the government by channeling aid through the Afghan government," he said.
Government supervision required?
According to a recent report by Acbar, the coordinating agency for NGOs working in Afghanistan, 70 per cent of the aid coming in is spent outside the government budget and an estimated 40 per cent of the aid returns to the donor countries in the form of contracts awarded to implementing agencies and high salaries of expatriate experts.
| foreign consultant can cost between $250,000 and $500,000 per year.
At approximately $60 per month, an Afghan civil servant with a family of four (Afghan families are usually larger) is just above the acceptable poverty level of $14 per capita per month.
Reports in recent weeks indicated that the escalating price of wheat was putting the cost of food well beyond the salaries of even government employees.
"Despite high level of aid pledged, aid remains highly unpredictable and too much aid is channeled outside of the government's priorities and the government budget," Delesgues told Al Jazeera.
He believes that the lack of consultation with the local populace has meant that the Afghan population has "not yet become an actor of aid but is a subject of aid".
This is an issue that the Afghan government has said is an impediment to development.
Funding government aid
The Joint Coordination Monitoring Board (JCMB), a joint body set up to coordinate between the international donors and the Afghan government and reporting directly to the Afghan president, noted that "a significant portion of external resources provided to Afghanistan are still routed directly to projects by donors rather than to the government's budget".
The JCMB said lack of government supervision undermines the ability and flexibility of the Afghan government to commit funds to development priorities and to increase the funding of provincial based programs.
Action Aid, a development NGO has also called on the donor community to "pledge huge aid to be expensed by the Afghans themselves according to their needs and not as donors wish".
The NGO called on the international donor community to establish mechanisms at all levels, villages, districts, where people and their elected representatives are able to monitor and evaluate development work and aid distribution in their areas.
Mudasser Hussain Siddiqui, Policy Research and Advocacy coordinator for Action Aid Afghanistan told Al Jazeera: "Donors need to keep the needs and requirements of Afghans in mind rather than their own geopolitical and security considerations."