Cup half full, half empty in Canada’s development work for Afghanistan

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, the proverb goes, or you can teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime.

If that’s the mantra of development work in Afghanistan, Canada’s approach is failing.

Millions of dollars are eaten up by corruption and mismanagement, and even successful programs do not seem to have a long-term impact, according government documents, non-governmental organizations and a former aid official.

Nipa Banerjee said 50 per cent of the $300 million allocated during her three years as head of aid in Afghanistan for the Canadian International Development Agency brought little or no results.

“Fifty per cent had impact and the other 50 didn’t,” said Banerjee, who ran CIDA’s office in Kabul from 2003 to 2006 and now lectures at the University of Ottawa.

“The 50 per cent that didn’t were not in the social and economic sectors, but they were in the security sector, justice sector, the police – which have been failures.”

Banerjee’s estimates are mirrored in a recent review of CIDA programs, released in the fall of 2007.

Twelve of 27 projects CIDA had underway between 2004 and 2007 were reviewed in detail by independent professionals.

Half of them were described as having “significantly improved people’s lives,” but the remainder judged as mixed successes, mostly as a result of corruption and a dearth of skilled, knowledgeable people to carry out programs and keep track of spending.

The social and economic sectors Banerjee highlighted are where Canada has bought Afghanistan the proverbial fish – polio vaccinations for 350,000 children, 200 kilometres plus of paved roads, 1,200 wells, thousands of schools.

“Your baseline is so punishingly low that you are going to have areas of real forward motion,” said Gerry Barr, head of the Canadian Council on International Cooperation, or CCIC.

“If you go from hundreds of schools to thousands of schools, it is intuitively powerful. You can say, yes that’s good, plainly there is some change. But it still doesn’t … describe the broad challenge of development in Afghanistan.”

The challenge is sustainable development – the fishing lessons. It is quite different from the aid to merely help people survive.

Most aid professionals note that some of the challenges in Afghanistan’s development aren’t CIDA’s fault. They point to the many obstacles to rebuilding in a conflict environment.

“It’s very difficult to do long-term development in a war zone,” said Allan Sauder, the Canadian-based president of the Mennonite Economic Development Associates, a non-governmental organization that has spent years in Afghanistan.

“When people are facing that kind of insecurity in their lives, it is very tough to talk about developing business.”

The Afghanistan Compact, signed in 2006 by 51 countries, lays out benchmarks of where the country should be by 2011 in areas such as security, governance and social development.

Progress is slow but Afghanistan’s economy is growing, school enrolment has tripled since 2001, and healthcare outreach has cut in half the number of people dying from treatable diseases like tuberculosis.

The Canadian government tries to meet the benchmarks through funding and assistance from three areas:

-CIDA, which funds Afghanistan to the tune of $100 million a year through 2011;

-Department of Foreign Affairs, which has committed over $158 million through 2010;

-the military, which is spending $5.1 million on development projects this year.

More than 300 people work out of Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team Base in Kandahar to implement that aid.

The bulk of Canada’s assistance is delivered under an Afghan flag to shore up support for President Hamid Karzai’s government. From the military perspective, that means using Afghan contractors to build things like wells or police substations.

“We are there as implementers, aids, facilitators as required, very often behind the scenes,” said Lt.-Col. Bob Chamberlain, head of the PRT.

“Our real desire is that we don’t take credit for what we’re doing. We want Afghans at the end of the day to feel pride and sense of accomplishment.”

Money from CIDA and Foreign Affairs is poured mostly into trust funds overseen by multilateral agencies, and then disbursed to Afghan government ministries.

Using multilateral agencies is how CIDA insists it can keep track of how the money is spent, as these agencies have strict reporting protocols.

It doesn’t mean, however, the money is always being spent as it should.

Twelve million dollars for a confidence-in-government project called the Afghanistan Stabilization Program was redirected by CIDA when the World Bank reported problems with figuring out where the money was going.

The first two years of a $15-million payout to the National Area Based Development Program remains unaccounted for.

Banerjee said CIDA pulled out of a trust fund to pay the salaries of police officers when it became clear they weren’t getting their cheques.

And no one has yet explained where the $900,000 promised to each of 17 districts in Kandahar province has gone since the military’s massive Operation Medusa in 2006 that finally opened up parts of the province for development.

CIDA officials were not available for an interview in response to these questions. They did not respond to a list of questions submitted at their request via e-mail, saying they did not have enough time.

Human capacity, the term given to the presence of a skilled and able workforce, is one of the biggest challenges facing development – there simply isn’t enough of it in Afghanistan. CIDA and others have worked to try and restore the brain trust.

In a recent technical briefing, CIDA officials trumpeted legal training for 200 jurists through a program run by the International Development Law Organization.

But in CIDA’s own evaluation report, the program was rapped on the knuckles for having shoddy accounting procedures and little long-term impact.

“Local commitment is weak,” the report said.

“In general, outside this project, reforms in the justice sector will be profoundly difficult. There are non-functioning courts, alleged extensive corruption, and a widespread belief that the courts do not produce fair results.”

CIDA also decided to grant $1.7 million to Women’s Rights in Afghanistan Fund, a four-year project implemented by the Montreal-based group Rights and Democracy.

The money was provided to 16 projects designed to encourage the participation of women in Afghan civil society.

“While there were some successes, there were no significant organizational development results and the reporting was very weak,” the evaluation report found.

The importance of working with local partners sometimes butts heads with CIDA’s reporting requirements, said Razmik Panossian, director of programs for Rights and Democracy.

“CIDA has certain standards and when you are working in a war-torn country, with all of the challenges that (it) has with the current security situation, some of the things you really cannot meet all that easily,” he said.

“If, for example, you have put together a literacy class in Kandahar for a group of underprivileged women, and that group is unable to report to headquarters what they have done in the logical framework analysis system that CIDA expects us to do, then as far as CIDA is concerned your reporting is weak.”

Rights and Democracy said it has improved local capacity and CIDA has rewarded that with another round of funding.

Security remains a prime challenge.

The PRT was completely hamstrung until the military sent a force-protection unit in 2006. And though development is meeting with success in more peaceful parts of the country, Kandahar lags behind.

There are no systematic programs to address corruption at the national, provincial and local levels.

“Nevertheless, CIDA has kept at it,” said Drew Gilmore of Development Works, a private company funded by CIDA to oversee projects in Kandahar. “Mistakes have been made, lessons learned and the slow, slow process of rebuilding the place is picking up steam.”

“The CIDA people are focused and creative and really pushing the development to jump start projects.”

Creative thinking is in part attributable to Stephen Wallace, the new vice-president of CIDA’s Afghanistan Task Force, said Gerry Barr of the CCIC.

Barr said the formation of the task force and Wallace’s appointment show a shift in approach. “More outreach to Canadian NGOs, more transparency, quicker, more responsive approach and that’s all to the good,” he said.

The report of the federal government’s independent panel on Afghanistan, chaired by John Manley, suggested too much Canadian money was in international joint programs and not enough on quick-action projects defined by the Afghan leadership.

In part, that’s what CIDA, through the UN, does with community development councils – locally-elected bodies who draw up lists of development priorities which are then approved and funded.

Over 19,000 such councils have sprung up throughout Afghanistan and more than 7,000 community projects have been completed.

The principle behind them is that if communities decide what they want, they’ll make sure the projects work.

The councils are celebrated for giving women a voice in community development, bringing together leaders and helping people take ownership of development. All are important factors in long-term development, but there are still challenges.

Banerjee said the money isn’t there to maintain the projects, only to get them off the ground.

And the evaluation report highlighted the high cost of overseeing them: 28 per cent of the funding for community development councils goes to consultants to oversee the projects.

“While it was too early to conclude that the relatively few livelihood projects are not sustainable, it would appear that their sustainability has not been the subject of much analysis,” said the CIDA report.

One bright spot has emerged in international efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.

Small loans provided to Afghans to start their own businesses have been a runaway success, surpassing all expectations.

More than 300,000 people have benefited from the money, and 98 per cent of loans have been repaid.

Canada is the largest donor to the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan, based on the Nobel-prize winning program in Bangladesh that has supported millions of small loans there.

Mennonite Economic Development Associates has contributed technical assistance to the program.

Sauder said the experience shows a need to combine both elements of the aid parable but with a twist: Canada should give the fish and allow Afghans to devise their own fishing lessons.

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