Western projects are bleeding Afghanistan dry, says minister

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The Independent Online

Samihullah is just the kind of returned refugee his country needs. Aged 30, with a wife and two children, he was well educated in the camps across the border in Pakistan. After the Taliban were pushed out in 2001, he returned home and joined the Afghan Ministry of Education, where he helped to rebuild the higher-education sector. But not any more.

I found him working as a security guard at the UN's World Food Programme headquarters in Kabul. With allowances he earns a total of $270 a month there, compared with $50 at the Afghan higher education. The decision to move jobs was not a hard one.

But it is the international system that is sucking Afghanistan dry. Any returnee who speaks English can be guaranteed a job at a higher level in the UN, or the myriad big NGOs that have set up shop in Kabul.

Ashraf Ghani, who was Finance Minister in the first year after the Taliban fell, and is now chancellor of Kabul University, says the international community has failed Afghanistan. Rather than build up the government, it has created a parallel system that has actively weakened the capacity of Afghanistan to run its own affairs.

Mr Ghani's greatest fear is that by failing to empower the Afghan government, the world could be helping the Taliban to regroup, as they feed on the resentment of people at the slow pace of change. He says "The cheapest way of bringing development and security is government."

The scale of the international machine has dwarfed the indigenous government. Large parts of the capital are closed to normal traffic because of security concerns. The remaining traffic paralyses the city for much of the day. To the east of Kabul the UN has built a headquarters, the size of a small town.

The frustration of the Afghan government system at the way the money is spent surfaced at the London conference on funding earlier this year. A World Bank report that came out just before the conference calculated that 90 per cent of international development spending continued to flow outside the government.

The report's author William Byrd, described it as an "aid juggernaut, still outside the budget and outside government control". He added: "It does not build domestic capacity which is what you need ..."

One initiative, called the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) is now channelling funds directly to Afghan control.

Much of the budget of the NSP is paid by Britain's Department for International Development, as it happens, but there are no sign boards boasting that. To the former commanders this is Kabul money.

The cabinet minister responsible for this programme, Hanif Atma, spent the Taliban years studying international development at Bradford University.

He said "a parallel structure was needed at the beginning, but no country can be run and managed without a state, and no state can be sustainable in a society without having legitimacy and credibility in what that state should be".

The former commanders in the village in Kunar, a savagely contested region for decades, had decided to spend their NSP money on a scheme to build a new road, and a proper wall to channel a flooded river away from the village. Lives have been saved since taxis can now come in to take people to hospital, and farmers have flourished.

One vivid example shows what happens when the international community goes aheads without proper local consultation. A half-finished school for girls is derelict after funds ran out. Above it another school is being built with Japanese money. The first school, could not be completed since it was not in their plan.

The Americans and the Japanese, both large donors to Afghanistan, are the two countries who are most responsible for spending money outside the government budget, and despite the claim of high standards in the village in Kunar, much of what they have built is sub-standard.

The American government's development arm USAID, boasts of the number of girls' schools it has built. I asked to see one in Kabul, and was shocked by the state of it. A plaque on the wall boasts of this as a gift from the American people, but the Lycée Mariam is nothing to be proud of.

Teachers there say the Americans did little more than add a coat of paint on the one standing building, and replace the roof of makeshift huts. The new roofs are already leaking, and in the courtyard hundreds of girls are still being taught in tents. The school looked like an emergency had just hit.

David Loyn is the BBC's Developing World Correspondent. His report from Afghanistan is on Newsnight on BBC2 tonight.