Why militarizing aid in Afghanistan is a bad idea

February 4, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Along with several other international NGOs working in Afghanistan, Oxfam last week published a powerful paper on the damage being caused by the militarization of aid. In many ways it resembles the debate on how to ensure that Haitian reconstruction builds, rather than undermines, its battered state.

In the last half hour, one Afghan woman died from pregnancy-related complications, another of tuberculosis and 14 children perished, largely from preventable causes. Eight years after the fall of the Taliban, the humanitarian and development needs in Afghanistan remain acute.

Undoubtedly, Afghans have seen some improvements, particularly in the expansion of access to healthcare and education. But while it costs approximately $1 million a year to support the deployment of a single US soldier in Afghanistan, an average of just $93 in development aid has been spent per Afghan per year over the past seven years. Over $1 billion – more than Afghanistan’s combined national budgets for agriculture, health and education, has been committed to the US military’s ‘Commanders’ Emergency Response Program’ (CERP) for this year alone. Even pro-development Europe spends five times as much on military operations in Afghanistan as on aid.

As the political pressure to ‘show results’ grows, the boundaries between counter-insurgency

Mightier than the sword? Handing out pens to Afghan children

Mightier than the sword? Handing out pens to Afghan children

and aid are getting ever-more blurred. In “Commanders’ Guide to Money as a Weapons System,” a US army manual for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, aid is defined as “a nonlethal weapon” that is utilized to “win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population to facilitate defeating the insurgents.”

Much of the problem stems from the so-called ‘Provincial Reconstruction Teams’, military-dominated institutions with a mixed record, building some schools with leaky roofs and latrines emptying into community water sources, but also addressing immediate needs for schools and clinics. The trouble is, they are also undermining the process of rebuilding Afghan institutions, by assuming their responsibilities without a clear exit strategy for ensuring that Afghans take their place.

Schools supported or constructed by PRTs are also perceived by Afghans to be at higher risk of being attacked by the insurgents. Many fear that, by extension, the same applies to health clinics and other community facilities constructed by PRTs or other military actors.

There are better alternatives available, such as the Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS), managed by the Ministry of Public Health and introduced in 2003, which seeks to ensure that basic health services are available at the community level and integrated into a national structure of healthcare provision. Or community based education working alongside the Ministry of Education to establish 1,000 schools serving 93,000 students across 20 provinces. Or the National Solidarity Program, which I’ve written about before. NSP provides block grants of up to $60,000 for elected community councils to implement their own projects. But the long-term process of building the capacity and transparency of local institutions is almost as important as the outcomes of these small projects. To date, NSP has expended $1 billion on community development in 22,480 villages across all 34 provinces in Afghanistan.

Sadly all this is being sidelined by the logic of war, and ‘quick fix’ efforts to throw up a few classrooms to undermine support for the insurgents. To be effective and sustainable, development should be determined by Afghan needs and implemented with Afghan participation, even in insecure areas. An army is accepted if it protects people, and if the state it defends is seen as legitimate. The credit earned and skills acquired in providing essential services must go to Afghan institutions.