The international community has spent billions on reconstructing Afghanistan—yet the country has made dismayingly little progress. It's time for a radical new approach to state-buildingby Clare Lockhart / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
We would like to tell you the story of $150m going up in smoke,” said the young villager. “We heard on the radio that there was going to be a reconstruction programme in our region to help us rebuild our houses after coming back from exile, and we were very pleased.”
This was the summer of 2002. The village was in a remote part of Bamiyan province, in Afghanistan’s central highlands, and several hours’ drive from the provincial capital—utterly cut off from the world. UN agencies and NGOs were rushing to provide “quick impact” projects to help Afghan citizens in the aftermath of war. $150m could have transformed the lives of the inhabitants of villages like this one.
But it was not to be, as the young man explained. “After many months, very little had happened. We may be illiterate, but we are not stupid. So we went to find out what was going on. And this is what we discovered: the money was received by an agency in Geneva, who took 20 per cent and subcontracted the job to another agency in Washington DC, who also took 20 per cent. Again it was subcontracted and another 20 per cent was taken; and this happened again when the money arrived in Kabul. By this time there was very little money left; but enough for someone to buy wood in western Iran and have it shipped by a shipping cartel owned by a provincial governor at five times the cost of regular transportation. Eventually some wooden beams reached our villages. But the beams were too large and heavy for the mud walls that we can build. So all we could do was chop them up and use them for firewood.”
This is not a rare story. In the two and a half years after the December 2001 Bonn agreement, which set out a political framework to lead Afghanistan to stability, $2.7bn was parcelled out to UN agencies and NGOs. Having been at Bonn, and closely involved in the first efforts to provide assistance to post-Taliban Afghanistan, I was shocked at how much cash was frittered away on hastily conceived projects, with little thought on why one village should get hens and the next a well. When I asked the official of a country that had donated tens of millions why no account, let alone audit, had been given of this expenditure, he shook his head: “If we did an audit, our taxpayers would never give money for aid programmes again.”