International assistance is coming under ever closer scrutiny. In response, to understand the impact of assistance and ensure transparency and accountability, thousands of project documents are generated, evaluations conducted and reports written. All contain lessons aimed at informing the development of future assistance programmes. With regard to Afghanistan, as 2014 marks the withdrawal of international combat troops and thus the start of a new chapter of international involvement, there must now be a frenzy of report writing going on to ensure that lessons learned are captured. Few would argue that the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan has been an overwhelming success, which makes it all the more important that we learn from our mistakes to avoid repeating them.
An extensive and wide-ranging review of USAID assistance to Afghanistan provides an excellent summary of the shortcomings and the valuable lessons that should have been learned. The following paragraphs have been taken from the report:
In many ways the [US assistance] program was larger than could be effectively administered by either the US or Afghan governments. For both governments it was easy enough to establish project activity and agree on advisors and counterpart field staff, but it was more difficult to recruit appropriately qualified staff… US expectations of the time required to achieve effective project results in Afghanistan were generally unrealistic. In particular there was a tendency to terminate technical assistance and institutional development projects far too soon, well before they had been firmly rooted. In almost all cases experience indicated that it would take at least 50 percent longer for effective implementation than a normal [US]AID judgment.
Second, the US generally had too much confidence in the applicability of technical solutions to complex social and economic development problems and of the appropriateness and transferability of US values and experience. This over confidence in American technical expertise, and its universal applicability, meant that too little attention was paid to local circumstances and values in the preparation and execution of aid activities. It would have been helpful to have allowed more time for field testing of project concepts with the local people who would be directly concerned. More time for field review and less intensive Washington or headquarters reviews would be sound future practice.
US confidence in technical solutions was matched and even exceeded by Afghan expectations that development was a packagable commodity which could be delivered by foreign assistance in the form of turn-key construction projects. Nor were Afghan officials reliable informants in many cases of the cultural attitudes and concerns of the local people who were regarded as the passive objects of development rather than participants or partners in the process.
Third, generally speaking Afghan officials were often not well informed on the culture and attitudes of many of the people in local areas. This is in large part due to the diversity of tribal cultures in the country. However, it is also due to an elitist attitude which led officials in central departments to assume they know what was best and that local people were too uninformed to know their own interests. Effective local administration and project development would need to emphasize changes in these official attitudes.
The fourth lesson that can be drawn from the Afghan development experience is that construction was far too often in advance of plans for institutional adaptation in the use of the facilities and the training of personnel for their effective operation.
Fifth, the US aid program was at an extreme disadvantage in being so directly projected as a government-to government program in its administration when the Afghan government was so over-centralized, largely ineffective and out of touch with developments in most of the hinterland. A better model to aim for in future relations with Afghan authorities would be to agree on general guidelines which would allow flexibility in USAID channelling of aid through private and local intermediaries who are closer to development needs and implementation problems.
Sixth, the US to be effective in its Afghan programs should develop at least a small number of career officers who speak the local language and are able to select and work closely with a cadre of select Afghan leaders who have, or can develop, an ability for community mobilization in support of local development activities and projects. This would help bridge the culture and language barrier which was a strong deterrent to program effectiveness in the past.
Seventh, the use of aid for short-term political objectives… tended to distort sound economic rationale for development and in the process weaken the longer-term political interests of the United States. Aid as a tool of diplomacy has its limitations when politically motivated commitments are at a much higher level – and promise more – than can reasonably by delivered in economic returns… [L]arge capital projects undertaken largely on short-term political grounds are almost certain to promise more than they can deliver in economic benefits and to prove politically counter-productive of US interests.
The eighth lesson is that when major donors vie for influence through competitive aid commitments, weak donor coordination is the likely result and the overall effects are likely to weaken all development activities in the country… However, in the end it was in the military arena in Afghanistan that the competition for control of the country would be decided.
USAID conducted the review, which runs to 150 pages, to “to gain insights from… US development assistance to Afghanistan as a possible guide to future US policies and programs.” Many analysts would agree that the review has accurately captured the mistakes the international community has made in Afghanistan and is a valuable document for future reference.
The irony is that the document was produced in 1988. It is a retrospective review of US assistance to Afghanistan from 1950-1979. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US withdrew assistance, but staff at USAID had the foresight to document the experiences of the assistance community. Unfortunately, it does not appear that any of this has informed their successors; the same mistakes have been repeated that had been made up to five decades earlier.
No doubt, in another five decades, despite the thousands of reports with their thousands of lessons learned from 2001-2014, we will be repeating the same mistakes and failing the Afghan people again, because, it seems, we never really learn.
Source: Retrospective Review of US Assistance to Afghanistan: 1950-1979, Maurice William et al., 30 September 1988
The document, which was brought to AAN’s attention again by Rebecca Roberts, can be found in the AREU library in Kabul (with thanks to Royce Wiles).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020