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International Engagement

Janus-Faced Pledges: A review of the 2020 Geneva donor conference on Afghanistan

Thomas Ruttig 17 min

The 2020 Afghanistan Conference in Geneva (which took place virtually) has produced pledges of 12 to 13 billion US dollars for the period 2021-24. The result represents a drop of up to 20 per cent compared to the 15.2 billion pledged four years ago in Brussels for 2017-20 and significantly below UNDP projections for the country’s needs. In addition, some countries, among them the US as the biggest donor, have not pledged for a full four-year period putting Afghanistan’s development on shakier ground. Many donors have linked pledges to conditions, mainly serious steps against corruption on the part of the Afghan government (for which they are partly responsible themselves). AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig finds that the good news from Geneva is that the money pledged can keep the Afghan state running if conditionalities are strictly applied, without harming the growing majority of Afghans living in poverty, and not sacrificed to political manoeuvres.

The figures and the context

Afghanistan’s government came out of the Geneva 2020 conference with pledged contributions for 2021-24 of around 12 billion US dollars. The final figure was announced at the end of the two-day conference, on 24 November, by Ville Skinnari, Finland’s Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, representing one of the three co-organisers. Even earlier, immediately after the pledging round, Shamroz Khan Majidi, Director of Communications at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance tweeted about a total of 13 billion USD in pledged contributions. Exact figures reflecting each contributing country’s pledges are not yet available.

Sixty-six states and 32 international organisations, such as the UN and the World Bank, participated in the conference. A number of them, including China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia did not make specific public pledges. This is not unusual, however, as work through direct arrangements with the Afghan government. It seems there has also not been a publicly released list of pledges after the 2016 Brussels conference. This time, China, for example, reportedly announced that it would share its experience in fighting the Covid-19 menace and, apart from this, would provide support “according to its abilities.” Qatar also gave no figure but referred to its role as host for the intra-Afghan talks, without explicitly saying that it covers considerable costs related to them.

As always, pledges are difficult to count. This became apparent at the concluding press conference where a journalist asked whether 600 or 300 million USD should be clocked for the United States. The US representative at the Geneva conference, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, had announced that Washington had “made available $600 million for civilian assistance needs in 2021” and pledged “today $300 million of that money, with the remaining $300 million available as we review progress in the peace process.” He added that the government would “work with Congress to consider sustainable levels for future civilian assistance, as political conditions in Afghanistan allow and as a means to incentivise meaningful reform and positive momentum in the peace process.” 

To the journalist’s question, Finnish minister Skinnari replied that organisers would give exact figures later. In contrast, Afghan foreign minister Muhammad Hanif Atmar chose to be optimistic and said he would use the 600 million figure. (Predictions of more radical cuts especially from the United States had been reported by Reuters in the run-up to the conference. The news agency quoted anonymous diplomats speaking about cuts as high as 50 per cent. This, however, might well have been alarmist messaging, in order to exert more promises, or pre-emptive expectations management, or both.) 

There had been signals before the conference that some donors did not want to commit to the entire four-year period, a practice that had been accepted across the bench so far. This is a notable change and does not only apply to funds pledged by the US. Others, too, broke the pattern, potentially putting complex, longer-term development planning at risk. The four-year period corresponds with the development cycle designed by the Afghan government and its international partners, covered by the Geneva Partnership Framework and the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework II (ANPDF II) which provides the Afghan government’s vision, strategy and plan for the next five years (2021-25). One other example of country’s dropping the four-year pledging baseline is Turkey’s pledge of 75 million USD that covers only the next two years.

By the end of the Geneva conference, some hope remained that the decreased US pledge, which followed earlier drastic cuts and a general ‘out of Afghanistan strategy’, may be adjusted by the incoming Biden administration, which has also promised to return to other multilateral mechanisms such as the Paris Climate Agreement (for an AAN analysis of Biden’s possible Afghanistan policy, see here).

Like the US, the United Kingdom cut its pledge and reduced the duration of its immediate commitment. It announced 155 million pounds (207 million USD) which represent 8.3 per cent less than the annual 187.5 million pounds allocations over the 2017-20 period. The UK also committed an additional 15 million pounds (20 million USD) to the World Food Programme for 2021 to “help the most vulnerable cope with the cold winter and COVID-19.” [1]This contribution is part of the UK’s humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Generally, humanitarian funding is provided either on an annual basis through global or country-based mechanisms, such … Continue reading The Telegraph quoted officials as saying ‘“it was still possible the 2021 figure could be boosted by emergency aid.’“ The statement published by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office also added conditionality, saying that “continued UK development funding to Afghanistan beyond 2021 will be closely linked to both the peace negotiations and further progress on poverty reduction, rule of law, protection of women and minorities rights, human rights more broadly, and democratic governance.”

Canada pledged 270 million Canadian dollars (202.5 million USD) ‘“over the next 3 years’” but referred to the years ‘2021 to 2024’ in its official statement. In 2016, Canada pledged more than 150 million Canadian dollars per year up to 2020.

In contrast, the European Union, Germany (Afghanistan’s second-largest bilateral donor), Japan, and northern European countries roughly stuck to previous funding levels. The European Union pledged 1.2 billion euros (1.43 billion USD) over four years but emphasised aid was conditional on the strict requirements laid out in a joint paper, “Key elements for sustained international support to Peace and Development in Afghanistan“, drafted for the conference. Germany promised 430 million euros for each of the next four years, with foreign minister Heiko Maas cautiously adding “if circumstances allow.” This could be both a hint to conditionality and Germany’s – and other countries’ – growing corona-related burdens. Japan repeated its contribution for the past four years of 720 million USD. Norway pledged for four years and committed 650 million Norwegian kroner (68.2 million USD) for 2021.

However, either of the two total amounts announced (12 or 13 billion dollars) represent a significant drop of 14.5 or 20.1 per cent respectively compared to the 15.2 billion USD mobilised at the previous donor conference in Brussels in 2016. It also fell short of the UNDP-calculated 30 per cent additional grants (nearly 6 billion USD) needed from the international community due to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. UNDP added that Afghanistan requires “continuing and predictable donor involvement” and that “precipitous declines in grant flows over the coming years would trigger significant contractions in Government services, undermining development outcomes and future growth prospects.” It also said that part of the financial gap could be filled “by improving governance (reducing corruption).”

Institutions such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Biruni Institute in Kabul also predict an economic slump, fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, of between five and ten per cent for 2020. The World Bank and the Afghan government forecast that the pre-Covid-19 poverty rate of 54.5 per cent could rise to 61-72 per cent (read AAN analysis here). Abdallah al-Dardari, UNDP Resident Representative in Afghanistan, also predicted that the country’s economy, one of the weakest and most aid-dependent in the world, “needed at least four years of progressive growth” in order to go back to the 2019 pre-Covid-19 level.

Covid-19 has also had a significant impact on the humanitarian sector. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA) in Kabul, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance rose from 6.3 million last year, and pre-Covid-19 estimates of 9.4 million, to 14 million in 2020. The 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan, with a funding requirement of 1.13 billion USD has only managed to secure 514.4 million USD in contributions representing an unprecedented gap of 46 per cent.

The donors to the ARTF in 2018. Source: SIGAR data.

The Geneva contributions are partly pledged to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), a World Bank-managed fund that finances vital national priority programmes in Afghanistan. ARTF financing for the Afghan financial years 1397-99 (2018-20) stood at 2.485 billion USD, with the World Bank expecting another 1.380 billion in International Development Association (IDA) funding, which would bring the total to  3.865 billion over two years. While some donors (such as Canada) specifically mentioned contributions to the ARTF, it is not clear how much of the pledges made at the Geneva conference will be channelled to the fund. Contributions are generally made annually and donors can, and often do, make ad-hoc contributions to pooled funds (the ARTF and the humanitarian pooled fund) in addition to monies previously pledged. [2]The ARTF was established in 2002 to provide a coordinated financing mechanism for the Afghan government’s budget and national investment projects. In 2019, the ARTF was the largest source … Continue reading

Corruption and conditionality

The aid promised to Afghanistan is understood to be more strongly conditioned than before. Several countries made this clear when pledging. This was partly driven by the Afghan government’s performance on corruption-related benchmarks from earlier conferences and the 2018 Geneva Mutual Accountability FrameworkAs we reported earlier, the Afghan government had only fully met 27 of the 63 deliverables and sub-deliverables agreed upon at the Brussels conference 2016 and 25 in part.

According to the conference communiqué, performance against commitments will be scrutinised twice in the coming two years, with a “Senior Officials Meeting in 2021 and a biennial ministerial meeting in 2022 to review progress as Afghanistan is approaching the end of its Transformation Decade.”

President Ashraf Ghani had established a new (and long-demanded) Independent Anti-Corruption Commission in mid-November, shortly before Geneva. Its five commissioners were sworn in on the day before the conference opened. This was met with little enthusiasm and even sharp criticism. Given the presence of several existing bodies dedicated to the task, Muska Dastageer, who teaches at the American University in Kabul and specialises in anti-corruption, called this a “toothless” step. Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA), the leading non-governmental anti-corruption watchdog, pointed out that it came “six years late.” The Civil Society Joint Working Group (CSJWG), the largest coalition of Afghan civil society organisations which includes IWA, even called it “unconstitutional” as the government had expelled “elected representatives of [civil society organisations] from the selection process” after they had criticised what they saw as attempts to establish a “weak, non-independent and political [politicised]” commission. (For an analysis of Afghan anti-corruption bodies, see this AAN report.)

Also, the donors at the Geneva conference did not seem impressed, as they mentioned the necessary “fight against corruption” in the communiqué, but not the new commission. 

Before the conference, Scott Guggenheim, whom Ghani had chosen as his chief advisor for several years, and a co-author criticised him for having sacrificed his initial 2014 anti-corruption programme in favour of political deals to stay in power. In a contribution for the US Institute for Peace, they wrote that Ghani had switched to “talking without action” and was working with a “dysfunctional bureaucracy” and a ‘broken justice system.’ According to a paper published by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), “politicised appointments, the proliferation of parallel structures in the Palace and the lack of a clear policy making process’ has led to ‘the effectiveness of key ministries…  deteriorate[ing]”, all making the fight against corruption more difficult.

This was not the first time that donor governments have emphasised the fight against corruption. As the ODI paper points out, those governments also had contributed to the endemic Afghan corruption by failing to focus their civilian aid “sufficiently on creating the public institutions necessary for stable statehood” and underestimating “the power of informal networks and power arrangements to subvert public institutions and undercut Afghan reformers” which has led to “aid-based patronage” becoming “an integral part of Afghanistan’s political system.” The credibility of key governments also suffered from their practice to work with and often directly support allies on the national and provincial levels who have been deeply involved in corruption and other illicit activity. 

How much aid is needed?

The discussion around corruption in Afghanistan has made it clear: development is not just about sums of money, but also the quality and effectiveness of its use. ODI, in the paper mentioned above, quoted recent (not yet published) calculations of how much aid is needed to keep the Afghan state running. According to these calculations “state functionality” could be preserved “if overall public expenditures are reduced by around one-fifth – that is, from $11 billion to $8.6 billion per year, with donor grants declining from $8.6 billion to $6.6 billion per year, provided that these cuts are sufficiently gradual and properly targeted.” Given the negative impact of the corona pandemic, they suggest, “as a prudent minimum,” to “sustain 2018 levels of assistance in 2021.” This, however, was not achieved by the Geneva donor conference.

The same source suggests that contributions for civilian purposes could be reduced from 3.8 to 3.0 billion USD by 2025-26. Reductions should largely come “from off-budget development programming, with donors concentrating their efforts on supporting core government functions and a limited number of national development programs.” Regarding the government’s domestic income, they warn against hopes for relatively immediate ‘new state income sources’ such as support from regional countries or mineral extraction. 

Still, these proposals are based on the assumption that the Afghan government increases the intensity of its anti-corruption drive. Given the current political dispensation, with a quasi-coalition government that leads to political, not necessarily merit-based, appointments, this is all but guaranteed.

Similarly, UNDP’s prediction that the Afghan economy would need four years to recover from the fallout of the pandemics is based on the need for four uninterrupted years of growth. This seems highly unlikely, given the incessant war, the intensified Taleban onslaught and complicated – and likely time-consuming – intra-Afghan peace negotiations. Consequently, Afghanistan will continue to need higher levels of foreign aid than have so far been made available for a prolonged period.

Messages to the Taleban

The still significant level of money pledged is a signal that the donor community is not willing to leave Afghanistan on its own in the complicated phase of talking peace with and possibly including the Taleban in a power-sharing arrangement. The commitment to preserve Afghanistan as a “sovereign, unified, democratic and peaceful” country and to protect “the rights of all Afghans, including women, youth and minorities” after a peaceful solution which was included in the conference’s communiqué as well as other key documents. This was a signal the Taleban that any setbacks in this field could be at the cost of urgently needed assistance. 

The signal will surely be understood. The Taleban have already indicated that they understand the country’s continuing need for foreign aid after a potential peace agreement. They had included a provision in their February 2020 Doha agreement with the US that “the United States will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations.” An originally considered invitation to the Taleban to participate in the Geneva Conference did not materialise. At the concluding press conference, Afghan foreign minister Atmar responded to a reporter’s question by saying: “The Taleban are not here, they did not attend the conference, because they did not meet a conditionality which was to reduce violence and come to the conference with a commitment to respect the international humanitarian law. That’s why the international community did not invite them.” [3]AAN watched to the press conference and transcribed the quote from there.

Furthermore, the donor community – including the UN – have strengthened the position of the Afghan government by adopting its call for an “immediate, permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” echoing demands from large parts of the Afghan public. The ten members of the Afghan civil society elected to attend the conference also emphasised the link between security and development in their statement, called on all parties to the war “to end the war immediately” and pointed out that civil society had “an important, citizen led, contribution to make to the peace efforts.” It asked for international support for this task and also to be included in “designing, implementing, and monitoring of development projects funded by the international community.” The Taleban, however, have rejected a ceasefire so far, arguing it should be a result, not a starting point of the Doha talks.

Transitional justice 

Remarkably, “transitional justice” has made its entry into the conference’s communiqué as “an essential component of the ongoing peace process.” The relevant paragraph reads:

In the spirit of mutual accountability, we underscore the importance of the Afghan Government’s actions and the commitment from the international community to support the efforts of the Government in fulfilling its commitments to improve governance and the rule of law, including transitional justice as an essential component of the ongoing peace process, budget execution and the fight against corruption throughout the country.

This long-standing demand of human rights and war victims groups has been neglected in earlier attempts of peace-making (read this AAN analysis). For example, it did not play a role in the September 2016 peace deal with Hezb-e Islami which was often touted as a blueprint for a deal with the Taleban (read AAN reports here and here). Neither was it mentioned in the February 2020 US-Taleban agreement signed in Doha (AAN reporting here). Even before, impunity rather than accountability dominated. In 2007, the Afghan parliament passed a blanket ‘amnesty law’ for all those involved and having committed war crimes and grave human rights abuses in past and present Afghan conflicts. A number of MPs who voted for it, from across a broad range of political factions, have faced accusations themselves. Furthermore, a number of reports that gathered facts about such crimes were blocked from publication, such as the 2004 “Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan Since 1978” (find AAN analysis here) commissioned by the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) as well as the report commissioned by the AIHRC based on Afghanistan’s three-year transitional justice action plan (2005-08) known as “Peace, Reconciliation and Justice in Afghanistan.” 

The Afghan civil society representatives at the conference also pointed to this issue, saying in their statement that “Those injured by war seek justice, compensation and reconciliation.”


The paragraph in the communiqué about migration solely focussed on fighting its irregular and criminal aspects but failed to draw the line between the war and Afghans fleeing their country. The Afghan government also did not manage – or attempt – to demand to include a call for a humane approach to dealing with and accommodating migrants seeking refuge in Europe, recently visible through the turmoil in camps on Greek Aegean islands, the violent clearance of a protest camp in Paris, the dire humanitarian situation in camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina and illegal push backs at several EU borders. Many, if not most, of the people at these venues are Afghans.

The democracy dilemma

The authors of the ODI paper quoted above also pointed to a more general dilemma the donor community is facing, a “maximalist” approach “with respect to democracy, human rights and gender.” They fear that “the bar has been set impossibly high so that donors can withdraw their assistance if they do not like the look of a future government,” assuming that a “backsliding on democracy, human rights and women’s rights should be expected in a government in which the Taliban feature prominently.”

The fear that this might happen is indeed justified, as AAN latest research has shown (see part 1 of our series “Living with the Taleban”). Interviewees have spoken of a certain amount of accommodation and even satisfaction with the Taleban rule in districts effectively controlled by them but that this, however, did not mean that they had freedoms such as freedom of expression. Asked about the possibility to protest against certain Taleban policies they replied that there had been “no open protests…, not because there is nothing to complain about, but because people see it as too dangerous.” As former AAN colleague Borhan Osman wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times in October this year: “Significant questions remain: Would the Taliban accept elections? Would they accept a coalition government? An elected parliament?”

The possibility that pledging now could mean pledging for a government that might include the Taleban at some point in the next four years, after a possible peace deal, had triggered a discussion among donors, as we have reported earlier.

There have been arguments, for example, put forward by Borhan Osman, that a “new dispensation in Afghanistan will need the support of [religiously] conservative elements of Afghan society if we want the long war in the country to be over finally,” that is in order to make this dispensation more palatable for the Taleban to join. This seems to indicate that they had no place in the current dispensation – which they clearly do, using it to push against progress, for example in the debates about the law on the Elimination of Violence against Women in the Afghan parliament (AAN analysis here and here). It is also visible in the strong rejection by leading ulema (some in quasi-political roles) against a woman judge appointed to the Supreme Court or their general opposition to a public role for women, be it in arts or sports. This argument has led, in many development programmes, to the involvement of mullahs as substantial stakeholders or even as principal communicators for the beneficiary population, strengthening their social and political position and giving them almost a veto right.

At the same time, this form of attention to the religiously conservative element stands in the way of taking those Afghans into account who would prefer a secular political system but cannot publicly express themselves as the conservatives would immediately intervene and call this view ‘un-Islamic’. It is difficult to quantify the strength of those ‘secularists’, but they were definitely visible in the first post-Taleban years. They tried to organise but failed due to internal splits and a lack of resources. (For more background, see those papers by the author, here and here.) Nowadays, this segment of society is no longer politically organised and lacks an audible voice. Many people belonging to this segment have withdrawn into privacy. Also, many of the currently visible women and other civil society groups are too entangled with the current political dispensation (which is not clear-cut democratic but torn between reformist yet trending to autocratic, ethno-political and Islamist forces) and would be unable – even if they were willing – to speak up for this sector of society.

Finally, also some of those seen as ‘technocrats’ or ‘reformers’ in the current political set-up in Afghanistan oppose key rights. This became apparent not only by the lacklustre approach to transitional justice but also in the recent controversial and inconclusive debate about the new media law or in Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s sharp remarks directed at non-governmental organisations in general in a side-event to the Geneva conference and on Twitter (a full version here, starting at 18:43min). Where he said the Afghan government had “no hold & meaningful oversight over… the money [they] spent” and accused them of having “remained above the law”, despite a rigorous online NGO reporting and taxing platform (which has repeated technical issues) that carries heavy penalties. 

The civil society representatives, in their statement at the conference, also indirectly pointed out where they see shortcoming of Afghanistan’s democratic system:

True democracy requires the independence of the judiciary and the legislative role of the parliament, a merit-based appointments system and an [conducive] operating environment for civil society.

The struggles of Afghan society to preserve the rights gained over the past two decades – also proclaimed as a priority by the Afghan government – will surely need strong international support. How much the ‘Afghan republic’s team’ in Doha will be ready to defend these rights can become a breaking point for this attempt to find a negotiated end to the forty-year Afghan war.

Source: under CC BY-4.0 licence. Data are in billions of US Dollars.


The pledging of future aid for Afghanistan at the Geneva conference have brought about a janus-faced result. The total amount represents a significant decrease compared with the 2016-20 period and ended up significantly below what the country’s requirements are. At the same time, it seems to be still more than what some had predicted. In a way, Afghanistan received less despite and because of the Covid-19 crisis. 

The decrease in the amount of support pledged at the Geneva conference was not a first. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance, the total amount of development aid and humanitarian assistance dropped by 46 per cent, from 15.7 to 8.4 billion USD, between 2010 and 2018. At the same time, Afghanistan has received more aid since 2001 than any other developing country over that period. The World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) put the total amount at 72 billion USD between 2002 and 2018. This means, for most other countries, the sums pledged in Geneva would still be very high.

While some argue this might shake the foundations of the economy and a state already weakened by the massive coronavirus impact, others say the amount might suffice to keep it running. 

Prerequisite for the more optimistic assumption is not only that the Afghan government seriously curbs systemic corruption but also that donors reconsider impracticable hopes that Afghanistan will be able to mobilise significant additional domestic resources quickly. This will require changes in the current political culture in the country where deals take precedent to merit-based appointments, where the over-centralisation of power has increased – seen, not least, by the extra sweeping powers for the Second Vice President –, and where ethno-politics sometimes colour decisions. This situation has shown to have a significant impact on the efficient use of aid. It is also not a given whether the influence of the ‘reformers’ on which the authors of the papers quoted in this report base their hopes will come to bear fruit under these circumstances. It should be clear, too, that battling corruption is extremely difficult and even dangerous in an environment armed to the teeth. 

At the same time, the inability of donors to come up with more effective and at the same time just conditionality regimes (for example to help reign in corruption) puts a question mark behind the hope that things might finally change this time, after the Geneva 2020 conference.

On the political side, the donor community has unanimously strengthened the position of the Afghan government by adopting its demand for a comprehensive ceasefire. This, too, might not be of significant value if the latest US troop reduction (to 2,500 by mid-January) announced by the Trump administration is not reversed. While the jury is still out on how much 2,500 US soldiers and around the same number of NATO- and non-NATO allies can do to stem the tide of the Taleban onslaught, it could surely undercut Kabul’s military clout.

It does not need to be said that as long as there is no negotiated end to the war (which still can take years), real developmental progress will remain feeble and undermined by fighting. 

Edited by Christine Roehrs and Roxanna Shapour

Find AAN’s primer published prior to the conference and a summary of earlier conferences’ outcomes here:

Less Money, More Conditionality? Stalled peace, Covid-19 and corruption foretell a sombre Afghanistan donor conference
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1 This contribution is part of the UK’s humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Generally, humanitarian funding is provided either on an annual basis through global or country-based mechanisms, such as the Humanitarian Response Plan, or in response to emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
2 The ARTF was established in 2002 to provide a coordinated financing mechanism for the Afghan government’s budget and national investment projects. In 2019, the ARTF was the largest source of on-budget financing for Afghanistan’s development. The fund is supporting delivery of results in key sectors, including agriculture, education, governance, health, infrastructure, and rural development. From its inception in 2002 through end-2019, the ARTF has committed USD 11.3 billion in funds to support the government’s civilian operations and development objectives. This means that around 15 per cent of all official development aid (ODA) was channelled through the ARTF.
3 AAN watched to the press conference and transcribed the quote from there.
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Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework Aid ARTF conditionality Corruption donor conference Finland Geneva Hanif Atmar pledges