International aid for Afghanistan hangs on crucial peace talks
Despite the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Geneva last month hosted an important pledging conference on Afghanistan. The conference was co-hosted by the governments of Afghanistan and Finland, along with the UN. Due to the serious COVID-19 situation, only a limited number of representatives from the host nations were actually in Geneva, with the rest of the delegates, who represented 66 countries and 33 international organizations, participating virtually.
The event provided an opportunity for Afghanistan to convince its international partners to continue to support the country in its efforts toward peace, development and prosperity. The donors pledged up to $13 billion for the period 2021 to 2024. But the money is not supposed to be free and is conditional upon Afghanistan’s progress toward peace and stability, ensuring accountability, and preserving the gains of the past 18 years. The joint communique issued by the participants at the end of the conference strongly emphasized Afghanistan’s strong will and commitment for peace and inclusive development.
Being an aid-dependent country, Afghanistan has been trying hard to transition to a self-reliant economy by harnessing its vast natural resources and diversifying its domestic sources of revenue. However, continuing conflict, endemic corruption, weak institutions, insecurity, and poor governance are hampering the government’s efforts to spur economic growth. Afghanistan has already lost the golden opportunity of the international community’s active engagement in the country from 2002 to 2014. Since then, financial resources have gradually diminished, causing increasing poverty and unemployment, as well as slow growth.
In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for 2019, Afghanistan was ranked 173rd out of 180 countries with a score of 16 out of 100. The CPI is globally recognized as the leading public sector corruption indicator. It is a dilemma that, despite billions of dollars being spent on institution-building over the past 18 years, the country is among the top-10 most corrupt countries in the world.
As per the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of September 2020, about $140 billion had been appropriated by the US for Afghanistan’s relief and reconstruction since 2002. Although more than half of the funding has gone on building and equipping the country’s security infrastructure, the allocation for development and governance efforts has also been substantial. With proper management and smart strategies in place, the impact of the money spent could have been far more tangible. However, SIGAR also recognizes that the US government had a gradual and slow understanding of the systemic and entrenched nature of corruption within the Afghan public sector, and it had to increase its oversight and monitoring mechanism accordingly. On the other hand, the complex nature of the operating environment, which is typical of any country in conflict, made it hard for the government to introduce essential reforms and implement them effectively. Thus, putting the entire blame for Afghanistan’s failure to achieve the maximum potential of its foreign aid on the Kabul government may be somewhat unfair.
Nothing is dearer to Afghans than peace and stability. Without peace, all promises of prosperity will remain unfulfilled.
In 2014, President Ashraf Ghani came to power with an ambitious agenda of reforms. Ever since, he has been trying to improve governance and deliver on his promises. However, a lack of consistency, the compromising of experience for fresh talent in high-level positions in policy and administration, and continuous experimentation with parallel institutions with conflicting mandates have diminished the prospects for improvement. The international donor community has been frustrated with the Afghan government for compromising reforms for political interests. Afghans want real change in their lives through genuine efforts by the government, rather than bundles of policy proposals that lie on the shelves of state ministries without any practical relevance. At this stage, nothing is dearer to Afghans than peace and stability. Without peace, all promises of prosperity will remain unfulfilled. Afghans understand that continuous conflict will not allow Afghanistan’s hopes of prosperity to be realized.
It is worth noting that the international community was unanimous in Geneva in its intent to continue assisting Afghanistan, while linking its support to progress toward peace and stability. Now that the intra-Afghan dialogue has begun in Doha, all eyes — among both Afghans and the country’s international partners — are on the pace of development in the peace talks. The US, which is the most important player with regards to Afghanistan’s security and development efforts, has also linked its financial commitment to Kabul with progress toward peace.
In Geneva, the Afghan government presented its new version of the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF) to make its case for ensuring the continuity of financial commitments from the international community. The Afghan Ministry of Finance also worked diligently to prepare for the event. But without a genuine political will for peace and a pragmatic approach for development and prosperity, the ANPDF will be seen by Afghans, as well as the international community, as only a piece of paper with no practical implications for Afghanistan.
• Ajmal Shams is President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party and is based in Kabul. He is a former Deputy Minister in the Afghan National Unity Government. Twitter: @ajmshams