The Monumental Task of Reconstruction

Mission: Afghanistan

A young Afghan refugee at a camp in Pakistan, Oct. 8, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Rebuilding Afghanistan after two decades of war must be done with respect for local needs and desires, and must be a long-term commitment, aid and development experts say. Dr. Paul Oquist of the United Nations Development Program warned against “quick fixes” and “donor fatigue,” arguing that there should be a “post-war” concept of special institutions and resources over a considerable period of time.

But in helping reconstruct Afghanistan, donor agencies and governments must take care to let Afghans shape their own future.
“I did not come to this conference to tell you how the World Bank and other donors are going to rebuild Afghanistan,” Mieko Nishimizu, World Bank vice president, told an ongoing meeting of international donor agencies, some governments, and Afghan aid and other groups.

“How dare we think about rebuilding Afghanistan without listening to the sovereign people?” he argued.
Oquist said Afghanistan can look to other countries, such as post-war Japan and Germany as good examples of countries that were able to transform destroyed industrial infrastructure into an opportunity to construct modern, competitive economic and industrial infrastructure, he added.
Afghanistan does not have a government apparatus, but that can be transformed into an opportunity to create a modern, participatory, and responsive state.

The Islamabad meeting to discuss the reconstruction of the social and economic infrastructure in war-ravaged Afghanistan began on Nov. 27, parallel to a meeting in Germany on the country’s future political dispensation. Of the more than 300 participants at the meeting here, a majority are Afghans belonging to NGOs, the assistance community, and nongovernmental groups. None are from the tribal mujahideen groups.

The three-day conference is part of a three-pronged international strategy to reconstruct the country by bringing in competent political leadership, cooperation among different donor agencies, and financial funding. The meetings on reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan started in Washington on Nov. 20, which the United States and Japan co-chaired. From Islamabad, the process went to Bonn.

Estimates by international bureaucrats here put reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan at up to US$10 billion. How donor agencies respond and whether the manner is inclusive of local needs and aspirations will have to be seen in the months and years ahead.

In recent years, international assistance to Afghanistan has totaled $200 to $300 million annually. It has gone overwhelmingly to humanitarian relief purposes, much of it in the form of food aid. Most has been channeled through the [U.N.’s] Annual Afghanistan Appeal, together with periodic drought appeals. The most recent example is the much larger Donor Alert and appeal for $584 million for the period October 2001 to March 2002, announced in late September 2001.

So far, funding has come from numerous donors, the largest of which has been the United States, followed by the European Union.

Most international assistance to Afghanistan is delivered by NGOs. There are about 40 sizable NGOs with annual spending of $1 million or more each, along with other smaller entities.

Much aid passes through U.N. agencies to implementing NGOs, although the larger and more reputable groups, mostly international NGOs, attract substantial direct donor funding.

In the absence of an effectively functioning government, service delivery, or leadership, NGOs have over the years become the main actors in areas such as primary education (especially for girls), rural water supply, basic health units, and demining.

A World Bank paper says Afghanistan’s economic situation has regional spillover effects—through unofficial trade, narcotics, terrorism and extremism, financial flows, and movements of people. These spillover effects have undermined revenue collection, governance, and the effectiveness of economic policies in neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan. It is therefore expected that the neighboring countries would also be the beneficiaries of the rebuilding process.

But none of the six countries around Afghanistan, including the host Pakistan, have been invited to the meeting and most speakers are either international bureaucrats or development specialists, in what some said looked like an effort to stay away from politics.

Yoshihiro Iwasaki, an Asian Development Bank director, said that in recent weeks, the Manila-based bank has had discussions with member governments, especially with those of the directly affected economies, including the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

“Rehabilitation and reconstruction will require a long-term approach for all the neighboring countries,” he said. Expecting that the huge rehabilitation exercise next door would boost the country’s struggling economy, the Pakistan government has already prepared the business community to be ready to participate in the reconstruction work.

Already, Pakistan has provided wheat to the World Food Program on credit and now is poised to offer its expertise on building irrigation infrastructure and clearing landmines in Afghanistan. The clearance of landmines from all mine-contaminated areas alone could cost as much as $500 million.

But beyond physical reconstruction efforts, a World Bank paper said: “Reconstruction cannot be separated from longer-term economic and social development.” Merely restoring the pre-1979 economic situation would still leave the country one of the poorest in the world. This would make the task of maintaining political stability and promoting national integration very difficult and would leave Afghanistan highly vulnerable to resurgence of conflict.

“Population growth since the 1970s means that the pre-existing economic base and infrastructure could not support the current population if most refugees return,” the paper pointed out.

“So reconstruction will need to be combined with a massive development effort: Education and health, which never reached most of the population, will need to be greatly expanded,” it said.

Afghanistan’s agricultural production base has to be able to support more people, and roads and infrastructure must be repaired to reach inaccessible parts of the country.

Another issue is that over the years, the difference between development and humanitarian activities has become blurred. One of the biggest problems of the last 10 years has been the high overhead costs paid by donors to deliver aid, so future programs must involve as few international staff as possible. This would mean extensive management and control by Afghans—and development assistance aimed at building the capacity of Afghans to run these programs. But doing economic and social reconstruction work in Afghanistan will not be easy, even for major donors.