Practical help is the key to success in Afghanistan

As President Barack Obama starts to roll out his new Afghanistan strategy, he would be wise to assess carefully why a country that for several years after the fall of the Taliban was mostly at peace is now falling apart. Much of the answer lies in a failed strategy for civilian development over the last eight years. If the international community does not get its development priorities right now, no number of foreign troops will be able to pacify the country.

The international community has put strong emphasis on building the capacity for Afghans to take informed decisions. There has been much less focus on actually helping the Afghans get things done. The result has been an endless stream of ineffective policy advice – piles of reports in the different ministries in Kabul about how things should be done, but too little change on the ground affecting ordinary people’s lives.

Development of Afghanistan’s gas resources is a case in point. Afghanistan has proven gas reserves in the relatively peaceful north that would be easy and quick to commercialise. It is the cheapest way to provide electricity for the country, and bottled gas could mitigate some of the energy poverty in rural areas. The resources are plentiful enough to provide Afghanistan with a steady electricity supply for the next 20 years. In six to nine months, gas turbines could start delivering electricity. More than 30 reports have been written about the development of the gas resources since 2001. But the ability to convert policy advice into action has been absent. What could have been a major enabler for progress and stability in Afghanistan, plentiful cheap electricity, has instead become another wasted opportunity.

This sorry state is the result of dithering donors and Afghan ministry officials not being equipped to take on the complex tasks of running an effective and competent central administration. The international community’s inability or unwillingness to take action on behalf of the Afghans is a contributing factor.

What could stabilise Afghanistan and improve security for its people is the provision of employment for one of the world’s fastest expanding young male populations. But job creation requires electricity, roads, access to credit and a reasonably deregulated investment code together with basic health and education provision.

Strengthening these enablers must be a priority for the international community. This means recognising that building up a civil service that has not been functioning for the last 30 years is a job for the longer term.

Donors should strike a bargain with the Afghan government. In exchange for continued support for the re-elected administration of President Hamid Karzai, they should require that qualified international advisers work as staff in the ministries and at regional levels in the administration, executing policy decided by Afghan policymakers.

The international community should also recognise the limitations of using overseas private contractors in war zones and restructure contractual arrangements to reduce risk exposure to an absolute minimum. Meanwhile, the public sector needs to learn how to execute change without lengthy procurement cycles. The role of the US Army Corp of Engineers could be strengthened and expanded in this regard.

As the Chinese leadership has come to recognise, legitimacy among the poor does not arise from good intentions or even a popular mandate, but rather from professional planning and competent execution.

The writer is a principal in Econ Poyry, an international energy advisory firm, and has worked extensively with post-conflict countries including Afghanistan

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