Aid responses to Afghanistan: learning from previous evaluations
by ALNAP April 2002

This article distils nine key lessons from previous evaluations that have direct – or potential – relevance to Afghanistan today. More than 50 formal evaluation reports were drawn on, supplemented by key evaluative studies. While there are unique aspects to the current situation in Afghanistan, many elements, and their likely evolution, stand comparison with previous crises and international responses. If aid actors learn the lessons of the past, there is a real opportunity to get relief and rehabilitation right.

Lesson 1: develop a coherent policy framework that recognises ‘humanitarian space’

Aid cannot be a substitute for political action. In the absence of a just and sustainable political settlement, the potential achievements of aid will be modest. International responses are most effective when the full range of tools and forms of influence (political/diplomatic, military, economic, administrative, legal, social, rule of law and human rights instruments) are employed in a complementary manner. At the same time, policy coherence should not lead to the integration of all these tools into one monolithic management framework. They should be seen as complementary but different, sometimes uncomfortable, bedfellows. Humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality and the provision of aid on the basis of need have to be respected in relation to humanitarian work; overriding or disregarding such principles is likely to lead to reduced access to at-risk populations, and endanger the lives of humanitarian aid personnel.

As a result of the UN-led Strategic Framework for Afghanistan (SFA) process launched in 1997, the international community has significant experience of attempting to achieve policy coherence in Afghanistan. However, the SFA did not realise its full potential as an aid coordination mechanism. The lessons of this experience, including both the importance and the difficulty of putting into place a functioning SFA, should be heeded. Particular attention should be given to the need for a clearer conception of the role of aid in relation to politics; agreement is needed on the appropriate role of aid, and structures and programmes designed accordingly.

Lesson 2: international engagement must be long-term and inclusive

High levels of international engagement need to be sustained for many years in order to create the ‘space’ and necessary framework of incentives and disincentives to enable all parties to learn to live and work together and to achieve meaningful changes. Where these conditions are not met, as at key points in Somalia, Rwanda, Angola and Sierra Leone, the situation can rapidly deteriorate, and conflicts resume and deepen. Inclusiveness and ‘local ownership’ should be seen to embrace not only the leadership of different factions, but also key elements of civil society. In Somalia, early efforts to establish a centralised, internationally-recognisable form of government played into the hands of factional ‘warlords’. Later strategies undercutting the power-base of such factional leaders by strengthening the standing of elders, traditional leaders and women’s organisations have been broadly effective. However, the potential and procedures for transferring and scaling-up such initiatives are unclear.

Lesson 3: approach and manage the situation as a regional crisis

During the crises in Rwanda, Somalia and Kosovo, the international response initially failed to take into account the regional nature of these emergencies, and the need to coordinate approaches inside the affected country with approaches in neighbouring states. This requires some form of regional political framework and the involvement of regional and sub-regional organisations. The so-called ‘6+2 Group’ of interested states (Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and China, plus the US and Russia), together with the UN, would seem to offer a key element of such a framework.

At the operational level, a regional approach requires:

  • appropriate arrangements within organisations where two or even three separate departments may be responsible for Afghanistan and its six neighbours;
  • good communication and regular face-to-face contact between key personnel working in Afghanistan and neighbouring states;
  • a cross-border communication/media strategy so that all actors are informed about the goals and how aid and other forms of intervention are structured to realise them; and
  • clear accountabilities framed according to the agreed division of labour among organisations.

Lesson 4: coordination requires clarity of structure and leadership

Coordination is vital in sensitive, potentially volatile contexts, where disjointed aid is less than fully effective, sending unintended ‘signals’ and affecting local perceptions of the role of external assistance. Large-scale responses generate multiple, overlapping coordination mechanisms, where lines of authority are unclear. Many organisations and agencies tend to disregard coordination mechanisms when they do not suit their interests. The initial relief response in Kosovo was markedly bilateral, with wide discrepancies in the level of provision for beneficiaries served by different national agencies. Coordination has been good in some places, such as East Timor and in Rwandan refugee camps in Tanzania, where strong leadership by agency personnel was reinforced by an ability to exercise control over physical access by agencies and their ability to access financial resources. Bilateral and multilateral donor organisations have a critical role to play in supporting international, national and local coordination mechanisms through their own behaviour, in vesting greater responsibility in the principal coordination mechanisms, and in their selection of operational agencies and sector activities. Donor organisations should collectively take the lead in developing criteria and benchmarks for assessing the performance of coordination mechanisms and the behaviour of those being coordinated.

Lesson 5: the primary role of external military forces should be the provision of security and protection rather than aid delivery

External military and peacekeeping forces have assumed varying degrees of ‘humanitarian’ aid delivery roles in many of the large-scale emergency operations since 1990, for instance in northern Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo and East Timor. What evidence there is suggests that they are several times more expensive per unit of aid delivered than humanitarian or commercial suppliers. In contexts where fighting has just ended and where the capacity of those channels is not sufficient, the military may play a useful role in the immediate restoration of vital infrastructure. Where external military forces undertake security roles, and particularly in those situations where they are belligerents in the conflict, a clear separation has to be maintained between such forces and any humanitarian and other aid delivery. Confusion of roles and of local perceptions of humanitarian and aid agencies can endanger the activities of agency personnel.

Lesson 6: the relief–rehabilitation–development transition requires delegation of authority, flexibility and strengthened monitoring

Evaluations of relief–rehabilitation–development transitions reveal continuing disjunctions between initial relief provision and the delivery of rehabilitation and longer-term development assistance. Current assessments of best practice point to the need for:

  • a vision of the end-goals which is shared by the donor community and key local actors;
  • a joint needs assessment that prioritises the essential elements of basic needs and peace-building efforts;
  • early support for the rule of law (judiciary, security/policing) and land tenure institutions;
  • rapid dispersal of funds for recovery needs, preferably through a common fund;
  • delegation of spending authority to the field, and no tying of funds to particular projects, functions or donor-country nationals;
  • the establishment of a tracking system for aid flows and benchmark measures in order to enable mid-course corrections, inform communication strategies and ensure accountability;
  • clear schedules and assigned responsibilities for hand-over from emergency personnel and agencies to their successors undertaking rehabilitation and development programmes; and
  • debt relief and the underwriting of recurrent costs for civil administration are often important elements of recovery giving local populations a sense of confidence that there are structures in place to deliver goods, services and protection.

Lesson 7: strengthen, use and support local institutional capacity

After such a long period of conflict and instability, the notion of what constitutes ‘normality’ may not be altogether clear in Afghanistan. However, evaluation evidence points to the critical role of normal daily activities and functioning local institutions, particularly those concerned with the rule of law, in creating a sense of progress, security and routine. In Rwanda, the level of destruction and disruption was so great that it took a considerable time to build up the implementation capacity of central and local government – a delay that increased local suspicions about the sincerity of the international community’s commitment to the country. Institutions and organisations need sufficient resources to rebuild local confidence in them, while at the same time care needs to be taken to prevent the growth of corruption and identify legitimate local partners that are not associated with violence.

Unmanaged influxes of aid agencies are an increasing feature of high-profile international interventions. In Rwanda, approximately 200 organisations were present, in Kosovo some 300. Such influxes drive up office and housing rents, draw good local staff away from their normal roles and jobs, spur ‘bidding competition’ among organisations, and create the perception that agencies and their personnel are benefiting more than the local population. The heightened cultural and religious sensitivities in Afghanistan reinforce the need to limit the number of international agencies and personnel and ensure the quality and training of staff. The most efficient way to contain the problems of expatriate dominance and disruption is to prioritise the identification and engagement of local and national emergency and rehabilitation actors, even where national and governmental structures remain weak or not fully legitimate. The significant skills and capacities within Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora should be recognised and harnessed; this will require leadership and action by donor organisations.

Lesson 8: understand and control the ‘war economy’

Semi-legal and illegal activities can be an important motivation for factional conflict and for sustaining faction leaders in power. In Afghanistan, the key illegal commodity is narcotics. Early efforts to rehabilitate irrigation systems and re-establish production of food and other legal crops will be required, together with efforts to regulate and reduce the role of illicit trade. Drastic narcotic-substitution programmes will require safety nets for people made destitute.

After such a long period of conflict, Afghanistan faces the very real prospect of entrenched chronic violence. Evaluative evidence points to the need for demobilisation and the regulation and reduction of war economies. Experiences from Ethiopia, Namibia and Uganda suggest three phases for effective demobilisation:

  1. demobilisation per se (including disarming and discharge);
  2. reinsertion into civilian life; and
  3. reintegration into the economy and society.

Lesson 9: accountability and learning mechanisms need strengthening

Weaknesses in the accountability structures of aid organisations have been recurrent findings of many evaluations. Donors have a particular responsibility to provide leadership in promulgating consistent standards of accountability to beneficiaries of their assistance, as well as to taxpayers. Codes of conduct that have been developed in, for instance, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, the Great Lakes and Somalia, could be adapted for use in Afghanistan. Mechanisms for ensuring that lessons from previous operations are incorporated into new and on-going operations are insufficiently developed in many organisations, and in the aid system generally. A potential mechanism at the field level is the Learning Support Office concept developed by ALNAP.

This article is drawn from a paper submitted to a Senior Level meeting of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD by Niels Dabelstein, the Chair of the DAC Working Party for Aid Evaluation, in December 2001. The paper was based on contributions from John Borton (ALNAP); Ian Christoplos (Collegium for Development Studies, Uppsala University); John Eriksson (Operations Evaluation Department, IBRD); Shepard Forman (Center on International Cooperation, NYU); Hans Lundgren (OECD/DAC); Larry Minear (Humanitarianism and War Project, Tufts University); and Joanna Macrae (Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI).

The full paper is available at the ALNAP website at

References and further reading

ALNAP, Humanitarian Action: Learning from Evaluation, ALNAP Annual Review (London: ALNAP/ODI, 2001).

W. Clarke and J. Herbst (eds), Learning from Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention (Boulder, CO: Westview Press).

S. Forman, S. Patrick and D. Salomons, Recovering From Conflict: Strategy for an International Response (New York: Center on International Cooperation, 2000).

R. Garlock, M. Barutciski, P. Sandison and A. Suhrke, The Kosovo Refugee Crisis: An Independent Evaluation of UNHCR’s Emergency Preparedness and Response (Geneva: UNHCR, February 2000).

W. Kuhne, P. Cross and T. Schumer, Winning the Peace: Concept and Lessons Learned of Post-Conflict Peacebuilding (Ebenhausen: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 1996).

L. Minear, T. Van Baarda and M. Sommers, NATO and Humanitarian Action in the Kosovo Crisis, Occasional Paper 36 (Providence, RI: Brown University, 2000).

F. Trintignac (ed.), Assessing 20 Years of Humanitarian Action (Paris: Médecins du Monde, 1999).