US Afghan aid 'must focus on sustainability'

New congressional report warns that war-torn country could face economic crisis if sustainable aid approach not adopted.

    There has been a sevenfold increase in the number of children attending school since 2001, the study says [EPA]

    Afghanistan could be left in the midst of a deep financial crisis when foreign troops leave the country 2014, according to a US congressional study that recommends that the US government restructure its aid programmes in the country to focus on long-term, sustainable development.

    The two-year study, released on Wednesday, was carried out by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Democratic majority, and says that the US must make more effective use of the roughly $320 million a month it spends in the form of aid in Afghanistan.

    The Obama administration's request for fiscal year 2012 includes roughly $3.2bn in foreign aid. Afghanistan is the biggest recepient of US aid, getting $18.8bn over the last ten years.

    A recent World Bank report found that 97 per cent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product (GDP) is linked to international military forces and donors.

    "Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now,'' the report says.

    Moreover, it says that misspent foreign aid could distort labour and goods markets, fuel corruption and contribute to insecurity in the country.

    For example, it warns that heavy US investment in agriculture "has raised expectations and changed incentive structures among Afghans".

    It says that the US government "can be more effective in how it spends aid in Afghanistan", adding that US aid should meet three conditions before any money is spent: projects should be "necessary, achievable and sustainable".

    "The evidence that stabilisation programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited. Some research suggests the opposite, and development best practices question the efficacy of using aid as a stabilisation tool over the long run."

    US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report

    The study states that roughly 80 per cent of the US Agency for International Development's (USAID) funds are spent in the country's restive south and east, but that most of those funds focus on "short-term stabilisation programs instead of longer term development projects".

    "The evidence that stabilisation programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited. Some research suggests the opposite, and development best practices question the efficacy of using aid as a stabilisation tool over the long run," the report says.

    Haroun Mir, deputy director of the Afghan Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul, told Al Jazeera that while that aid may not be effective, other programmes have been.

    "Certainly [aid spending in the south] is not tangible in its impact, it's not changing the lives of ordinary Afghans.

    However, the amount of money that has been spent in other [relatively stable] provinces in the centre or north ... we could see tremendous change and improvement in lives of ordinary Afghans," he said. 

    "In Kabul for example ... we see a tremendous improvement in development, in construction and also in services. We have a number of superior education institutes that are private, we have healthcare institutitions that are private."

    The report also says that an emphasis on quick results puts civilian aid workers "under enormous strain", which is not helped by "high staff turnover, pressure from the military, imbalances between military and civilian resources, unpredictable funding levels from congress, and changing political timelines".

    Reliance on contractors

    The US congressional study raises concerns about the US government's reliance on contractors, noting that most US aid "bypasses the Afghan government in favour of international firms".

    "This practice can weaken the ability of the Afghan state to execute its budget, lead to redundant and unsustainable donor projects, and fuel corruption," it says.

    It says that an "overreliance on international technical advisers" may be undermining efforts to put sustainable programmes in place.

    "Perhaps the single most important step the US Government can take is to work with the Afghan Government and other donors to standardise Afghan salaries and work within Afghan Government staffing constraints. Donor practices of hiring Afghans at inflated salaries have drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan Government and created a culture of aid dependency," the studysays.

    The report makes three major policy recommendations: that the US consider authorising "a multiyear civilian assistance strategy", that it "reevaluate the performance of stabilisation programmes in conflict zones" and that all projects be judged based on their sustainability. It recommends that donors "not implement
    projects if Afghans cannot sustain them".

    The study's release comes as Barack Obama, the US president, is preparing to announce a decision on when and how to begin a phased withdrawal of 100,000 US troops from Afghanistan.

    On Tuesday, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Obama should order the withdrawal of a minimum of 15,000 troops by the end of the year.

    It has also come a day after the Foreign Relations Committee confirmed Obama's nominee for the post of US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker.

    The study does not cover US military aid, but recommends "closer scrutiny" of those funds.

    The full text of the report is available via the US Senate's website,  here [pdf].

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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