Page last updated at 09:14 GMT, Tuesday, 26 June 2007 10:14 UK

Aid failings 'hit Afghan progress'

By David Loyn
BBC developing world correspondent, Afghanistan

Poppies in Afghanistan
Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is increasing again

More than five years after the defeat of the Taleban in Afghanistan, the failure of international aid to make a difference to Afghanistan is now having serious security consequences.

A recent Red Cross report showed that the worsening conflict in the south is now spreading to the north and west, alongside an upsurge of suicide bombing in Kabul.

The amount of money promised per head for Afghanistan was far lower than in other recent post-conflict countries, and too little of it has gone into increasing the capacity of the Afghan government to run things for itself.

In a report more than a year ago, the World Bank warned of the dangers of an 'aid juggernaut', a parallel world operating outside the government economy, with Afghans not even able to bid for major infrastructure contracts, such as roads.

The quality of much of what has been delivered remains very low. In schools where lots of money has been spent and the project signed off as functioning and open, girls are still being taught in tents in the mud.

There have been some successes. President Hamid Karzai often reminds audiences that 40,000 Afghan babies would not be alive today but for improvements in Afghan health care.

And some aid is successfully going through the state for basic services.

One in 10 Afghan teachers have their salaries paid by British taxpayers, but to the teachers their pay packets are not earmarked as 'foreign aid' - they come from the Afghan Education department.

Similarly, some small rural schemes - drainage, clinics, small power projects and schools are now being built through the National Solidarity Programme. That is a fund managed and distributed through the Afghan government, with almost all of the money coming from international donors.

Slow process

There have recently been some indications that the Americans, the biggest spenders in Afghanistan, are beginning to see the sense in these kinds of programmes, and planning to put more of their aid money through the government.

Changing policy in this direction is a slow process, although the theory at least is now US doctrine.

Afghan women wait to have their children vaccinated against polio at a Red Cross Clinic in Kabul
Health care improvements have been praised

Building up the institutions of the state is after all a central part of fighting insurgencies, according to the new counter-insurgency manual being used by US forces - the first written since the end of the Vietnam War.

The manual even emphasises that the new state does not have to do things especially well: "The host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us (the United States) doing it well."

But the doctrine has not yet worked through to changing the culture of how to spend aid money, either through USAid, or the Pentagon which runs its own aid programme.

Most international officials, aid workers and consultants in Afghanistan live a hermetically sealed life - advised not to step outside by armed security guards, and often working at very high salaries on very short-term contracts.

So too much of the money earmarked for aid to Afghanistan actually goes straight back to donor countries.

The Chief of Staff at the Afghan Counter-Narcotics Ministry, Abbie Aryan, condemned the culture of "champagne and caviar consultants" who come to Afghanistan and "deliver nothing".

There is still no internationally agreed strategy on how to tackle the drugs problem.

Britain plays a lead role in trying to stop the cultivation of opium poppies, and Mr Aryan says that large amounts of British money have been wasted on things that the Afghans do not need.

'Unwanted luxuries'

He agreed to talk to the BBC on the record because of a growing concern in the Afghan government that the international community is only paying lip service to the idea that Afghanistan should determine aid priorities for itself.

UK ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles
Afghanistan is one of the UK's 'top priorities', says the new UK ambassador

Rather than responding to Afghan concerns, and helping to fund an eradication coordination unit, when the Counter Narcotics Ministry wanted to set one up, the British government is instead funding a project for aerial photography that will cost more than $10m.

The Director of Survey and Monitoring at the ministry, Engineer Mohammad Ibrahim Azhar, told the BBC that when the project was first proposed, the Minister Habibullah Qaderi asked the British why they could not use a local plane, or at least provide equipment that would still be there when the project finished.

Instead the contract is with a British firm, with two British engineers running it in Kabul.

Mr Aryan said: "Our minister is concerned about this. We are constantly telling the British that you are supposed to be providing us with tools to fight narcotics, rather than all this luxury stuff, which we didn't ask for and didn't need."


The minister is reported to have asked the British why they could not have made the money available for Afghanistan to employ people to survey the poppy-growing areas on the ground.

British policy towards Afghanistan is now undergoing its most radical review since the fall of the Taleban in 2001

The Deputy Minister of Counter Narcotics, General Khodaidad, is very supportive of the British position, but several other sources in the ministry have expressed concern about British priorities.

Mr Aryan says that the aerial photographs replicate material already available from the US, UN and British systems: "We can just look at the photo and say 'Wow, a five million dollar photo'."

Other concerns have been raised over a fund designed to provide alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers.

Of $70m earmarked for this project, little more than $1m has actually been spent.

Afghan officials blame bureaucratic obstacles put in the way of spending the money. The UK Foreign Office admitted that there have been "teething problems", for a fund that is operating "in a challenging environment".

Behind the criticism over spending lies a more serious concern that the counter-narcotics policy is not working.

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is on the increase again, and rising fastest in areas under British control. A number of officials believe that the problem is now out of control, and that the international community has lost the war on drugs.

British policy towards Afghanistan is now undergoing its most radical review since the fall of the Taleban in 2001. There is a big increase of staff in Kabul, including a doubling of diplomats on the political side, directly engaged in relations with the Afghan government.

The review will include security, drug control policies, and development spending under a new ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles. He told the BBC that Afghanistan is now "one of Britain's top foreign policy priorities".

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