Criticism of top-down development approaches find common cause in Afghanistan, where projects are often envisioned and implemented without due attention paid to realities on the ground. Here, AAN guest blogger SARAH HAN shares some of her personal experience of the oft-frustrating world of donor-NGO relations. Her paper ‘Legal Aid in Afghanistan: Context and Challenges,’ released today by AAN, provides a more detailed account of the development of legal aid in Afghanistan, and of the result of top-down approaches in this area.
To work in aid in Afghanistan is to witness how donors, though well-intentioned, often come to the table with a specific project concept and push through its implementation with little regard for practicalities.
For example, one European donor asked an organization where I previously worked to reproduce a project I was starting in the central highlands, in a province where the donor nation had troops. Because my project was new, its effectiveness was unknown in our pilot location, let alone in a much more violent province, and so we were reluctant to conduct what we considered to be an uncertain experiment.
We tried to refuse the donor in a very Afghan way – doing everything to signal that we weren’t interested short of actually saying ‘no’ to the donor’s face. We didn’t attend meetings, didn’t give feedback on their written documents, didn’t even provide a written proposal, and drafted a budget summary so general it took up less than half a page. They gave us 70,000 Euros and a year to produce results.
Why didn’t we just say ‘no’? First, we wanted a relationship with that donor and worried that we’d risk never getting support from them in the future if we refused the project in question. Second, we didn’t want to admit our simple lack of capacity to take on another project. And third, culturally, saying ‘no’ does not come easy to many Afghans; even if they know they will not be able to produce what the donor wants. In any case, a straight, ‘no’ might not have even gotten through – the donor seemed determined to have us run the project whether we wanted to or not.
Less than a year later the same thing happened at a different Afghan organization where I worked: again, a European donor came to us with a specific proposal for a province where they have soldiers. This time, we were interested in the project opportunity, but our workload was so high we couldn’t responsibly take on any more money or obligations.
We conveyed our refusal by never following up with them to discuss the project and never submitting a proposal despite persistent reminders from the donor. This time, however, the chief of the organization finally told the donor, directly, that while we were interested in the project, we could only take it on in a year’s time, in the hopes that the donor would back off a bit. The response: a promise of more money if we would just do it right away.
Legal aid reforms, which I describe and critique in my report released today by AAN, have not been immune to the inclination of some donors to force projects through from the top down. My report outlines in particular how the creation of a central body to coordinate legal aid activities has been pushed through by Western donors and technocrats and the negative consequences this approach has had on the relations within the legal aid community.
In particular, what is now called the Legal Aid Board was born through a scantly researched paper, produced by a consultant with no Afghanistan experience and who did not adequately consult with legal aid providing NGOs (which supply the vast majority of legal aid services across the country) to determine how the proposed changes might affect them. The donor that funded the implementation of the flawed research paper’s recommendations, and the organization it contracted to do the work, similarly cut out NGOs from the process. Not surprisingly, the Legal Aid Board has continued this trend and has consistently made decisions that attempt to limit their influence in the field, belying the current strained relations within the legal aid community.
I often wonder if donors – at least those I’ve encountered – really think that this is the only way to get work done in Afghanistan, and that foot-dragging is a part of ‘their’ traditions rather than a symptom of Afghanistan’s broken aid culture. I wonder, when a potential aid recipient has refused to engage with the donor in planning how a particular project will be built and implemented, if the donor ever asks – ‘who wants this more, us or them?’.
Aid, particularly in the rule of law sector, has become much more about what donors want to see happen in Afghanistan than what Afghan organizations are able to implement or even want. There has been more money dumped into rule of law over the last few years than could ever have been effectively absorbed and used. While the coming draw down in aid resources will certainly rattle Afghanistan’s economy, it need not mean less-effective aid, particularly if donors pledge to read the signals sent by the Afghan organizations they are meaning to help.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020