Effective Public Administration Vital to Deliver Services to Afghan Citizens, says World Bank report

Building an effective state that can provide security and services to all Afghan citizens and make government accountable to them is critical to achieving development results in Afghanistan, says a report released today by the World Bank.

Issued ahead of the Paris Conference on Afghanistan on June 12, the report, entitled Building an Effective State – Priorities for Public Administration Reform in Afghanistan, calls for a shift of government functions that are still performed by the international community, or are not performed at all, to strengthened Afghan institutions. The report acknowledges that public administration reform is difficult under the best of conditions, but is made all the harder in Afghanistan where informal power relationships are strong, formal government systems still need rebuilding, and parts of the country are insecure.

“It is vital to persevere with the longer-term task of building an effective state, one which can gradually take on more responsibility for Afghanistan’s future,” said Alastair J. McKechnie, World Bank Director, Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries Group. “The challenge for the international community and government alike is to find the balance between finding innovative ways to improve service delivery to citizens as quickly as possible, while at the same time gradually improving the country’s own capacity to deliver services without large amounts of external expertise.”

The report describes a “second civil service” of externally paid consultants and advisers, many of them only loosely supervised, if at all, by the government. This situation has arisen out of high levels of dependency on aid: in 2006/07, the international community provided more than US$4 billion in development assistance, around seven times the level of domestic revenues. To make matter worse, two-thirds of this is channeled outside of the government’s budget adding uncertainty to the budget process and diluting government authority and ownership of its development agenda. This second civil service has also taken some of the best talent from the ranks of government and bid up the cost of scarce talent.

“With the relatively small share of resources at its disposal, it is a constant challenge for the government to stay in charge of the development agenda.  This retards the rebuilding of a competent and accountable state. Government institutions with adequately skilled and paid staff, accountable for performance, and focused on delivering services to citizens are one of the foundations for rebuilding Afghanistan.” said McKechnie.

The report suggests an effective public administration is one that focuses on core functions like law and order, and public resource management, while also drawing on the capacity of the private sector, civil society, and local communities to deliver publicly funded services. It points to notable successful examples of this approach in recent years: in the health sector, for example, contracting out health services to non-governmental organizations helped increase the number of people with access to health care by some 6 million. These positive elements need to be preserved as the government builds up its own capacity over time.

This involves building an effective civil service capable of reassuring donors that their financial support is being credibly spent, says the report. More importantly it underpins the government’s credibility throughout the country. Unless citizens can see that civil servants are serving the larger public interest rather than their own, the government’s trustworthiness will be eroded. A key priority is to enhance the competence of civil servants. As part of this agenda, the Afghan parliament approved last month higher pay scales for all public employees.

“These new pay scales are intended to attract and retain qualified staff,” said Ranjana Mukherjee, World Bank Senior Public Sector Specialist.  “But its not just abut more money. This incentive needs to be matched by other civil service reforms such as merit-based recruitment to improve government performance and service delivery.”

The report also cautions against an over centralized bureaucracy in Kabul. Today Afghanistan is one of the most centralized states in the world with 44 percent of the civil service in Kabul, funds concentrated at the center, provincial budgets set in Kabul, and central approval required for even minor changes.  Yet in reality that central power is actually weak. Regional and local powerholders command sub-national revenues and military powers of their own creating an inefficient, inequitable and non-transparent system of sub-national administration.

Much of the reform effort then will need to be directed at softening line-ministry authority to provinces and districts, while at the same time improving the capacity and coordination of government activities at the sub-national level. This is where most services to Afghanistan’s citizens are delivered and where the credibility of government will be won or lost.

The report also urges that sufficient resources are provided for the key organs of sub-national governance. Currently the most autonomous (and successful) elements of the sub-national system of service delivery – the Community Development Councils (CDCs) – face uncertainty about their future funding. For example, their access to funding under the National Solidarity Program (NSP) is due to end.  The report warns starkly that without more funds – and soon – one of the most effective mechanisms to deliver basic infrastructure and services to rural communities may collapse.

Similarly, civil service reforms are unlikely to work unless there are ways for the Afghan people to express their demand for public services and hold the government accountable for results. This argues for the importance of broader reforms to build trust in the effectiveness of parliament and the judiciary, and to involve civil society and communities in decisions affecting them. As part of this agenda, the government needs to take strong action to fight widespread and entrenched corruption so as to counteract the widely held view that corruption is pervasive and is being ignored.

“This is an extremely complex agenda which will take time a deep commitment from government and donors alike,” said Mukherjee. “There are several tracks here which must be pursued simultaneously but what it all boils down to is the credibility and accountability of government at all levels. It’s the vital trust that must be built between the governing and the governed to safeguard the very existence of the state.”

Finally, the report calls on donors to support government initiatives to improve transparency, ranging from encouraging public participation in project planning and implementation to providing information such as objectives, expenditures, and results on their own projects.

To read the report and for more information on the World Bank’s work in Afghanistan, please visit http://www.worldbank.org.af

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