Afghan women’s progress trumped by donors’ priorities

Afghanistan’s donor countries want quick fixes for women’s issues but only long-term plans can bring durable results.

Burqa-clad Afghan women and a child walk during a snow storm in Kabul, Afghanistan [AP]
Burqa-clad Afghan women and a child walk in a snow storm in Kabul, Afghanistan [AP]

Economic empowerment of Afghan women has been a mantra of the international community involved in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001. Thirteen years on, while progress in Afghan women’s predicament is undeniable, the ambitious objective of economic empowerment of women leaves much to be desired.

The latest US scheme, under the name PROMOTE, was announced late last year as a comprehensive package of assistance to the tune of $216m for Afghan women. The US government is lobbying other western donors to also contribute funds to the same programme. This money will be disbursed in four areas: leadership development, economic empowerment, governance, and strengthening civil society.

Afghan women weave their way out of poverty

A main challenge in Afghanistan is the mentality of men, wherein they will assume that with this large amount of funds coming in for Afghan women, there is no need for gender-sensitising programmes elsewhere. It happened when in the first Bonn meeting in 2001, the Ministry of Women Affairs was established.

Mentality of men

At the beginning, almost everyone was happy because it appeared the women of the country were recognised through the establishment of this ministry. It was a positive gesture after years of Taliban’s oppression of women. Slowly this ministry turned into an obstacle in the life of women in the country. There were and still are complaints that when a woman reaches out to legal institutions for her rights, she is told to go to “her own ministry”. The legal institutions are always managed by men and usually by those who don’t believe in women’s rights.

The ministry of women’s affairs and the rest of the government have not been able to monitor the implementation of good policies to ensure that women’s needs are met. Women’s contribution to the country’s economy is still unaccounted for. Many NGOs receive funds from donors to carry out training and after a few months the women receive certificates. There was nothing else done beyond the certificate.

Women still do not have access to raw materials or appropriate financing due to the high rates of interest or lack of guarantees. While men make money through trade and import, women must produce and with little infrastructure facilities, women cannot become successful businesswomen. Quantity has normally been the focus for the donors rather than quality.

As for the leadership component, the worry is that PROMOTE will continue the previous programmes of training women but not push the government for appointments at senior levels. Unless women take part at the decision-making level, no change will come to the lives of women and girls.

Under such domestic conditions Afghan women are worried about the effectiveness of the $216m that will be disbursed in their name.

Slowly this ministry turned into an obstacle in the life of women in the country. There were and still are complaints that when a woman reaches out to legal institutions for her right, she is told to go to 'her own ministry'.


There are other concerns, too. The experience of the past decade has shown a mostly donor-driven approach to projects for women. Needs assessment has mostly been flawed and superficial. The assessments are usually done by foreign consultants with almost no experience in Afghanistan and primarily based on preconceived donors programme designs.

Donor’s wishes

When projects are outsourced to local NGOs for implementation, often the NGO follows the wishes of the donor regardless of the needs of the country, possible duplication or ineffectiveness of the project. The community of NGOs that have been created in the last two decades are the implementing partners of international donors.

The culture of NGO-ism, which has been encouraged to flourish by the donors, may have provided an easy vehicle for donors’ projects, but at the cost of a still under-developed private sector. Foreign aid will not last forever. With its reduction, NGOs will also collapse. Private sector development, therefore, must slowly take over for real economic development to take place.

Afghanistan’s donor countries want quick results and instant gratification for the funds they disburse. But only long-term plans can achieve sustainable success. Therefore, the future sustainability of Afghan women’s progress – and indeed, Afghanistan’s progress – depends on fundamental improvements on aid effectiveness.

During PROMOTE’s assessment process earlier in 2015, women were called on at their own offices occasionally for consultation. Most other consultations with Afghan women were held at the famous Barons Hotel in Kabul, a hotel popular among expat consultants with suites costing up to $20,000 per month.

Afghans were told that due to security threats in the city, the PROMOTE assessors had to meet with women in the highly secure Barons’. Some Afghan women refused to attend consultation meetings, realising that despite claims of “lessons learned”, PROMOTE was being launched along the same old pattern; donors using vast chunks of the funds pledged for Afghanistan to cover their own expenses.

PROMOTE is the responsibility of three US companies to implement. US contracts are always awarded to US companies. All the senior staff and consultants must also be Americans. Due to Afghanistan’s precarious security situation, their salaries are double or triple what they would normally earn in their country. The expat housing and security measures also take a hefty sum out of the project money. As a result, a fraction of the original funds allocated for a programme actually makes it to Afghanistan.

Gradual changes

Afghans have always hoped that at least 70 percent of the funds would be spent in their country. What actually happens is that only 10 to 30 percent of the money goes to Afghans while the rest goes towards overhead costs.

All this is against the Paris Declaration and aid effectiveness agreements that donors had committed to. If there is to be any hope for PROMOTE and other future programmes for Afghan women, donors must start to make changes. One step could be to begin engaging with independent Afghan consultancy firms. By partnering with Afghan women-led consultancy firms instead of NGOs, projects can be monitored and evaluated independently, transparency and accountability can be assured and the Afghan private sector, especially women’s businesses, can be promoted.

Already, a number of Afghan independent watchdog organisations have sprung up. Groups such as the Volunteer Movement of Anti-Corruption and Afghan Women’s Charter in this country have started monitoring and reporting. But, monitoring and evaluation is the job of the private sector and donors should work with private sector companies to build their capacity and help them gain experience in handling larger projects. After all, one component of the PROMOTE project is economic empowerment of Afghan women.

Seema Ghani is a former deputy minister at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. She’s also a founding member of the People’s Anti-Corruption Movement and the Afghan Women Charter.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.