Donor governments and capacity-building in Afghanistan
by Nicholas Leader June 2003

Donor policy on Afghanistan is confused and contradictory, and aid interventions remain trapped in the relief/development impasse. The time has come for a fresh approach.

By common consent, the needs in Afghanistan cannot be adequately met by short-term, localised, project-specific and relief-focused interventions. The length of the conflict has ensured a progressive degradation of the human and physical infrastructure; the longer the situation continues, the more difficult and expensive reconstruction becomes, and the harder it is to meet even short-term goals. The widespread destruction of infrastructure, communities and governance is such that needs can only properly be addressed by working on a systemic and long-term basis. In other words, it is necessary to ‘scale up’ aid interventions – from short-term to long-term, from local project to national policy, and from community to state.

This requires a legitimate and competent authority which can determine and coordinate national policy, and command and resource a structure through which such policy can be implemented. In Afghanistan, such an authority simply does not exist. The Taliban, which controls much of the country, is neither legitimate nor competent. Internationally, its perceived Islamic extremism, involvement in the drugs trade and policies towards women have made it a pariah. Domestically, its lack of interest in welfare, particular interpretation of Islamic law and repressive policies mean that its legitimacy is uncertain at best. Its investment in state welfare and development structures is minimal. If the goal is to scale up, should the international community, in particular the aid community, engage with such an authority? How can agencies assist Afghans in ways other than relief, but without sustaining discrimination? Is ‘capacity-building’ of state structures an appropriate strategy?

The policy impasse

At the level of ‘high policy’, the response to this problem is the Strategic Framework. The Framework provides the UN and NGOs with a degree of international legitimacy (through General Assembly resolutions), and it specifies a set of overarching principles and an architecture for developing and implementing policy. In practice, however, the question of how to engage with the authorities in Afghanistan in order to scale up is marked by confusion and indecision. Donors have been unable to produce a coherent and coordinated policy, except to communicate to agencies a general feeling that links with the Taliban are somehow unacceptable. Agencies have resorted to a series of ad hoc and short-term solutions, depending on their particular needs and mandates. ‘Principled common programming’ has not translated into common engagement strategies. For both donors and agencies, this confusion is most apparent in the vexed question of incentives, an issue that has assumed an importance far beyond its due because it is where donor cash is handed over to the Taliban-controlled state structures.

In order to explain this policy impasse, it is necessary to place it in a broader historical and political context. The situation in Afghanistan is one example of a much wider question of how the international community engages in states where governance has collapsed, or has lost legitimacy. This issue has arisen due to the linked phenomena of ‘failed states’ and the reduced respect for absolute sovereignty that has allowed a series of unprecedented interventions in the affairs of such states by the international community in order to promote peace and security. Respect for sovereignty may not be the guiding principle of international relations it once was but, at least where the state has failed, there is as yet no agreed principle to replace it. The Strategic Framework is thus one of a number of experiments intended to cope with a situation in which governance, and so sovereignty, has been questioned. Crucially, however, it differs from arrangements in, for example, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor, in that the international community has not authorised coercive measures against the recalcitrant authority.

The relief/development distinction

Aid interventions have not kept pace with these experiments in sovereignty and international relations. Generally, they have only two modes of operation: relief or development. Neither answers the question of how to scale up in a failed state. The curious tenacity of the relief/development distinction in the Afghan context is not the result of its utility; as a conceptualisation of vulnerability, it is widely seen as unhelpful. Rather, the persistence of the distinction is explained by the political function it serves for donor governments. Because the concept of ‘relief’ still plays well to Western publics, the distinction allows donors to assert to themselves and their people that they are doing something in Afghanistan (‘we are meeting humanitarian need’), while simultaneously sending a political signal of disapproval to the Taliban (‘we will not authorise development aid until you change your ways, or, better, disappear’). This is consistent with other measures, such as sanctions imposed by the Security Council. The distinction also allows donors to believe that by giving humanitarian assistance, as opposed to development aid, they are somehow helping Afghans without supporting the Taliban. For donors, then, the distinction between relief and development is functional, even though it does not do what it is supposed to do, which is to conceptualise vulnerability.

As well as emphasising relief, this politically-motivated distinction rules out anything that might be conceived of as ‘capacity-building’ with the authorities. This becomes unacceptable because capacity-building is seen as supporting the Taliban, and conferring legitimacy on it. The irony is that the assistance activities which probably most support the Taliban – food distribution and refugee return – are both classified as relief, and so are less controversial.

But paying the salaries of ministry of health staff or equipping municipalities to collect rubbish, which do assist with scaling up without such negative political effects, are seen as ‘capacity-building’, and so are somehow suspect. Given that there is no evidence that the Taliban is stepping in with its own funds where the assistance community is not working, it is hard to argue that paying for health workers’ salaries is indirectly supporting the war effort.

Donors, in short, cannot have it both ways. It is contradictory to authorise a non-coercive instrument such as the Strategic Framework, which necessarily depends on negotiation with the de facto authorities, while also insisting that engagement, and so scaling up, is limited to an absolute minimum. Donor governments cannot legitimately tell their publics that they are doing all they can to help Afghans, while simultaneously insisting that agencies do not negotiate over scaling up with the people running most of Afghanistan. Rather, it should be acknowledged that it is possible to scale up in a principled way in Afghanistan: the work of many agencies in public health is one example.That this admission may be politically inconvenient for some donor governments does not make it untrue. Indeed, the concept and history of humanitarianism is testimony to the fact that it is possible to negotiate for principled ends with unprincipled people.

Ways forward

How, then, should this process of scaling up proceed? One option is to follow through the logic of the experiment in sovereignty represented by the Strategic Framework; the framework is in place, now a strategy is needed. The Strategic Framework can be interpreted as giving aid actors an internationally legitimated role in the governance of Afghanistan. Following on from what might be seen as the ‘shared sovereignty’ implicit in this experiment, aid actors could legitimately define a limited number of specific and measurable nationwide targets for the whole aid system – a kind of interim ‘national poverty-reduction plan’ that all aid actors would work to.

As far as possible, this should be done with the cooperation and involvement of the de facto authorities. It should also be discussed with civil structures where this is possible; the international legitimacy of the Strategic Framework needs to be matched by national legitimacy with Afghans. These national targets would then become the focus of all planning and engagement with the authorities until a peace deal is reached. Paying incentives and providing the authorities with training and equipment would thus be legitimate, to the extent that such transfers contribute to the meeting of the national targets. Progress towards the targets would be monitored by the Strategic Monitoring Unit. To ensure that negotiation with the authorities is principled, this plan needs to be backed up by a thorough analysis of the political impact of assistance, based on an understanding of the political economy of the conflict in Afghanistan, and how aid is incorporated into it. Lastly, there needs to be a commonly-agreed ‘bottom line’ for each sector, such as equal access for women and men to health facilities, without which no work would be done with the state structures in that particular sector.

An approach that is centred on national targets and backed up by political analysis and ‘bottom lines’ might allow scaling up through state structures where this is possible, but reduce the likelihood of strengthening oppressive or discriminatory practices.

Independent consultant Nicholas Leader has recently completed a UNDP/UNCHS consultancy for the UN Afghanistan Taskforce on Capacity-Building, funded by the UNDP.


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