Thursday May 23, 2024

Afghanistan and foreign aid

By Dr Murad Ali
February 22, 2020

In the immediate post-World War II landscape, then US Secretary of State Gen George Marshall elaborated a long and detailed programme for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Europe.

Under Marshall’s eponymous plan, the US provided $13 billion (historical dollar-value) assistance to Europe to rebuild its war-battered economy. “After approval by Congress in 1948 the US spent 2-3 percent (excluding military aid) of its GNP under this initiative during the six years 1948-53, almost entirely on a grant basis”.

The question is whether the ‘Afghan Marshall Plan’ worked in ameliorating the lot of poor Afghans or not. Outlining his future reconstruction strategy for Afghanistan, President Bush had further specified that “We’re working hard in Afghanistan. We’re clearing minefields. We’re rebuilding roads. We’re improving medical care. And we will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world’s demand for drugs”

What is the actual story and on-the-ground achievements of the US’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan? How has the so-called US Marshall Plan made Afghanistan a better place to live in? Well, although US aid has helped in building infrastructure including health and education facilities, most Afghans still live in abject poverty as huge US aid funds have been embezzled and spent on poorly conceived projects.

Although foreign aid from the US and the international donor community has roughly doubled the size of the country’s economy, it has not translated into a healthy economy as the benefits are disproportionately and inequitably distributed. As per the German maxim, in addition to an army of cripples and mourners, the war here has also created an army of thieves.

A number of friends from Afghanistan who have worked in aid agencies have narrated to me indescribable tales of misuse and corruption in foreign-funded projects. Both Western development experts and consultants as well as local elites are responsible for lavishly and unscrupulously spending foreign aid funds in ill-conceived, unsustainable and useless ventures with little dividends for the actual intended beneficiaries.

Given the situation, Transparency International has regularly ranked Afghanistan among the most corrupt countries in the world on the basis of the Corruption Perception Index. Unfortunately, besides security apprehensions and lack of infrastructure, widespread corruption in the public sector is also a major factor that the country is unable to tap its unprecedented mineral resources, estimated to be $1 trillion

According to a report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the bulk of the aid funds have been wasted on development interventions that were poorly conceived or riddled with staggering corruption. “American dollars went to build hospitals that treated no patients, to schools that taught no students (and sometimes never existed at all) and to military bases the Afghans found useless and later shuttered”, revealed another report.

An Afghan friend who worked in a funded project told me that at times there was just no accountability at all as the project team was asked to give big cash grants to elders of local tribes without any proper documentation and without any record as to where such money eventually ended.

The SIGAR report documented $15.5 billion in waste, fraud and abuse in reconstruction efforts from 2008 through 2017. While Afghanistan is usually described as the ‘graveyard of empires’ on account of the much extolled notion of invincibility of the Afghans, it can also be labelled as the ‘graveyard of foreign aid’ because colossal international development cooperation has achieved very little to show to the world.

For example, it is estimated that American spending on the Afghanistan nation-building project over the last two decades now exceeds $108 billion, surpassing the $104 billion current-dollar value of Marshall Plan expenditures, which helped rebuild European nations after World War II.

“SIGAR calculates that the United States had committed more funds to reconstruct Afghanistan, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it spent on 16 European countries after World War II under the Marshall Plan”, reveals the report. At the same time, the report laments that Afghanistan is beset by corruption, tribal conflicts and a resurgent Taliban poised to strike government installations at will.

Despite billions of dollars in development assistance, a quarter or more of Afghans are unemployed and Afghan maternal mortality remains among the highest in the world, while life expectancy is among the lowest. With over 4.6 million refugees across the globe, Afghanistan is still one of the largest sources of illegal migration.

The question is: who is responsible? And a more pertinent question is: will the much-awaited peace deal bring lasting peace to the country?


The writer holds a PhD from MasseyUniversity, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.