Debunking Development Ownership in a ‘Donor Republic’



We are witnessing an end, president Obama stated in his Christmas speech to his nation, a ‘responsible end’ to the 13 years of NATO operation in Afghanistan. Surely, a responsible end would be grounded on tangible results. Any observer looking at the state of affairs in Afghanistan today would hesitate to make such a bold statement. And yet it is made. But are we to accept it?

Perhaps if we are to look at Afghanistan from the vantage point of US and its allies, the ‘responsible end’ is conceivable. After all, the US military objective in Afghanistan was straightforward from the beginning: to destroy Al-Qaeda, depose Taliban for harbouring Al-Qaeda, and prevent Afghanistan from being used in the future as a base for attack on US and its allies. Al-Qaeda is largely thwarted, Taliban were ousted and although not defeated, they do not lay any claim to attacking US and its allies beyond Afghanistan. Therefore, from US administration perspective, they have achieved their objective ‘responsibly’.

But as Afghans we simply must not accept the notion of ‘responsible end’. Not only because nothing responsible comes out of a military strategy of ‘escalate and exit’ that has been the modus operandi of US-led NATO operations in the last few years. More importantly, because it completely disregards another fundamental layer of foreign operation in Afghanistan. I speak of development and particularly the opportunistic NGO (non-governmental organizations) industry that has turned Afghanistan into a donor republic.

The truth of the matter is that the majority of Afghans are not concerned about the NATO military departure. In fact, if the insurgents wreak havoc on the basis of foreign occupation, with its end, Afghanistan should at last have its peace. What matters greatly to the ordinary Afghans is what will happen to the future of Afghanistan’s development as the donor funds are depleting and NGOs are leaving.

It is no secret that Afghanistan’s economy is detrimentally relying on Foreign Aid. But there is little known to the general public how this Aid has been given to Afghanistan. Particularly, how the NGO industry has turned this country like many other poverty stricken countries into a “Donor Republic”. And now as the industry scrambles to leave in the same manner they flooded Kabul in 2002, it begs to question, what have they accomplished in more than a decade? What kind of development they implemented in Afghanistan? Are they seeing their projects to a ‘responsible end’? More significantly, can we envision a future for Afghanistan without the NGO industry? To the latter question it is unequivocal yes, and to the former questions it is required to debunk the development discourse of Aid, Reconstruction and State building. And when we are discussing ‘responsible end’, we must certainly begin by unravelling the ownership nexus of the development of the last thirteen years.

The Bonn Agreement of December 2001 was labelled a ‘Grand Bargain’ for being an externally driven division of the spoils of war by a hand picked group of stakeholders. If the Bonn Agreement had been left to Afghans, perhaps it would have addressed the underlying power uncertainties that has since crippled the regime . If the Afghans had the ownership of the Bonn Agreement, it would have most definitely reflected the internal power relations, involved the regional powers responsibly, and not marginalized the largest ethnic groups, the Pashtuns. Thus, the so called Grand Bargain was an illegitimate attempt to reconfigure an internal power dynamic to meet the external interests.

It was abundantly clear from the inception of the Operation Enduring Freedom that United States was not interested in state-building as president Bush often bluntly reminded that ‘We are not into nation-building. We are focused on justice’. This was evident in the ‘light footprint’ approach presented by Brahimi and executed into the ISAF operation. Hence, what transpired in the aftermath of the Bonn Agreement became a highly Americanized affair with an envisaged neo-liberal development discourse enforced through an NGO industry.

While there are as many as 62 donors in the country, in actuality, Aid is concentrated within a group of six donors accounting for as much as 90% of assistance to Afghanistan. As expected, United States is the biggest donor, with 1/3 of all donor assistance since 2001. The Security Sector Reform agenda set out in the Geneva meeting by the G8 in 2002, laid the foundation for how Aid is to be distributed to Afghanistan. From then on, we have come to be accustomed to the donor capital names as vantage point of pledges to our bright future, be it the Bonn, Geneva, Tokyo, Berlin, Paris or the London Conferences. These far away conferences produced much appraised Afghan policy documents; be it the National Development Framework, Securing Afghanistan’s Future, or the Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS), which included the much acclaimed Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP).

These documented were portrayed to have derived from Afghan agency and would be under Afghan ownership. The documents emphasized government focus on poverty reduction, infrastructural development, economic and public financial reform, and most significantly private sector-led growth. The Donors would give the much needed supporting role by creating new modalities for funding to ensure it would be aligned behind government priorities. To achieve this, the Donors created the Joint Coordination Monitoring Board (JCMB), a Consultative Group Framework, an annual Afghan Development Forum, and many internationally monitoring trust funds for Aid oversight. Therefore, on paper, the development of Afghanistan was very much under Afghan ownership. It soon however, became clear that there would be a huge gap between the theory of development composed in international conferences and how it was practised in Afghanistan.

The Short Lived Ghani Effect

Under the leadership of Ashraf Ghani, the Ministry of Finance exerted strong afghan agency in the development agenda of the country between the July of 2002 to December 2004. As the US attention began diverting to the so called Axis of Evil and Iraq in particular, it gave the much needed freedom for Minister Ghani to initiate development policies that were Afghan derived and driven; be it the macroeconomic stability, state-building and poverty reduction, or aggressively pushing forward a budget that would be central to the development planning.

Being an experienced bureaucrat and knowledgeable of the short term donor commitment from his days at the World Bank, Minister Ghani embarked on an ambitious strategy to bind donors to long term commitment and ensure Donors’ unconditional support for a government defined agenda. To this end he placed serious conditions on the NGO engagement, requiring the Donors to meet the minimum threshold for investment and constraining NGOs to operate in no more than three sectors at a time under stringent regulations. In other words, development in Afghanistan should be long term focused, sustainable and practitioners in the field of development should be held accountable for the process.

This government exercise of agency was not welcomed by the NGO industry and led to removal of Minister Ghani in the cabinet reshuffle of December 2004. The dismissal of Ghani from Finance ministry by president Karzai was largely due to his growing criticism of the US off-budget Aid spending that was undermining his government-led development efforts. Within month of Ashraf Ghani removal from government, his team of over 20 competent afghan technocrats also left the Finance Ministry, paving the way for complete disengagement of Afghan government with the development process. Hence, the short lived Ghani era was the beginning of the end of any Afghan agency and ownership of the development process.

Entrenching the ‘Donor Republic’

The London Conference of 2006 seemed on the surface to be a step in the right direction, by emphasizing a broadening of a one-dimensional Bonn Agreement. To this end, the Afghan Compact was produced with the rhetoric of a ‘shared vision of the future for a stable and prosperous Afghanistan’. However, the Afghan Compact was Afghan in name only. Although it was aligned with the ANDS, in actuality, both documented were comprised of broad unachievable targets under heavy donor led processes. Therefore, the documents became Donor ‘shopping list’ of what can be funded rather than what the country needs.

The [In]security Sector Aid

Most of the Aid to Afghanistan has been to the security sector and it has largely reflected the priorities of the donors. In 2004-05, by World Bank estimates, the security expenditure equalled almost 500 percent of Afghanistan’s domestic revenue. The situation has worsened since then, considering increasing demand for security expenditure and drop in GDP growth. The afghan government was alarmed by this unsustainable security expenditure but not having any agency in the matter was powerless to mitigate Donor funding. At the G8 meeting in 2002, the Security Sector Reform (SSR) was the top priority of the Donors but the approach implemented was based on the short term logic of counter-insurgency rather than long term goal of state-building. Therefore, SSR process was never a holistic framework to establish an accountable security system. Almost all Aid to Afghanistan is somehow tied to the Security Sector and has functioned as soft power in parallel tandem to the military

operations by US-led NATO forces.

The Dependency Factor

Even after 13 years, it is adamantly clear that the Afghan government will for the foreseeable future depend extensively on the donor funding to maintain its recurrent costs and provide the little core services that it is obligated to the people. Even though domestic revenues have been rising, they remain extremely low at less than 10 percent of the GDP, but accounting more than 60 percent of the governments operating budget and less than 30 percent of the total government spending. Hence Afghanistan has been a rentier state, that is, more responsible to the donors than its people, contrary to the very principles of democracy.

It is hard to see how Afghanistan can overcome the aid dependence and the adverse effects associated in being a Donor Republic. The aid donors have created a culture of corruption, perversely distorted accountability and saliently escalated insecurity. First, by allocating the large portion of the Aid to the short-term security sector, it has only returned in short-term security gains. Secondly, it is often narrated that the US and its allies have spent trillions of dollars in Afghanistan since 2001 – by some estimate the war has cost United States 100 million dollar per day – this does not mean that this money was spent for Afghanistan or given to Afghan government.

From the beginning, Aid donors foundational belief has been an anti-state neo-liberal approach to development. This has created a parallel NGO industry that operated alongside the government, often times infringing on the very legitimacy of the government. The excuse for creating such an NGO industry is often coated with the rhetoric of Afghan government’s lack of absorptive capacity or fears of corruption. Therefore, the actual money spent in Afghanistan for Afghans pales in comparison to the US and its allies spending in their military operations, contractors, and NGO Industry.

Following the Money

There is a massive gulf between what the donors commit to Afghanistan in their capital cities to what is actually seen in Afghanistan in disbursement. While from 2001-2008, the donors aid commitment to Afghanistan has been 25 billion dollar, the actual disbursement has been around 15 billion dollar. To emphasize, there is 10 billion dollar that donor countries have allocated to Afghanistan but never delivered. Moreover, of the 15 billion aid that manages to find itself in Afghanistan, one-quarter has gone to technical assistance that is donor driven with marginal impact to the so called lasting capacity building. On top of this, there is another 40 percent of the supposed Aid to Afghanistan which goes back to the donor countries in corporate profits and consultancy salaries. This is a staggering total of 6 billion dollar between 2001-2008. From the remaining amount, less than 30 percent of all aid is channelled through the government official budget. To reiterate, While Afghan government between 2001-2008 had been recipient of less than 30 percent of 2/3 of 15 billion, from which 40 percent has gone back automatically to corporate profits and supposed consultancy salaries, the staggering 70 percent of aid is given in off-budget to the NGO industry. Therefore, It is not surprising that the Afghan government lacks information on how more than one-third of all aid to its country has been spent since 2001.

This off-budget Aid has created from the beginnings a dual public sector, a weak unsustainable internal public sector that the government manages and a growing external sector that is donor-led and NGO operated. Inevitably such dual sector created a ‘brain drain’, as Afghan professionals gravitated towards the higher paid NGO industry. This is what minister Ghani attempted to rectify that cost him his position.

The little money that was given to the Afghan government in the past 13 years, in cases where there was genuine grassroots afghan projects, the results have been impressive. The Afghan National Solidarity Program is such an example, arguably the most successful Afghan owned and directed development initiative. But such Afghan projects were increasingly ignored by the Donors to use as a reference in their development endeavour, as all their resources were shifted to large ‘signature projects’ perceived to win ‘hearts and minds’ of Afghans.

It is undiscerning how with such appraised documents such as ANDS and JCMB, can the donors be able to completely marginalize Afghan ownership in the development process. Perhaps because as with most of Afghanistan’s strategy documents, even the ANDS and JCMB were penned by external consultants. Even when under the full supervision of external consultants, the Afghan government approved the final ANDS document, the powerful donors insisted that large sections be re-written to reflect more donor interests.

It is precisely because these development documents are harmful to the nation that donors seek to evade democratic oversight and played crucial role in forcing Afghan government to not present the Afghan Compact document to the parliament for ratification. Therefore, while in their capital cities the donors paid lip service to notions of Afghan ownership, agency and partnership, it was the donors who made sure they are in control of the development process in Afghanistan. And the real development policies were made in unofficial settings, the ‘Tea Clubs’ and ‘Coffee Clubs’, where grouping of ambassadors of donor countries met on regular basis with the Special Representative of the Secretary General on what development path Afghanistan should adopt.

Ministerial selectivity is another example of how donors undermined domestic ownership, in which donors favoured ‘reforming’ over ‘traditional’ ministers. The donors have heavily favoured Ministry of Education, Finance, and Rural Rehabilitation and Development because they are led by a western-oriented minister who is ‘able’ to meet the donor requirement and hires significant number of western consultants. While starving of funding the ‘reform resistant’ ministries such as Agriculture and Interior that have been perhaps in most dire need of development aid. And what are the reforms that donors are so keen that a ministry must accept. The reforms are often based on shallow foundations and unsustainable to long term government efforts. This undeclared donor selectivity largely implemented without transparency has served to create within one cabinet the ‘have’ and ‘have not’ ministries.

In following the money, it becomes evident that aid has followed the NATO military operation rather than being spent where it was needed. Using Aid as a soft power is an old concept and in Afghanistan it has gone side by side with military operations in specific territories in a form of reconstruction assistance. For instance, if Helmand was a country, it would be the fifth biggest recipient of USAID funds globally. The same holds true for UK, who spent 1/5 of its Aid assistance in Helmand and Canada 1/4 to Kandahar. Most of the money has been channelled through the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) with its own contractors, NGOs and etc…

It is necessary to question whose ‘hearts and minds’ were won by such ineffective, partially delivered Aid that is nationally divisive with ministerial selectivity, aid regional fragmentation and a reconstruction based on Quick Impact Projects derived from donor shopping list. It becomes clear that making Afghanistan a donor republic has been primarily for the benefit of the Donors. The high profiled pledging conferences in their capital cities were part of a ‘theatre’ of legitimating an International Intervention. Afghanistan has for the last decade become more dependent on the donors than any periphery was to the core colonial power. This rentier state that has emerged, this aid economy that has been purposely constructed can be best characterized as a ‘casino’ economy where more than sixty donors are playing, there is almost no barrier to their entry, and non-existent ownership, agency or even regulation by Afghan government. It is therefore not surprising that contrary to the lofty goal of wining ‘hearts and minds’, the Donor Republic has created an environment where many Afghans refer to the development discourse and the NGO industry as ‘cows that drink their own milk’. The consequences of the perverse dollarised Kabul bubble economy is becoming evident now as the NGO industry is scrambling to leave and Donor Republic is in tatters.

With Ashaf Ghani now holding the presidential post, perhaps, Afghanistan can regain the ownership of its development and exert strong agency in its future. For that to occur, it must first address the incompatibility of western development discourse in Afghanistan. Afghan development can not be derived from neo-liberal principles but must be laid on Afghan tradition and cultural foundations and endogenously implemented to empower Afghans in their future. This means, the government must focus on the rural economy, by injecting fund to the agricultural sector so that the country can enter the path of food sustainability and human security. The Afghan-led development must not be a regime ownership but a national ownership. It must listen to the people and identify domestic development priorities over donors strategic interests and neo-liberal ideological aspirations.

Suhrob Ahmad

One thought on “Debunking Development Ownership in a ‘Donor Republic’”

  1. So they marginalized the pashtun ethnic group, huh? Is that why they picked Karzai instead of Abdul Satar Sirat? Wow. I wonder how many afghans feel marginalized when they hear the national anthem… know the one that isn’t written in our Lingua Franca. I’d call you a moron but even morons wouldn’t want to be compared to you.


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