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Editorial: You Can’t Buy Peace: The US’s Flawed Foreign Aid Strategy in Afghanistan         

(Editor’s Note: This article kicks off our 2017-2018 online editorial submissions! Feel free to submit by emailing tuftshemispheres@gmail.com)

Author: Doug Berger

Despite more than 100 billion dollars in international aid, mostly from the US, and the sacrifice of thousands of NATO soldiers, Afghanistan remains on the brink. The Taliban controls the largest share of the country since the US-led coalition toppled its regime in 2001—the Afghan Government controls less than two-thirds. Afghanistan’s GDP is increasing slower than its population and it ranked seventh to last in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perception Index. How can this be?

Much of the blame lies with the United States’ flawed aid strategy. Rather than supporting development, we have attempted to buy peace. Aid is disproportionately distributed to the regions with the most conflict, leaving Bamiyan and Daikundi, the most secure provinces since 2001, the poorest and least developed. The instinct to try to “win hearts and minds” in areas with a strong Taliban presence is understandable, but it has had disastrous consequences.

More than 80% of aid has gone towards short-term projects designed to improve the local security situation, such as walls around schools, or repairs to local irrigation infrastructure. While these projects have certainly done some good, long-term economic development and institution building have been neglected. The result: When NATO troops began to pull out in 2011, economic growth plummeted from well over 10% to just 2% and the poverty rate increased from 36% to 39%.

Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that this aid has failed in its primary objective: demonstrating the benefits of supporting the Kabul government. An internal report produced by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) found that its “stabilization” program had the opposite of the desired effect. In Taliban controlled villages receiving aid, opinion of the Taliban, rather than the US or the Afghan Government, improved—villagers generally believed that the projects must have been approved by the local Taliban militia.

USAID had been justifiably reluctant to provide aid through the Afghan government, which suffers from widespread corruption. However, Afghanistan has consequently lacked the resources to combat that corruption and build local institutions. Until 2014, 90% of all aid was spent outside Kabul’s budget. Significant US aid was (and continues to be) funneled through international corporations and multiple layers of subcontractors. This has lead to inefficiency and higher overhead costs—in 2012 just 30 cents of every dollar USAID spent actually went to aid—half the norm for other aid groups like the World Bank. In 2014, the US pledged to provide 50% of aid directly to the Afghan government, but with the security situation deteriorating, the window to build a stronger Afghan state may have passed.

In a situation as complex and difficult as Afghanistan, no solution can work perfectly, and any improvements will be gradual. However, there are a number of ways the US can improve its aid strategy to encourage better outcomes. Rather than attempting to buy peace, aid should concentrate on long-term growth and institution building. This necessitates a shift in focus to more secure provinces—long-term investments won’t pay off under constant threat of violence. For humanitarian reasons, aid to war-torn areas certainly shouldn’t be cut off, but the emphasis must change.

Sustained economic development would help the Afghan government collect revenue and decrease its dependence on foreign aid. Surely the chief goal of aid must be to reduce its necessity in the future. To this end, the US should focus on improving Kabul’s revenue collection capability, which remains relatively low at 10.7% of GDP.

Finally, when providing aid outside the government, USAID should strive to democratize the process—avoiding the use of international corporations. Rather than imposing projects based on what we believe the population’s needs are, programs should leave decisions on what to build where up to the local population. When possible, locals should be given the resources to complete projects themselves. This buy-in would empower the local population and help improve perceptions of the US and Afghan government.

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