Afghan aid that works

In Afghan areas where the international aid groups fear to tread, the National Solidarity Program (NSP) is one of the country’s most successful development initiatives. The community-led approach to reconstruction and to rural infrastructure has made achievements in empowering local people, strengthening democracy, and increasing faith in the Afghan government. Yet it risks being underfunded.

Whether we believe that security comes before development or vice versa, one cannot survive without the other. In any postconflict environment, trust must be established between state and society. For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, the government is linked to the community through a framework for decision-making. Thanks to the NSP, even illiterate farmers in a remote village hold the keys to their own future.

After three decades of conflict, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries. The average rural household has 7.5 people. Access to safe drinking water, sanitation, electricity, and social services are among the lowest in the world. Literacy is under 30 percent. The way out of this poverty – primary education – is a prospect for only one quarter of rural children.

In this precarious environment, the NSP has been revolutionary. Since its inception in 2003, the NSP has reached over 15.4 million Afghans. These communities have democratically elected community development councils in 352 of Afghanistan’s 364 districts. It’s helped finance more than 35,000 projects.

Communities are experiencing development for the first time. Projects are dictated from below, avoiding any disconnect between donors and the communities they serve. Some have opted to take advantage of nearby rivers to build small hydropower facilities. Others have built new roads that connect to markets, and district centers. More than 500,000 households have benefited from small-scale irrigation projects.

Since the community development councils give Afghans a sense of local ownership, villagers are volunteering their own labor, doing away with expensive security details. Human Rights Watch has observed that schools built by the NSP have been defended by the communities that participated in their construction. And NSP projects are on average 30 percent cheaper than those built by foreign nongovernmental organizations.

NSP projects advance the international community’s development goals: good governance, strengthened women’s rights, and improved security.

The direct election of community development councils strengthens Afghanistan’s democratic tradition of jirgas and consensus building. Local accountability is improved since corrupt officials are not able to dip into the small disbursements (the average grant is $30,121) without the councils noticing.

Women – 35 percent of council representatives – are involved in all levels of the NSP, debating the merits of various aid projects alongside men.

All of this has been achieved for a relatively small investment of $452 million, a fraction of the money already spent in Afghanistan and other international development efforts.

Compare that to Boston’s $14 billion “Big Dig.” And that was just to build a tunnel. Although much of the funding for the NSP has been provided by the World Bank, a major pledge by the US at the Paris Donors’ Conference in June would symbolize US commitment and encourage others to rally. Distinguished institutions, such as the US Institute of Peace, and Oxfam have called for the program’s expansion and full funding.

Across Afghanistan, there are millions of hardworking people who have invested time and energy into making their community development succeed. They have thrown their chips in with the Afghan government and the NSP. We cannot abandon them when the job is half done. NSP’s second phase is facing a budget shortfall of $160 million.

An investment in Afghanistan’s successful reconstruction is a down payment against terrorism. Without adequate resources, we will be forced to downsize development projects just as they are beginning to build trust between rural communities and the government. The goodwill of the Afghan people remains our most important asset in the struggle against global terrorism, an asset that we can maintain with a relatively modest investment in the National Solidarity Program.

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