Tomorrow in Tokyo an international conference on Afghanistan is set to start, a little over a decade after the first donor conference on Afghanistan of the post-Taleban era took place in Japan’s capital. Between then and now many of such conference have been held, in many different places and in increasing frequency; on average once a year. Our guest blogger, Anja de Beer(*), wonders about the effectiveness of what has become more and more of a ritual and suggests giving up the quest for the perfect strategy document, lowering the key of follow-up meetings, less talk and more work.
In many ways this yearly ritual of international conferences on Afghanistan reminds me of the relatively recent trend where married couples renew their vows. Some couples do that to mark their 25th wedding anniversary in a special manner, but other couples just make it a yearly ritual from the get go. That begs the questions: What on earth would make them want to do that? Is the foundation of their relationship so shaky that they continuously need to review their mutual commitments in front of an audience, prenuptials included. One thing is for sure: the romance in the relationship between the Afghan Government and the international community is long gone.
So what will happen tomorrow(1)? For those who have witnessed many previous conferences, it’s not difficult to guess. There will be opening statements. The Government of Afghanistan will present its strategy for the coming years. This time around it is called:‘Towards Self-reliance: Strategic Vision for the Transformation Decade’ and its price ticket. Then the participating nations and international institutions will each get the floor for about five minutes. (After all, there will be more than 70 speakers.) They will respond by explaining what they have done so far and that they will continue their support. Since Tokyo is a pledging conference, those who can will make a pledge. But then, those pledges will cause confusion, because at the end of the conference nobody will really understand if the pledged amounts are new money or already (partly) covered by earlier pledges. Different countries use different time periods, and if a country already has pledged in Paris in 2009 for, say 2010 to 2013, the Tokyo pledge might include some or all of that money. No need to worry, at a certain point in time they will figure it out, kind of.
At the end of the conference there will be a joint statement with a catchy title. We have had The London Compact (later renamed The Afghanistan Compact, to make it sound less patronising), The Paris declaration, The Kabul Process, so this will be called The Tokyo Something(2). Apart from the title, the statement will without doubt resemble its predecessors. The content can be expected to roughly cover the following catchwords: mutual commitment to the cause, mutual accountability, fight corruption, Afghans in the lead, support for Afghan priorities, On-budget aid, predictability and effectiveness of aid, decreased aid dependency, no development without governance, rule of law, protection of human rights and women’s right, the role of civil society. There will of course be indicators and benchmarks, a plan of action and a monitoring mechanism, because progress must be measured.
Does this predictability and ritualisation then mean that we can, or should do away with those international conferences? I don’t think so. Certainly the earlier ones were instrumental in keeping the momentum in Afghanistan going. There, the Afghan government had the opportunity to present a clear vision and some high quality strategy documents while the International community showed genuine optimism with it pledges for support. After the conference everybody went back to work because all parties seemed to understand that only serious hard work would make a difference for Afghanistan.
On the other hand: who remembers the 2004 document ‘Securing Afghanistan’s Future’? The benchmarks of the Afghanistan Compact were, if effect if not officially, dropped less than a year after it presentation at the London conference of 2006. Then there was the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), written with a lot of effort and resources and proudly presented in Paris in June 2008. A year later, during the first annual review, donors stated they felt it was too broad a strategy to be workable and that it needed to be refined. Could no one have thought of that before? So it was decided that the Afghan government should come with a more focused strategy, and it did. Those efforts ultimately led to the Kabul Process with at its 22 National Priority Programs (NPPs) grouped together in six clusters. Within a few weeks donors started complaining about the cluster – they didn’t believe in, there were too many programs and, after all, the President hadn’t yet signed a decree supporting the clusters while some of the cabinet ministers didn’t really want them either. It is this attitude that has made the long series of international conference look like staged shows that create the semblance of activity and progress and generate some media attention, while they soon sink into oblivion among the wider audience.
Instead of creating one all-encompassing document, why not putting your energy into making a maybe not so perfect strategy work? It is thanks to Afghan leadership in certain quarters of the Kabul government, mixed with a healthy dose of Afghan stubbornness, that the National Priority Programs (NPPs) have survived at all as a part of the Kabul process. It is expected that in Tokyo the international community will reiterate its support to the NPPs, but it is not clear whether they really meant this or not. There are also still naysayers about the NPPs within the Afghan government. The energy of the Afghan government and international community should not go into the preparation for even more conferences, but into ensuring that decisions and agreed programs are implemented so that the lives of the Afghan people, men and women, will visibly improve. Isn’t the whole point of all our collective efforts of the past decade exactly this? Shouldn’t by now the collective agendas have been synchronized to achieve all this?
What will be the impression the general Afghan public will get from the second Tokyo conference that is preceded by media report like this: ‘Donors to pledge $15 bn at Tokyo Afghan meet‘? Chances are that the sweeping statements promising continuous support and billions of aid again only confirm the suspicion that this is just another talk show. We all know that most nations can only commit to aid on a year-to-year basis, let alone for a 10-15 year period.
If the ceremonial renewal of the vows is what it takes to ensure the long term needed support for the Afghans, so be it. But the big conferences could probably take place less frequent, made more driven by a genuine development agenda and resulting in realistic decisions that can monitored relatively easily. Their outcomes should be made real and understandable for the Afghans themselves. As a country song from the nineties goes: A little less talk, and a lot more action.
(*) Anja de Beer has spent years working in development in Afghanistan since June 2001, with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) and in UNAMA as a senior development officer in the Joint Analysis and Policy Unit (JAPU). Currently, she is International Program Advisor for the Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Program at Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development in Kabul.
(1) Find the official website for the Tokyo conference, including links to side events, here.
Some important papers pre-Tokyo:
Afghanistan: The perilous road ahead: Aiding Afghans in the lead up to 2014 and beyond, Internation Rescue Committee, June 2012.
Afghanistan in Transition: Looking Beyond 2014, The World Bank, May 2012.
Paul Fishstein and Andrew Wilder, Winning Hearts and Minds? Examining the Relationship between Aid and Security in Afghanistan, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, January 2012.
Being Smart about Development in Afghanistan, Agha Khan Foundation, CARE International, CRS, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, and Save the Children, 2012.
(2) AFP reports indeed, quoting the Japanese news agency Kyodo, that there will be a document called the ‘Mutual Accountability Framework’ and a ‘Tokyo Declaration’. In the first document, ‘the reciprocal commitments will be mapped out’. Afghanistan will promise to eradicate corruption, improve its legal system, strengthen its finances and carry out a range of other reforms, in exchange for development aid, AFP says that Kyodo says.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020