A two-day conference on Afghanistan wrapped up on February 1 with commitments by major donor countries for rebuilding Afghanistan. About 70 countries took part in the conference, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were among the participating dignitaries.
This was the fourth international conference on Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. The first one, known as the Bonn Conference, established the basis for the government, legislature, and civic institutions in the country. The London conference established plans for the next five years in Afghanistan, known as the “Afghan Compact” (VOA, January 31).
The conference generated pledges of more than $10.5 billion over the next five years. The United States was the biggest donor with $4 billion, while Great Britain will provide $900 million during the next three years. (BBC, February 1).
Earlier in the week, there was another significant pledge, this time from Russia. Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, who was part of his country’s delegation to the conference, said that his country is ready to write off Afghanistan’s $10 billion debt to the former Soviet Union (Paktribune, February 1).
The conference convened at a difficult time for Afghanistan. Tensions between Afghanistan and its neighbors are growing, as is the number of insurgency attacks. There is a growing sense of insecurity and resignation among Afghans, who feel disillusioned by the limited progress made to date with the international aid that supposedly poured into Afghanistan.
Participants went to the London conference with varying sets of expectations and demands. The Afghan government wanted aid to be channeled through its own institutions rather than the international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), a view shared by some Afghans and observers. The international donors wanted the Afghan government “to present to the international community its strategy on development, security, the drug trade, and good governance.” Donors are especially concerned about the widespread corruption and nepotism that plagues the Afghan government.
One of the most vociferous critics of both the government and international NGOs is Ramazan Bashardost, who resigned as minister of planning in a dispute with President Karzai over the closure of more than 2,000 NGOs in Afghanistan. Now a popular member of parliament from Kabul, Bashardost issued an open letter on the eve of the London conference and later repeated its contents at a press conference in Kabul. He rejected the conference outright, saying it is “inopportune, out of place, and useless.” He says NGOs, corrupt government officials, and international staff squandered billions of U.S. dollars given to Afghanistan. He argues that the funds pledged in the conference are going to be spent by the same people that he accuses of corruption. Instead of giving more money to questionable recipients, Bashardost suggests: “There should be changes at the ministerial level, among leading figures of aid agencies, foreign banks, and institutions in order to avoid wasting assistance again” (Kabulpress, January 31).
President Karzai has also voiced his unhappiness with the NGO community. Last month, while meeting with reporters in Kabul, Karzai complained that foreign organizations in Afghanistan are wasting aid. He argued that his government would be better able to manage the funds, because the NGOs spend considerable sums of money “on high salaries, on overhead charges, on luxury vehicles, on luxury houses, and lots of other luxuries that Afghanistan cannot afford”(Washington Post, January 31).
President Karzai may be right about the spendthrift approach of expatriates living in Afghanistan, but his government has not had a good track record in accountability either. One Afghan observer, who preferred not to be named, left his high-level post in Afghanistan in protest and went back to Europe. He told Jamestown that, unless the government in Kabul roots out corruption, no amount of aid given to Afghanistan would help in the reconstruction of the country. “Some of the government officials,” he says “have very deep pockets and the corruption goes to the higher echelons of the government.”
This observation does not mean that funds should not be channeled to the more than 2,500 NGOs still active in Afghanistan. True, international staff may have a higher standard of living than locals, and a considerable amount of money is spent on overhead expenses. But some of the NGOs are indispensable in the type of work that they perform.
Nor should the government in Kabul itself be the sole recipient of the international aid funds. Rather, a balance needs to be established. An international watchdog could be created that would hold both the government and the international NGOs accountable, to verify that each and every penny spent is done in a completely transparent manner. Then the rebuilding process could be done in a rewarding way: the Afghan skeptics would be satisfied and the international donors would feel confident that their funds are being spent wisely.