Economy & Development

Cards on the Table: Transparency and post-2014 Afghan aid


The joint Afghan-international strategy for 2015 to 2024, the so-called transition period, is based on the assumption that the security situation in the country is conducive to continuing large-scale development programmes. Recently released figures, however, indicate that the instability has not diminished, with a negative impact on access for those who implement, monitor and use services provided through aid and development programmes. In light of the German government’s less-than-transparent handling of security assessments and lacking evaluation of development measures carried out so far, AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig looks at the nexus between security, development and transparency and why it matters, not only for Germany, Afghanistan’s third largest donor country.

Almost two weeks ago, the German media picked up the story that Bundeswehr, the German army, had stopped giving details about what is called ‘security relevant incidents’ in Afghanistan. Since 2011 (only), this reporting had been done on a weekly basis but with a rather minimalistic approach; the updates did not contain any general assessment or trends, just one sentence about the number of ISAF soldiers killed or wounded in the reporting period and a list of incidents in the area of operations of ISAF’s Regional Command North, based in Mazar-e Sharif, which is led by Bundeswehr. (Find the report archive here, in German. There is also a classified weekly briefing for parliament.)

Two main reasons were given for cutting the information flow. First, it was argued, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were in the lead now and also needed to take responsibility for reporting about the situation. Their information, however, was not reliable enough to base briefings on it. So it was discontinued. Second, a spokesman of the defence ministry told German radio journalists that the number of security incidents was not the only criteria for measuring the security situation. It added that the German federal government – that had used this criteria in its annual Progress Reports on Afghanistan and the Interim Reports that usually come out six months after the main report – will use a broader range of criteria for the next report and onwards (the most recent one in English is here).

After the information stop made it into the media coverage, the decision was quickly reversed. As a result, it became known that the number of incidents in that area had increased – by November 2013 – by 35 per cent compared to all of 2012 (see here). For example, this contradicts officials’ claims – mentioned in the last mid-year update in the German government’s annual ‘Progress Report (published in June 2013, in German only) – that “in spring 2013, the security situation remains almost unchanged country-wide, compared to the end of 2012.” Officials also claimed that the main problems remain in eastern, southern and south-western Afghanistan, far away from the German-covered area, and that in the latter, for example in the “Pashtun areas of Kunduz, Baghlan and Faryab”, a “partial stabilisation” – achieved in 2012 – was more or less “safeguarded”. The situation was “overwhelmingly under control” (author’s translation).

The hesitation to be transparent is not only a German phenomenon. ISAF had stopped its regular reporting of ‘enemy-initiated’ attacks in March 2012, “one week after the coalition 
 acknowledged 
 that it had incorrectly reported a seven per cent drop in Taliban attacks in 2012 compared to 2011″. In fact, there was no decline at all, ISAF officials now say; our analysis here). As of 27 June 2013, the ISAF Joint Command also terminated its daily ‘operational updates’ and, in their place, started sharing operational updates “provided directly from the [Afghan] Ministry of Defence”, which have proven incomplete or unreliable. Neither are there details available anymore about continuing US night raids (which should be conducted with Afghan consent only – see a recent controversy here), capture-or-kill missions or drone attacks.

Already in mid-2013, the German magazine Der Spiegel had quoted from classified diplomatic cables that contradicted the official spin on the security situation. It concluded that

“the Defense Minister’s strategists have adopted a new communications strategy – ignore all bad news and banish any data that show an increasing number of attacks to the realm of statistical imprecision
 Anything that doesn’t fit is made to fit.”

In summary, governments want to keep details out of the public sphere and dictate the narrative that ‘things are going relatively well and there is progress’, which is then hard to contradict on a fact basis.

This controversy, however, is not only about how transparently – or not transparently – information is handled and whose narrative is dominant. Its outcome matters on a practical level for Afghanistan’s post-2014 situation. The shaky narrative of progress in Afghanistan is the very basis for both the international and the Afghan government’s strategy for the 2015-24 decade that so innocently and technically is called the ‘transformation period’; this follows the ‘transition’ period that is to end by 31 December 2014, the date by which all regular NATO/ISAF combat troops are supposed to leave the country.

For the transformation period, the international community intends to reduce the hitherto overwhelming role of its militaries to paying, supplying and training the ANSF (through a reduced mission, ‘Resolute Support’) and to increase civilian support, including in ‘development’ affairs. The latter have suffered heavily in the military’s shadow so far. (See my discussion of this problem, including the reason why I put development in quotation marks, in this earlier AAN analysis.)

A number of governments have assured the Afghan government and population that they will either continue (Germany, the UK, Canada and the EU, for example) or even increase current levels of financial aid (Japan, Sweden). The US Congress, meanwhile, has decided to move in the opposite direction, motivated by President Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Strategic Agreement, and has cut in half the civilian assistance for 2014.

So if the security situation turns out to be as problematic as the now released details and internal information indicate, the question arises whether it will be possible to spend the aid money earmarked for post-2014 effectively and efficiently for those most in need. First, surely the number and the spread of security incidents influences both the access of aid workers (and their beneficiaries!) to programmes, projects and services as well as the ability of the donors to monitor the quality of project implementation. It also seems obvious that populations in militarily contested areas suffer most from the destruction and the disruption of services caused by fighting and, therefore, need the most support.

“Humvees in a china shop”

In regards to security, another myth – or perhaps more accurately, a propagandistic invention – needs to go: that the troops are in Afghanistan to protect aid workers. German governmental aid agencies do not have much of a choice when ordered, for security reasons, to come under one roof with Bundeswehr as it happened in Kunduz (see here, p 4), although there was much resistance to this. Among the German non-governmental organisations, apart from a few exceptions, most have avoided this from the start, including all the larger, internationally active groups that have joined the Afghanistan Working Group of the development NGO umbrella VENRO; this includes Welthungerhilfe (in Afghanistan still widely known under its former English name, German Agro Action, or GAA), Medica and Medico International, Oxfam Germany, the large developmental networks of the two main churches as well as most of the small, fully voluntary German groups that have been working in the country since the 1980s or before. In a joint 2009 position paper, they were making their case that PRTs and so-called civilian-military cooperation (CIMIC) confuse “the mandates of civil and military actors “ and that the Bundeswehr’s “reconstruction and food aid in order to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people in Afghanistan 
 are severely jeopardising the independence of humanitarian aid”. Moreover, they expressed their “fears” that the “highly volatile” CIMIC concept “will be transferred to other conflict or post-conflict scenarios”.

A GAA representative recently confirmed this stance, replying to a media query that the organisation will continue to work in Afghanistan after 2014 and that it was “not dependent on the Bundeswehr”. (1) Similarly, other major aid organisations will stay, as we just heard from the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan that has been in the country consistently since 1982.

In Germany, the organisations that had rejected a close cooperation with the military have been repeatedly accused of ‘ideologically motivated hostility’ towards the military in general. Development minister Dirk Niebel, out of office since the general elections of last September, himself a former Bundeswehr paratrooper who used to don his military cap on foreign trips as a minister, even threatened to cut funding for them. But in fact, the main motive behind their rejection is the previously hotly debated, but generally accepted, principle that their field is separate from the military and even classic foreign policy.

This principle has been heavily undermined by the way the intervention in Afghanistan has been implemented, with humanitarian aid and development projects often having been made an instrument of counter-insurgency, not least because significant amounts of aid money were channelled through the PRTs who have been dominated by the military. This was particularly the case with the US, by far largest donor, who through these channels distributed the bulk of its aid, for example through the massive Commander’s Emergency Response Programme (CERP). About 1.5 billion US dollars were spent through it from 2004 to 2011. (2) Early warnings, as in this 2004 article published by the International Committee of the Red Cross, went unheeded.

Also in the case of the US and Britain, this has heavily influenced the relationship between the aid community and the military. After US surge troops did some ‘humanitarian work’ in Helmand, a local NGO worker said they behaved like “Humvees in a china shop” (see interesting media reports on this subject here and here).

Concepts like “money as a weapons system” (see Andrew Wilder’s brilliant criticism of it here) or the “clear, hold, build” concept of the then prevailing counter-insurgency strategy are the most well-known reflections on this approach. When British troops arrived in Helmand in 2006 and pushed Taleban out of certain areas as the result of the then popular “clear, hold and build” counter-insurgency strategy, they were expecting government aid agencies and NGOs to follow on their heels to take over the ‘build’ part. But “the Department for International Development (DFID) and Foreign Office (FCO) would not send staff to Helmand due to the lack of security”, as a 2010 paper for a British university showed, p 12) and NGOs were almost non-existent in the province. It also quotes a disappointed soldier saying “we are creating space for development, but there is no one there to do it”.

The militaries also attempted to co-opt civilian capabilities and knowledge, which then was turned into ‘intelligence’ – there were cases where troops misused the well-known insignia of aid groups or the UN for camouflage (white cars or green NGO number plates; the author saw this with his own eyes). Or they just did not pay sufficient respect to the independent sphere of NGO project work, with destructive consequences, as in one case that is quoted in the already mentioned 2009 VENRO paper (p 6):

For example, a Danish NGO had to abandon a project site because military units paid a visit to the project that they had not announced. As a result, the village elders no longer saw themselves in a position to guarantee the NGO’s security.

This expanding of militaries into the aid sphere has blurred the lines between them and the classic aid community in the eyes of many Afghans. The insurgents have used this to their advantage, repeatedly accusing aid workers of being spies and making them ‘legitimate’ targets. (3) The forced mixing of the military and development groups is one of the most problematic legacies the Afghanistan mission has created. This needs to be disentangled now, again. (4)

A lack of comprehensive evaluation

Transparency is an issue also when it comes to the opportunity for the public to scrutinise the successes and failures of the development measures financed and implemented so far. Also in this field, Germany – Afghanistan’s third largest donor country (5) – has been lacking. There is nothing in Germany nearly as comprehensive as the Norwegian or Danish evaluations (here and here) or as thorough as the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan’s Reconstruction (SIGAR, link here), who has been rigidly scrutinising US aid spending, both through USAID and the military, starting in 2008, not without stepping on some toes.

The first and last publicly available impact assessment of German development cooperation with Afghanistan came out in 2010 – and is well hidden on government websites. (6) Furthermore, the evaluation does not cover all of Afghanistan, only two northeastern provinces, Kunduz and Takhar, both of which are in the areas of operation of the former two Bundeswehr PRTs in Kunduz and Faizabad (Badakhshan). The PRTs had a sub-office in Taloqan, Takhar, a so-called Provincial Advisory Team, all now closed. Germany, however, carried out projects elsewhere in Afghanistan, even despite the unfortunate blockade by its development ministry to fund projects south of Kabul over the first crucial years after 2001. Additionally, the 2010 assessment is only based on a survey of perceptions of the local Afghan population regarding German efforts in only two samples districts in each of the two provinces.

To ask what Afghans think about aid delivery is surely crucial, particularly as they very often have not been sufficiently involved in its planning and implementing by donors. But it also is only one side of the coin. There are other criteria that need to be applied, as has been done in the Norwegian and Danish cases. The first step for a comprehensive evaluation, not only in the German case, should be the publication of a full list of the government-run and financed aid programmes and projects finalised and still ongoing. This would also include most NGO projects since many of these groups also largely depend on government funding; only a few can rely solely on direct private donations.

It is planned now that the relatively new German Evaluation Institute of Development Cooperation (DEval), created in November 2012, will do what it calls a “short desk review” of German development activities in Afghanistan. Although the institute is mandated by the development ministry, with the government as its only proprietor, and emphasises on its website that this will not be a full-blown evaluation, this is definitely something to look forward to.

It also will be necessary to involve the media in a thorough evaluation. The main reason why the German government has been so reluctant to evaluate its own performance in Afghanistan so far is that politicians and officials are afraid that failed projects might be detected. Although the latter might well be the case, given the highly difficult environment in which programmes and projects are conducted in Afghanistan, shooting down individuals should not be the aim of the exercise. Therefore, it would be good if some from the relatively large group of experienced Afghanistan specialists among the German journalists were involved from the start. This will also help to get the necessary message across to voters that mistakes can happen and that this is acceptable as long as lessons are drawn from it. A public discussion, out of the experts’ niche, might also help to revive public interest in the fate of Afghanistan and its people for which their governments have taken responsibility after 2001 and taxpayers have dedicated significant resources. Continuing development cooperation with Afghanistan deserves public interest and support.

 

(1) Welthungerhilfe, by the way, is not just any non-governmental organisation. It was initiated by the German parliament as an all-party initiative in 1962 and its patron is the German president. More on its current view on the Afghan situation here.

(2) Recently, with the on-going closure of PRT, the volume of CERP has been reduced and even available amounts have not been spent. According to SIGAR information, the Department of Defence (DOD) allocated only USD 43.5 million of 200 million appropriated for CERP before the funds expired at the end of September 2013. Additionally, over the past six fiscal years, DOD had used only 59 per cent of the CERP funds provided by Congress.

(3) According to the Aid Worker Security Database, Afghanistan is the country in which the most aid workers are attacked and killed worldwide. Since counting began in 1997, there have been 403 attacks on aid workers there. It becomes obvious from this year-by-year data that there were two ‘jumps’ in this kind of attack: after 2001, when the current conflict started, and after 2009 when the ‘surge’ of US troops started. In 2013, the number of aid workers killed has more than tripled again.

(4) In its January 2014 country briefing, ACBAR – a coordination body of a large number of Afghan and international NGOs – suggests some “best practices” that go into that direction. They include “reaffirming political neutrality, negotiating access [with various actors, including the insurgents]
, [and] phasing out from partnerships with governmental counterparts”.

(5) By the end of 2012, Germany’s overall civilian engagement in Afghanistan had reached a total of some 2.3 billion Euros. The German government had also relieved Afghanistan of bilateral debt worth 78.56 million Euros.

Germany had initially pledged a basic amount of 80 million Euros per annum for civilian reconstruction and development in Afghanistan for the period up to 2010. In early 2010, financial support was increased to an annual total of up to 430 million Euros (250 million Euros from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, 180 million Euros from the Federal Foreign Office). In March 2013, Afghanistan was promised up to 240 million Euros for development cooperation in 2013. Up to 175 million Euros of this was pledged for financial cooperation; 65 million euros was pledged for technical cooperation.

As in 2012, the funds committed were divided into two instalments. Disbursement of the second instalment is tied to the condition that progress is made in key reform projects – above all, in the field of good governance.

Source: German government.

(6) And the term ‘publicly available’ is relative. The report is only available in the English part of the responsible ministry’s website or accessible through an external link (here). The German part of the website only has the 2007 interim report. On external websites, there are also a pre-study, including a conflict assessment from 2008 (here) as well as a methodology paper and an interim report on the results of the first survey.

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development