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Afghans Question Benefits of Latest Aid Package

As donors promise 16 billion US dollars, some Afghans say effects of previous aid have been limited.
By Hafizullah Gardesh, Mina Habib
  • UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with President Hamed Karzai at the Tokyo conference. (Photo: Afghan mission to the UN)
    UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with President Hamed Karzai at the Tokyo conference. (Photo: Afghan mission to the UN)

Afghans have welcomed the latest pledge of international aid to their country, saying it suggests the West will not abandon Afghanistan to its fate after most foreign troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

But some questioned their government’s ability to ensure the money is spent effectively, claiming that billions of dollars of aid received over the last decade have brought only limited improvements to the lives of ordinary people.

At the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan on July 8, donors pledged 16 billion US dollars in civilian aid to cover the next four years, beyond the 2014 withdrawal of NATO-led troops. Donors said they would channel at least 50 per cent of the money through the government’s national budget.

In return for the money, Afghanistan promised to strengthen democracy, governance and the rule of law, to improve financial management, and to promote sustainable development.

The international community said it would monitor progress in these areas, and both sides agreed that when it came to aid effectiveness, continuing with “business as usual” was not an option.

Afghanistan has received almost 60 billion dollars in development aid over the past decade, according to The Financial Times, but critics claim that war and rampant corruption have prevented the full benefits from reaching the Afghan public.

In a pre-conference speech on June 21, President Hamid Karzai acknowledged that corruption had reached an “extreme level”, and urged domestic officials and the international community to help him tackle the problem. (See Karzai’s Anti-Graft Call Gets Luke Warm Response.)

The new funds will be released gradually, with up to 20 per cent of disbursements made contingent on Afghanistan meeting governance benchmarks, under a mechanism called the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework.

Among its commitments to better financial management, Afghanistan agreed to continue holding people accountable for the Kabul Bank scandal, and keep recovering the bank’s missing assets. The Kabul Bank was seized by regulators in August 2010 after shareholders allegedly dipped into its funds to award loans to themselves, friends, relatives and business associates, according to a New York Times report.

Afghan foreign minister Zalmai Rasul thanked donors following the conference, and said their concerns were understandable.

“This conference is not the end but the beginning of our work,” he told reporters. “We are committed to managing the aid properly. To this end, we will create a mechanism called the Mutual Accountability Framework to monitor the aid.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the conference that under Karzai and his government, real progress had been made towards security and broad-based development. He warned, though, that these gains remained fragile and could be reversed.

“Failure to invest in governance, justice, human rights, employment and social development could negate the investments and sacrifices that have been made over the past ten years.” Ban said.

While he noted that Afghanistan’s institutions were still developing, Ban acknowledged there were “serious concerns” about the government’s accountability.

“We are all aware of serious concerns regarding Afghan delivery and accountability on governance commitments. These must be addressed in the interests of the Afghan people and also to maintain donor confidence,” he said.

Hamidullah Faruqi, an economic analyst in Afghanistan, welcomed the donors’ renewed commitment, saying it demonstrated that the international community did not meant to abandon the country to a repeat of the fate it suffered in the 1990s.

In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal of 1989, Afghanistan plunged into violent chaos during the early 1990s, before the Taleban took power in 1996.

“Despite all the inefficiencies of the Afghan government over the last ten years, the world has shown that it is still interested in Afghanistan and will not abandon it,” Faruqi said. “This is a source of gratification for us.”

Karzai now needs to try to establish a law-abiding government free from corruption, Faruqi said, adding that deep reforms were needed to achieve this.

“[Karzai] should take a serious decision about the mafia networks that have surrounded him,” Faruqi said. “He must not allow the national interest to be sacrificed for the personal benefits of a few individuals.”

Ultimately, though, Faruqi fears there is little chance of Karzai embarking on serious reforms at this stage. The government has shown little desire to change over the last decade, and while Karzai has repeatedly delivered heartfelt public speeches, he has not delivered much in the way of real improvement.

Speaking in Tokyo on July 9, Karzai said international donor nations and agencies needed to review their assistance, according to the Financial Times.

“Two hands must clap, one hand alone will not deliver,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

He also said that individuals with links to the Afghan government should not be immune from anti-corruption action.

Political analyst Wahid Mozhda said many Afghans would feel sceptical about the donor conference because they had seen few improvements to their lives over the last decade.

“People are not counting on the Tokyo conference, and don’t place much value in it at all,” he said. Despite the funding pledges, many still feared a return to the early Nineties.

Ahmad Sayidi, also a political analyst, agreed that pledges to improve governance should be taken with a pinch of salt, noting that little had come of Karzai’s speeches to previous international conferences in which he promised to fight corruption, strengthen the rule of law, improve women’s rights and improve freedom of speech.

“The caravan will not reach its destination with this leadership,” he said. “The preconditions [set by donors] will definitely not be fulfilled by Karzai.”

Kabul residents differed in their views on the conference.

Taxi driver Shah Mohammad predicted that the aid money would primarily benefit the ruling elite.

“What has the aid that’s been given over the past ten years done for us?” he asked. “My quality of life is deteriorating on a daily basis.”

Farida, a university student, said that ideally she would prefer the money to be provided once a different government was in place, but added that international support was still welcome.

“The Tokyo conference had one benefit for the Afghans – neighbouring countries will realise that Afghanistan is no longer alone,” she said.

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s Afghanistan editor. Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kabul.