I have to confess to being a bit vague about the concept of “nation building.” I assume that it includes developing a country’s economy, improving the infrastructure, and instituting functioning systems of governance and services. Presumably to achieve these goals, we have committed massive amounts of money to Afghanistan, a desperately poor country in need of all these improvements. And the U.S. is not the only one: other governments and private groups have also spent prodigiously in Afghanistan. But what has been the result of all that money?
Much of the non-military money flows through non-governmental organizations (NGOs). People told me that there are somewhere between 800 and 1,600 NGOs in Afghanistan, most of which are located in Kabul. Some NGOs spend their own money raised from generic donations abroad (e.g., the International Committee of the Red Cross/Crescent); some were established specifically to raise money for projects in Afghanistan (e.g., Women for Afghan Women); and many depend on grants or contracts from government groups like USAID.
Here are some of the impacts of these foreign NGOs:
- It is primarily the NGOs that deliver services in Afghanistan, not the government. The activities of so many NGOs undercut the role of the government. Moreover, they lessen the pressure on the government to develop systems of services, since some are available through the private sector. However, the NGOs will not stay. When they leave, which they will, nothing will survive.
- The NGO pay structure weakens the ability of the government to attract competent and qualified people to the civil service. NGOs pay six to seven times more than government—so why would a competent person choose to work for the government when there is a better option? One person told me that he knew of physicians who were driving cars for NGOs; it simply pays much more to work as a chauffeur for foreigners than to work as a doctor.
- NGOs have established a system of legal corruption. We know what illegal corruption is: money passes through your hands and you keep some portion of it for yourself. What we might call “legal corruption” is the system in which indirect costs, overhead, etc. dramatically dilute the total amount of money appropriated for a project. Combine that with the extraordinarily high pay levels for foreign consultants and NGO administrators working in Afghanistan and you find that very little of the money that has been allocated for “nation building” in Afghanistan benefits the people.
The Afghan Government
Government is the other mechanism for nation building. Afghans are shocked, puzzled and furious that the Karzai government, which they recognize as holding power only because of U.S. support, is such a pathetic excuse for a government. What are the problems with the Afghan government? Here are some examples:
“I bought a car for our office and needed to register it to get a license plate. But we didn’t have money for bribes and anyway, we objected to the idea of bribes and so we refused to pay. It took us three years to get the car registered. If we had paid the bribe, it would have taken a day.”
“There is no justice. There was a murder of a child this week; the perpetrators were caught—we saw this story on TV. But we know what will happen: the families of the perpetrators will go to Karzai, pay him some money, and the killers will be released and be back on the streets. At most, they will spend six months in jail—probably not even that.”
“I am trying to recover my house that was confiscated by a war lord in the government. I go every day to the Ministry of Justice, but I can’t get anywhere. I’m very pessimistic.”
Everyone in the country experiences such examples of corruption, most in many different forms and often daily. People rightly resent this and are infuriated every time they encounter it. It is hard to know whether or not the U.S. government cares. Available evidence would suggest not—certainly not enough to do something about it.
How can “nation building” occur in the face of such corruption? The Afghan government needs to be reformed, top to bottom, and then strengthened, but since we gave our blessings to the last totally fraudulent election and have continued to financially support the government even though we know how corrupt it is, it seems unlikely that we’d ever require real change.
Meanwhile, people suffer. The unemployment rate of Kabul is estimated at 50%. A city designed for 600,000 has an estimated 5 million inhabitants, as people have moved there to escape fighting in the countryside. Many houses in Kabul are made of mud and are very primitive. But, the price of real estate in central Kabul has gone up so much that, I was told, a city lot now costs $3.5 million. The war lords and the internationals bid the price up.
While the world fights its proxy battles in their villages, using massive amounts of firepower, the war-weary people of Afghanistan struggle to survive. And very little of the money that has been poured into the country gets to them for the things they would like most: medical care, schools, jobs, decent housing, clean water.
We have this picture of the Afghan people as rather fierce and foreboding, mountain warriors. And yet, all the people I met were kind, gentle, and sweet, and many have this wonderful sense of humor. They do not deserve what we and the rest of the world have done to them. Well, no one would deserve that.
A Way to Help: What You Can Do
Senator Richard Lugar said this week, “The broad scope of our activities suggests that we are trying to remake the economic, political and security culture of Afghanistan — but that ambitious goal is beyond our power.” While I disagree with essentially everything else he said, I do agree that with our current approach, the U.S. will do no good in Afghanistan. But the myth that Lugar and others are propagating is that Afghanistan is hopeless because of its cultural backwardness and that the U.S. has seriously attempted to help the people of that country. What he neglects to mention is that we are the ones who have empowered criminals and given them positions in the government; we are the ones who have bragged about bringing “democracy” while certifying a fraudulent election; we are the ones who have controlled this country for ten years–one of the poorest countries in the world–and have not seriously attempted to budge its dismal infant or maternal mortality rates.
There are, however, a few people who genuinely, passionately care about Afghanistan and whose work belies the idea that nothing can be done there to improve the lives of its people. One of these is Fahima Vorgetts who directs the Afghan Women’s Fund of Women for Afghan Women. I had the privilege of seeing firsthand what she is achieving.
Fahima, an indefatigable Afghan-American, seeks out villages with elders willing to support girls’ education and helps them set up schools; she finds out what it is that they need first in order to establish a school and, in collaboration with the people of the village, works to secure it—for example, books, a teacher, even a building.
She identifies women desperately in need of work and assists them to establish coops and offer training in certain skills, such as sewing or jewelry making. She helps communities establish women’s literacy classes and maternity clinics. And she does all this with the small amount of money she raises privately in the U.S., from donations and the sale of Afghan handicrafts. No money goes into the pockets of highly paid international consultants. None of it goes to “indirect costs” or “overhead.” No corrupt officials take a piece of this pie. All the money goes directly to the villages and helps the Afghan people in ways that truly make a difference in their lives.
People were fooled into thinking that Greg Mortensen was building schools when, apparently, he wasn’t. I’ve seen directly what the Afghan Women’s Fund is achieving and so I know that it is not only legitimate, but incredibly cost effective and highly successful. If we really want to help the people of Afghanistan, supporting projects like this is the way to do it.
To contribute, send a check to Afghan Women’s Fund, 978 Yachtsman Way, Annapolis MD 21403. Donations are tax deductible.