On Monday December 13, Afghan Planning Minister Ramazan Bashardost tendered his resignation due to a controversy regarding his policies toward non-governmental organizations (NGOs). He is the second planning minister to resign in the past 10 months. His predecessor, Haji M. Mohaqqiq, resigned due to political differences with President Hamid Karzai and several other cabinet ministers. He is also the second Hazara to quit Karzai’s cabinet over policy matters. There is only one more Hazara minister left, Habiba Sarabi, Minister of Women’s Affairs.
Several NGO controversies have arisen from Afghan reconstruction efforts. Since the fall of the Taliban regime, international donors and UN agencies have channeled their assistance through NGOs, causing the Afghan government to complain that hundreds of millions dollars of aid has been given to NGOs and not to its own agencies. After taking office in early March, Bashardost had proposed a new law governing the activities of the NGOs. He wanted them to be more transparent and reduce their administrative expenses, which he claimed comprised about 80% of their budgets (Pak-Tribune, September 10).
NGOs are considered a crucial part of the Afghan reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, as the Afghan government is not sufficiently staffed with qualified personnel and the UN agencies are often over stretched in countries such as Afghanistan. In general there are three types of NGOs: those affiliated with UN agencies, large internationally recognized NGOs such as the Red Cross, and finally domestic groups. Doctors Without Borders had been in Afghanistan for 24 years before it pulled out in June of this year after five staff members were killed in an ambush in Badghis Province, Western Afghanistan. Doctors Without Borders performed valuable services for the Afghan sick and wounded during the USSR-Afghan war and the subsequent civil war (Itefaq-e-Islam in Dari, December 13). Some local NGOs, such as Shuhada Organization, have huge educational as well as health and community services programs in rural parts of the country (shuhada.org).
However, Bashardost was unhappy with the activities of most, if not all, of the NGOs. He branded their activities as “economic terrorism” and charged that they squandered vital Afghan aid money on expensive lifestyles. He said that such NGOs were not helping to reconstruct Afghanistan (Pajhwok Afghan News, December 13).
Bashardost demanded that about 2,000 NGOs disband. He accused 1,935 of them of being involved in “corruption and embezzlement.” In addition, Bashardost told press outlets in Kabul that President Karzai was also “in favor” of his decision to disband the NGOs. However, “he later changed his stance” (Xinhua, December 13). Bashardost was particularly hard on 260 foreign agencies that he said were not cooperating with the Afghan government and did not report their activities and results to his ministry. “You cannot find an Afghan who says these NGOs are working for the benefit of the Afghan people,” he claimed (Reuters, December 12).
Critics charge that foreign NGOs squander aid money on lavish life styles while the locals go hungry. Workers with these NGOs are known as the “Land Cruiser crowd” because of the expensive SUVs they drive. Bashardost had introduced restrictions on the amount of money NGOs could spend on vehicles. “They can use a car costing $12,000 instead of using a $40,000 car (ARR No. 147, November 11).
Following an early September attack on aid workers in the province of Badakhshan, Bashardost released a statement in which he said that, considering the popular resentment due to the lifestyles of the foreign aid workers, such attacks were “inevitable.” His remarks caused an uproar among foreign aid agencies, including the UN representative who said justifying attacks against aid workers in general and “against NGOs in particular, is unacceptable” (Pak-Tribune, September 10).
In a country devastated by decades of war, any assistance, especially in the form of reconstruction projects, is badly needed. However, giving carte blanche to NGOs both foreign and domestic without some degree of transparency and accountability will not render favorable results. Yet the summary dismissal of the aid organizations would only affect the little assistance that eventually trickles to the Afghans. This is probably why President Karzai finally chose to distance himself from Bashardost’s decision to disband the NGOs. During Karzai’s two previous terms, the ministry was the focus of so much controversy that he decided to get rid of it altogether. According to his spokesman, Jawed Ludin, “There will probably be no ministry under the name of ‘planning’ in the new government (Pajhwok Afghan News, December 12).