Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

The Tokyo Conference and the Decade of Déjà Vu

Martine van Bijlert 4 min

Another conference, another set of promises, proposals and agreements. Tomorrow, representatives over 70 countries, international organisations and the Afghan government will meet in Tokyo to discuss aid post-2014. Anyone feeling confused about yet another conference with its claims of impact and importance will find AAN’s new e-book (Snapshots of an Intervention: The Unlearned Lessons of Afghanistan’s Decade of Assistance 2001–2011) an invaluable resource. In 25 chapters, it provides insight and detail about the international intervention, written by people who were involved in the various projects.

The book provides poignant illustrations of the recurring gaps between ambitious plans and previous conference statements, on the one hand, and the subsequent realities of aid on the other. It also provides stories of the early days – General Dostum in 2002, pale and anxious as he waits to hear the result of the secret ballot ahead of the Emergency Loya Jirga, or ISAF commander General Rick Hillier being persuaded in 2004 by Hamid Karzai not to take on Kabul’s criminal bosses. One of the book’s editors, Martine van Bijlert explains why the book was written:

The idea for this volume was born in the summer of 2010 during a discussion of the cyclical nature of many of Afghanistan’s programmes. Years of following the international efforts had left us with an increasingly strong sense of déjà vu: another conference to demonstrate momentum, another strategy to surpass the ones before, another project that would come and go and be forgotten the moment its progress was no longer being reported on, only to resurface in a new guise a little later.

In many cases it was all very understandable: the short rotations and limited mobility of embassy and donor agency staff, the pressures to spend and deliver and to come up with project-sized solutions for complex problems, the tendency to design programmes by brainstorm, the lack of institutional memory – it all meant that ideas often lacked the benefit of previous experience or solid understanding of the context. But it also meant that money and opportunity were wasted in an overwhelming manner and that the Afghan people were left empty-handed, with promises of security, stability and reconstruction that were left unmet.

One of the problems has been a lack of documentation, coupled with a general unwillingness to acknowledge and explore the shape and sources of the failure to effect real change. Other than the usual project documents – that are by nature designed to satisfy donor requirements and to prove that, despite difficulties, project objectives are being met – surprisingly little effort has been made to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated and that future planning benefits from past insights. Any suggestion that a new shiny programme very much resembles the old and discarded one has tended to be swept aside as unhelpful criticism.

Countless people have been involved in Afghanistan’s bewildering array of policy planning sessions, scoping studies, pilot projects, technical assistance programmes, project management units, coordination mechanisms, implementation attempts, evaluation teams – both Afghan and international. It is useful to learn from what they now know. This edited volume is a collection of largely untold stories and untapped lessons. It is not comprehensive in any way, but we hope that these snapshots will inform future planning and programming and that they will inspire a greater willingness to look back and learn.

The decade of state-building, reconstruction and development assistance in Afghanistan has left many people confused. There have been undeniable changes: Afghanistan now has an election-based, market-driven political system and many socio-economic indicators are far better than they used to be under Taleban rule or during the civil war (although that is, admittedly, not a very high bar). There have been great, albeit unequal, opportunities in terms of education, employment and enrichment. But there is also a strong sense of missed and mismanaged opportunities, which many – Afghans and internationals alike – find difficult to understand: how could so many resources have achieved what feels like so little and so fleeting?

This edited volume explores the question by taking a closer look at a variety of key programmes and projects that were designed and implemented over the last decade, or more. It consists of a collection of 25 articles by analysts and practitioners with long histories in the country, who were closely involved in the programmes they describe. The contributions present a rare and detailed insight into the complexity of the intervention in Afghanistan – including the often complicated relations between donors and representatives of the Afghan government (with projects tending to be nominally Afghan-led, but clearly donor-driven), the difficulties in achieving greater coherence and leverage and, in many cases, the widely shared failure to learn the necessary lessons and to adapt to realities as they were encountered.

The experiences that the authors describe will probably sound all too familiar to anyone who has worked in post-conflict, aid-heavy contexts: the popularity of ‘trophy projects’, the proliferation of ‘encyclopaedic wish lists’ as a result of cumulative planning sessions, the diplomatic wrangling to be given a seat at the table, the empty government buildings due to faulty planning, the frustration of trying to secure government buy-in for measures that threaten to disturb the political and economic status quo. They will also recognise the tendency for political expediency to trump long-term institution-building and accountability and the dubious role that post-conflict elections play in a country’s democratisation.

The overarching lesson of the volume is probably that the key tools of the international assistance intervention – the protracted policy processes and coordination mechanisms, the large and inflexible assistance budgets, the focus on capacity building through mentoring and technical assistance – have proved to be very blunt indeed. There were successes to be found in the cracks, but mainly where a coherence of vision, realism and a fair amount of political will on the Afghan side ensured that good use was made of the resources provided.

Snapshots of an Intervention: The Unlearned Lessons of Afghanistan’s Decade of Assistance (2001–2011), AAN e-Book edited by Martine van Bijlert and Sari Kouvo, July 2012.

The book will also be released for Kindle in the coming days.

The text of this blog is an adapted version of the e-book’s foreword/ introduction.



Economy international aid reconstruction Tokyo Conference


Martine van Bijlert

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