The Tragedy of Afghan Aid
by Andy Rowell / April 26th, 2008
It was a photo opportunity that was meant to signal a new dawn for Afghanistan. In January 2006, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair hosted a conference for some 60 international delegates in London on the future of the country. Standing side by side with Tony Blair for the conference photo was US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then UN head, Kofi Annan and Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. According to the US State Department, the conference “represented an historic milestone for the Afghan people and the international community” in which “Afghanistan sets its reconstruction and development priorities.”
The centerpiece of the conference was the endorsement of the “Afghanistan Compact”, which set out an ambitious programme for Afghan development, committing to specific and achievable goals in security, governance, economic and social development. The document also included an entire annex on “improving the effectiveness of aid”. At the conference, the international community pledged some $10 billion dollars in aid. For the photo, Karzai held a copy of the Compact proudly in his arms.
Now two years on a new report has shown that the Compact has been a complete failure and billions of aid money to the county has either been wasted or not even delivered. The report is published by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), which is a leading alliance of 94 national and international non-governmental organizations working in Afghanistan.
Its author Matt Waldman argues: “The reconstruction of Afghanistan requires a sustained and substantial commitment of aid — but donors have failed to meet their aid pledges to Afghanistan. Too much aid from rich countries is wasted, ineffective or uncoordinated.”
It seems the last two years of effort has been wasted. Even before the London conference in 2006, the politicians knew they had a problem with aid money. Despite the billions pouring into Afghanistan, there were already reports of wasted money, corruption and incompetence. Just two months before the London meeting, the Washington Post
had run a high profile piece entitled: “A Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks”.
The paper noted that in September 2002, the United States launched what would become an aggressive effort to build or refurbish as many as 1,000 schools and clinics by the end of 2004. However, Congressional figures showed that they managed to finish and hand back to the Afghan government only 40 schools by late 2005.
This story of failure was not unique. At the time, the World Bank director in Afghanistan Jean Mazurell estimated that between 35 to 40 percent of the aid was “badly spent”. “In Afghanistan the wastage of aid is sky-high: there is real looting going on, mainly by private enterprises. It is a scandal,” said Mazurell. “In 30 years of my career, I have never seen anything like it.”
Other stories of wasted money began to emerge. A 45 million contract with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation to supply badly needed food for the country, included the proviso that four million dollars went to financing its headquarters in Rome.
The tragedy is that aid has often been ineffectual and wasted. Often it does not even leave the country it is being offered from, as it goes to the country’s own consultants. The fraud of aid never actually leaving rich countries has been known about for decades.
In the late eighties the British All-Party Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee had noted bluntly: “In practice, the purpose of bilateral aid programmes in the UK, as in most countries, has rarely been viewed as the purely selfless promotion of other peoples’ welfare. It has always been understood that such programmes should be carried out with British commercial and industrial interests and political interests in mind.”
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