Saturday, July 7, 2007

An African In Kabul

An African In Kabul
By Mauro De Lorenzo
Thursday, June 21, 2007

A civilian adviser says private enterprise is the key to Afghan reconstruction.
From Africa to Afghanistan: With Richards and NATO to Kabul, by Greg Mills (Wits University Press, 2007)
The U.S. commitment to Afghanistan since 2001 has been substantial. Three hundred and thirty-five American troops have lost their lives and about $14 billion has been invested in security and reconstruction. Six years on, there is explosive growth in opium production, a resurgent Taliban, widespread corruption, and disappointment amongst both Afghans and Americans with the pace of reconstruction and the quality of democracy.
At the same time, Afghan and foreign entrepreneurs continue to invest and Afghanistan's economic growth rate has been strong and steady. School enrollment is up. Refugees continue to return home. Most importantly, Afghanistan is no longer a haven for international terrorism. The international engagement in Afghanistan cannot be clearly labelled as either a success or a failure.
The international engagement in Afghanistan cannot be clearly labelled as either a success or a failure.
It is clear however that the U.S. could have invested its resources in Afghanistan with greater strategy and finesse. The reconstruction effort in Afghanistan has not really met Afghan or American expectations: one set of rural schools commissioned by USAID collapsed in their first winter because designers apparently did know that it snows in Afghanistan. More politically damaging, large U.S. contracts are often sub-contracted to Turkish construction firms, who import thousands of Turkish craftsmen, creating resentment and local security problems. "Why do foreigners have to come to lay bricks?" ask unemployed Afghans. Greg Mills's intriguing new memoir of his service with NATO in Afghanistan in 2006 provides important insights into how things might have been done better.
Mills was asked by General David Richards, commander of NATO forces, to lead the Prism Cell, the think tank within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Classed as a major general for purposes of dining privileges, Mills was the most senior civilian adviser in ISAF. He is a South African historian of counterinsurgency, and the founding director of the Oppenheimer family's Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg, which aims to improve Africa's economic competitiveness. He brought two decades of engagement with Africa's thorny development and post-conflict challenges to bear in his analysis of Afghanistan, and the parallels he draws are pertinent and instructive.
Fundamentally, Mills's plea is for the centrality of the private sector and the importance of prioritization in post-conflict administration.
The aid professionals who descended on Kabul after 2001 gave short shrift to the private sector, and did not see their primary role as removing constraints to market-led growth. Instead, they drafted the "Afghan National Development Strategy", a jargon-ridden document written by foreigners after make-believe "participation" by Afghans. Such "high-altitude plans scarcely ever survive contact with the realities of local capacity," writes Mills. "They are only Power Point deep." They have virtually nothing to do with the real world of Afghan politics and economics, and are therefore doomed to failure. The small U.S. teams focused on private sector-friendly reform, notably in the Afghan Reconstruction Group, were less central to policy-making than they should have been.
Instead of focusing on agricultural development, Mills learns from old Afghanistan hand Peter Jouvenal, the UN World Food Program is dumping subsidized wheat on the Afghan market, making it impossible for farmers to earn a living with that crop. With incentives like that, it is little wonder that farmers turn to opium production to earn their living.
Even the aid that is delivered has little effect. As Mills puts it, U.S. aid is not really "effects-based" but "values-based", "focusing on the delivery of assistance in a manner that adheres to Western liberal governance norms." Western donors tend to receive little political credit for their aid -- which is how aid administrators like it. Iran in contrast has no such inhibitions, either in Afghanistan, where it is increasingly active, or in Lebanon, where its proxy Hezbollah extracts "every drop of political credit going."
With incentives like that, it is little wonder that farmers turn to opium production to earn their living.
And just because you can solve a problem does not mean you should. As the commander of one Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) told Mills, "development success lies instead in how much the local community can do for themselves, even if this is less than you could do for them." The politics of reconstruction needs to take the pace of local politics into account. Instead of creating a long list of unattainable goals, Western efforts should have been focused on the two or three most important priorities that the Afghan government had the capability to address.
Perhaps the most valuable chapters draw lessons from other attempts at growth-oriented public policy in difficult places, notably in Vietnam, Colombia, and Israel. Though these chapters at first seem out of place in a memoir about security and economic policy in Afghanistan, they are in fact the book's core. A visit to Colombia highlights the importance of an offensive approach to security -- the precondition for all development. Israel's economy grows because of its democratic culture, not U.S. aid. And Vietnam transformed its agricultural economy in the 1990s by keeping international consultants at arm's length and charting their own policy course.
The author takes repeated jabs at consultants, NGOs, and foreign bureaucrats. But I would have liked a sharper knife, and a less restrained account of the harm they cause. But Mills has got it right. We should expect less from "reconstruction" efforts. Central directon by government experts is not how developed economies function, yet we often expect such strategies to succeed abroad when they fail at home. International efforts should instead focus on providing security, removing the constraints to private sector development, and allowing local administrations to take charge of policy -- and make mistakes.
Mauro De Lorenzo is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He worked with construction companies in Afghanistan in 2005.

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