Militarisation Of aid – Farooq Sulehria

Since 9/11, the so-called international community has pledged $90 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction (2002-13). While only $69 billion was committed, only $57 billion was actually disbursed. In other words, almost half the promised aid money did not reach Afghanistan. However, $57 billion is no paltry sum either. But inside Afghanistan, traces of $57-billion development are largely missing.
Not that nothing has happened. Being a regular visitor to Afghanistan, this writer has seen massive improvements in certain sectors. For instance, 4000-kilometre long paved highways have been built. Primary education, in particular, is a step forward. Besides seven million children in schools, aid money has helped build 3,500 schools.
On arriving from Pakistan, one pleasant surprise in Kabul is an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Only, seven years ago barq (power supply) was a three-hour luxury in Kabul let alone provinces. Roughly 30 percent Afghanistan has been electrified. Now 85 percent of the population has access to some basic health facilities. (But do not construe this description as my endorsement of US occupation).
However, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world and living standards there are abysmally low. The reconstruction bid has largely failed. For instance, Kabul has been the biggest beneficiary of the development aid. USD2.8 billion has been spent in the city yet most of the streets remain unpaved while clean drinking water remains a rarity. The plight of its hospitals, schools, and civic amenities will require a separate book-length story. What went wrong?
The failure of Afghan developmental plans is often blamed on corruption. This discourse was lent an aura when, in 2010, the Transparency International declared Afghanistan as the second most corrupt country. Corruption, no doubt, is a problem. However, it was the flawed development model – which also made corruption easy – that bred the failure. The model tried to rebuild Afghanistan through NGOs instead of the state.
While this is not unique since development aid is increasingly reaching countries of the south (including Pakistan) through NGOs, Afghanistan – being a ‘clean slate’ – was converted into a laboratory for neo-liberal experimentation. The excuse behind channelling development aid through NGOs is: state establishments/institutions are corrupt, and hence inefficient. Ironically, until the 1980s, liberal theoretician – Samuel Huntington, for instance – were glorifying the role of corruption in the third world to stimulate growth.
In any case, to offset any possible corruption by would-be Afghan bureaucracy, aid was handed down to NGOs that mushroomed overnight. Many arrived almost onboard US B52s. Between 2002-10, over 82 percent of development aid by-passed the Afghan government and state and ended up with NGOs. Unsurprisingly, NGOs proved many times more corrupt than Afghan bureaucrats and politicians. From 2009-10 onwards, foreign assistance has been tilted in favour of the state.
But corruption and lack of accountability was not the only problem in the NGO sector. While ministries were denied the chance to learn and administer development projects, resources were lavishly wasted. For instance, certain projects were subcontracted five times and every subcontractor earned 5-10 percent profit from the deal. Moreover, since the state was not involved in planning or executing, some sectors drew huge resources while others were gravely ignored.
Holding only NGO-driven development responsible for the mega failure will, however, be only a partial explanation. Another major factor was the militarisation of aid. On the one hand, 50 percent aid was spent in the name of security (US DoD has appropriated $31 billion) while on the other hand, militarisation of aid also meant that projects were initiated to win hearts and minds in areas identified by the military instead of on a need-based prioritisation. But then foreign occupations are not meant for development anyway.