JALALABAD, Afghanistan—You’ve all heard horror stories of U.S. aid funds misused by big contractors on failed projects with high overhead in war zones.
The U.S. military insists the war can’t be won by guns, yet our civilian-aid programs have floundered. They’ve been undercut by shifting goals and the fact that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has shrunk to little more than a contracting agency.
So I was looking for U.S. civilian-aid programs in Afghanistan that actually work, and offer Afghans the help they need to improve their lives. On this trip, I found such a program in eastern Afghanistan, called IDEA-NEW, which runs agricultural projects. The program is funded by USAID and led by a Washington contractor (Development Alternatives Inc.). Sounds like the same old, but it isn’t.
What makes this program so unusual is that it consults Afghans at every stage of its operations—and makes use almost entirely of Afghan staff.
I learned about the program unexpectedly from Jonathan Greenham, IDEA-NEW’s program director in eastern Afghanistan, an area on the Pakistan border where the Taliban has made inroads. He wrote me an e-mail after reading a column I’d written about Greg Mortenson, the best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea, who builds girls’ schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. My column complained that U.S. aid workers didn’t follow Mortenson’s model of consulting tribal elders on projects and rarely left their protected enclaves.
Greenham, who has spent a decade doing development work in the region, wrote: “I agree that there is a wide perception that contractors are all money grubbers and doing nothing.” But, he said, his team was “here to help, not for the money,” lived “outside the wire” and visited local communities daily. He added there were other civilian contractors out there doing good things.
“My team can go places and do things soldiers can’t,” he went on. They “operate low profile” and can move freely “because the communities invite them in and support them.” They work to “rebuild irrigation systems, plant fruit and forest trees, build walls around girls schools, drinking water schemes, microhydro power for villages” and more, he continued. Of his 370 in-country staff, only two are expatriates - the rest are Afghans.
So, of course, I wanted to visit this project. In April, I flew from Kabul over the mountains to Jalalabad. And I think I found a model that would enable far more U.S. aid to achieve its development goals.
Most USAID staff or other U.S. civilian officials—and many contractors—reside within heavily protected compounds, and move in armed convoys. Greenham operates from a rented villa in a Jalalabad neighborhood. “Sitting within the wire, you know nothing of what is going on outside,” he says. “You have to sit in a village and talk, and build relationships.”
We set off to visit project sites in an ordinary car, along with Afghan staff. “Arriving with several humvees is not the best way to drink tea with folks,” Greenham says.
My first stop, with Greenham’s deputy, Linda Norgrove: the Shamshapoor bridge over the Surkhab River, an hour outside Jalalabad, designed by Afghan engineers after consulting local villagers.
A previous international aid effort at bridge-building washed away because a foreign contractor didn’t know the sluggish river could rise several feet in a few hours. With this bridge, local men told me, 40,000 people in more than 20 villages could get their produce to market, children could reach their schools, and the sick
could reach doctors in Jalalabad.
Greenham says another U.S. project in Kunar province is about to make a similar mistake in building a flood wall, because it hasn’t consulted locals. Western expertise doesn’t necessarily mean one grasps the local situation or has the needed skills.
Haji Amanullah, a local elder with gray and white beard wearing a squashed pakol hat, said villagers helped build an adjacent road, and guarded the project. “When an international group comes,” he said, “they must discuss with the real elders and shura (consultative council) and we will guarantee security (against antigovernment insurgents). If they come on their own, there will be problems.”
Amanullah added that locals did not want aid workers to arrive in humvees. “They do not think this is the right thing,” he said.
Next we met female workers at the Surkhrud women’s packinghouse—well-covered ladies who package local fruits and vegetables under the Pride of the Eastern Region brand that has been certified for export. Afghan women manage the packinghouse as well as IDEA-NEW’s gender project, which helps women set
up businesses at home.
I could write a book about these women, who braved the disdain of neighbors and family when they took jobs. They now command respect because locals recognize that nothing untoward goes on in their workplaces.
The importance of consulting local shuras was reaffirmed in the village of Yaqhibandi, where IDEA-NEW built a microhydro plant that powers a textile factory and gives residents electricity at night.
Greenham and I had tea with the 10-man shura that was consulted on the project and provided workers for its construction. White-bearded Mullah Abdul Samat, an Islamic judge under the Taliban who later rejected their rule, said “no one threatened this project because our community supported it.” He wants more factories to provide jobs for unemployed youths (who may be tempted by Taliban offers of pay).
Of course, there is more to making an aid project successful than local buy-in. Greenham believes you must create local accountability by making the community pay something. That way locals will continue to protect their investment.
He also believes, fervently, that aid projects must be plugged into an overall development strategy prepared by Afghan ministries. All too often, short-term U.S. aid projects leave no trace after contractors leave. “You must cooperate with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development,” he says. “They will be there when we go.”
Greenham readily concedes that Afghan ministries need help in building their capacity. Not only has Afghanistan gone through decades of war, but newly educated youths are wooed away by international aid agencies that pay four times what a government ministry can afford.
That should impel aid agencies to help upgrade worker skills in provincial and district ministry offices, Greenham says. Examples: IDEA-NEW has offered English and computer training to Ministry of Women’s Affairs and other ministry staff in Jalalabad. They never had such training before.
USAID and Agriculture Department officials in Kabul are now trying to “Afghanize” aid projects; they say they are working on building Afghan capacity and plugging aid plans into a national Afghan development framework. But it will be a hard slog to revamp the USAID bureaucracy, and to figure out how to overcome security concerns that keep U.S. development workers on bases.
Let me add that it takes tremendous courage for Greenham and his team to visit projects daily (and there are parts of the country where this would not be possible). Last week, a young Afghan staffer who accompanied us to Yaqhibandi was shot dead on a village road, possibly because he had refused Taliban efforts at
Yet the project’s staff continue on. If someone is looking for a new model of aid operations, Jonathan Greenham and IDEA-NEW are showing the way.
E-mail Trudy Rubin at firstname.lastname@example.org.