Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Minister Scorns NGOs' Work

Planning minister says most domestic and international aid organisations are more interested in their own well-being than in aiding Afghans.
By Abdul Baseer

The thousands of international and local non-governmental organisations operating in Afghanistan have largely failed to deliver effective assistance to the Afghan people, according to Dr Ramazan Bashar Dost, the controversial planning minister in President Hamed Karzai’s current government.


Ever since he was appointed planning minister in March, Bashar Dost has sought to reduce the number of NGOs operating in the country. He has complained publicly that they are ineffective and waste money that should be spent on the Afghan people.


He has spearheaded a draft law that would regulate their operations.


In an interview with IWPR, Bashar Dost said that if the new cabinet approves his draft law, all domestic and foreign NGOs would have two months to re-register under new rules, or suspend operations.


Bashar Dost, 43, emigrated to Iran in 1978 to complete his secondary education, then lived in Pakistan for a time. In 1983, he moved to France where he subsequently received a master’s degree and three doctorate degrees, in diplomacy, politics and law.


In 2003, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked him to return to work in its strategy research centre. That same year he was appointed head of the foreign ministry department for political affairs dealing with western countries.


On March 8, 2004 Bashar Dost, a Hazara from the southern province of Ghazni, was appointed by Karzai as planning minister to replace prominent Hazara leader Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq.


One week later, he proposed the new law on NGOs in order to control what they spend on reconstruction.


The existing law “didn't clarify the responsibility of NGOs and the procedure for their control,” said Bashar Dost. “That draft was unprofitable for Afghanistan and Afghans. We added all these things in the new law.”


"When we drafted the NGO law, we invited all the heads of NGOs, and we explained to them that if all the basic provisions [of the law] were implemented, many problems would be solved," he said.


Bashar Dost highlighted article 3 of the proposed statute, which would prohibit NGOs from profiting from the funds they receive for reconstruction work. Provisions in the draft law, he said, would prevent NGOs from spending excessive amounts of money on themselves.


For example, he said, "They can use a car costing 12, 000 US dollars instead of using a 40,000 dollar car.”


There is a certain amount of resentment in Afghanistan directed toward the “white Land Cruiser crowd”, as NGO workers are sometimes known.


Bashar Dost said that when an NGO receives funds, either from a government or a non-governmental source, they must distribute most of those funds to the people of Afghanistan.


He says out of 4.5 billion dollars pledged to Afghanistan by international donors at the Tokyo conference last year, about a third has been allocated to international NGOs, the same again to the United Nations, and the roughly one third directly to the government of Afghanistan.


"I have yet to see an NGO that has spent 80 per cent of its money for the benefit of the Afghans and 20 per cent for their own benefit," Bashar Dost said.


“International NGOs get big amounts of money from their own nations just by showing them sensitive pictures and videos of Afghan people, and there are even some individuals who give all their salaries to NGOs to spend it on charity here, but they [NGOs] spend all the money on themselves, and we are unable to find out how much money they originally received in charitable funds,” he said.


He also criticised NGOs - which are tax exempt - for getting privileged access to government contracts that tax-paying commercial companies should have won. He believes they have inside access to contracts because of their close relationships with government officials, including ministers, some of who were formerly their employees. At the same time, he said, many qualified government employees have gone to work for NGOs where the salaries are higher.


“We want the reconstruction carried out economically, and to be handled by private companies which are be under the control and supervision of the government,” said Bashar Dost. "Donors should contract directly with the companies – this is the rule all over the world.”


He believes the “golden period” for non-government groups was when the mujahedin were battling the Communists from 1978 to 1992. Bashar Dost said that in those years, the NGOs shared their bread with the fighters in the mountains and deserts.


Bashar Dost said that some foreigners working with international NGOs who were killed during the fighting were buried in Afghanistan. “If it were possible, I would put flowers on their tombs,” he said.


He also looked favourably on NGOs and their work in the period from 1992 to 1996 when Burhanuddin Rabbani was president, and thereafter under the Taleban.


Now he believes there are too many NGOs in the country. In fact there’s a moratorium on registering NGOs until the new law is approved. There are 2,355 NGOs registered in Afghanistan, of which 333 are international, he said.


"We don't have NGOs in Afghanistan, but we have NGO-ism, and we want to get rid of the NGO-ism, not the NGOs," he said. He complained that there are some so-called NGOs that operate for profit, like private companies.


When asked about the effectiveness of the organisations working in Afghanistan, he said, “I haven’t seen any NGO at all which works efficiently yet.”


Bashar Dost said the government would wait until the new law is passed before shutting down any NGOs. In the whole time that he’s been planning minister, he has not forced any group to suspend operations.


It’s unclear what post, if any, Bashar Dost may hold in the new Karzai government, due to be appointed in December. However, an unofficial list that was published in Arman-e-Milli daily on November 2, said to come from a source close to vice president-elect Ahmad Zia Massoud, names Bashar Dost as the likely next minister of education.


When asked what the future holds for him, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it right now. It’s too early.”


Under the new Karzai administration, the planning ministry will no longer handle NGO registration, the task going instead to the ministry of labour and social affairs, he said. The planning ministry itself will disappear, merged with the ministry of reconstruction to create an economics ministry.


While these changes may come as a relief for many aid workers who have said privately that Bashar Dost has done nothing to help their organisations - and that his comments could compromise the security of their operations - NGOs are still analysing what his law could mean for them.


Mohammad Hashim Mayar, a programme coordinator for ACBAR, an umbrella organisation, said that NGOs are reviewing the law. "There are some confusing parts in this law and after the NGOs finish their review they will propose a response to the ministry of planning."


He took issue with Bashar Dost's definition of an NGO in the draft law. Mayar told IWPR, "An NGO is a non-government and non-profit organization which is established for the achievement of a legal goal." The part about NGOs spending most of the funds it receives on Afghans is not in Mayar's definition.


Last April, Bashar Dost made a speech comparing NGOs to warlords, and complained that they were ineffective. The UN’s humanitarian information unit, IRIN, ran a story quoting aid agencies which expressed concern over his comments.


"NGOs work for peace, reconstruction and development, not conflicts and destruction. Therefore, it is outrageous to compare NGOs with warlords," Mayar said in an interview for IRIN at the time.


In mid-July, the NGOs were caught unawares when police suddenly started stopping and seizing vehicles with green “M” plates, the kind typically issued to their vehicles, and in some cases detaining their drivers. The planning ministry had decided the plates were no longer valid, and the groups were forced to re-register their cars and get new plates.


The international community was also concerned by comments made by Bashar Dost not long after the respected group Medecins Sans Frontieres pulled out of the country after five of its aid workers were murdered this summer.


“Afghans pray for them to leave. We don't want that kind of NGO here," Bashar Dost was quoted as saying to the AFP news agency. He added that that violence against NGOs was “inevitable”.


"Justification of violence in general, and against NGOs in particular, is unacceptable," UN spokesman in Afghanistan Manoel de Almeida e Silva told a news briefing at the time. "The government has a paramount duty to uphold law and order, and it cannot be involved in legitimising or condoning physical aggression in any way."


Abdul Baseer Saeed is an IWPR reporter based in Kabul.