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Afghanistan - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:24 pm on 4th September 2018.

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Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Non-affiliated 7:24 pm, 4th September 2018

My Lords, I begin my declaring my interests as set out in the register.

In the last decade or so it has become the sometimes unspoken view that Afghanistan is a lost cause. It is excessively poor, tribal, corrupt, still thick with warlords fighting for territory, and, above all, a haven for both the Taliban and Daesh, with consequent violence, civilian deaths and the continuing degradation of women. Some of this is true but much has changed in the years since the Taliban regime was routed by the US and other forces in late 2001. Today, I should like to cover some of the factors preventing further change and, having looked at what works, to ask the Minister how UK assistance is helping to tackle the root causes of Afghanistan’s instability.

Work on state building clearly demonstrates that sustained development cannot occur in the absence of an effective state—one that derives legitimacy from performing specific functions in the economic, social and political arenas. It follows that international assistance must at all times support the state in its functions. Sadly, much multilateral and bilateral aid is often counterproductive in that it undermines the authority and, thus, the legitimacy of the state. It could be said that it is the duty of the international aid community to do all in its power to establish legitimacy, most particularly when the use of force has reached its limit. Ideally, outside agencies should perform a specific function defined by the recipient Government, for a limited time and with a clear process of handover.

The reality is different. There is too much evidence of reckless spending, poor accountability—or even a critical lack of it—hastily prepared short-term responses, mismanagement, thousands of projects without any systematic agenda, and the assumption of functions that belong rightly to the state. Projects that are externally driven, poorly designed, co-ordinated and managed, with little connection to the national system are sources of waste and corruption and can directly undermine state institutions.

Development can be defined as a reduction in poverty, morbidity and mortality, especially in children, as well as a decrease in corruption, an increase in literacy and the expansion of production and entrepreneurial projects. Following that come democratic institutions and a dependable contract between the state and the individual, resulting in consistent and just treatment.

The necessary and sufficient conditions for this situation to emerge depend on a number of factors but importantly, according to the newest research, investment in infrastructure, including communications, water, electricity and sewerage, is vital. Of these, the key factor is communications, meaning tarred roads, transport and cell phone services. An infrastructure deficit penalises growth and development. Recent research indicates that those on the electric grid show a reduction in hunger of some 30%, and this outcome is largely replicated in figures for access to cell phone services.

Afghanistan is among those countries with the poorest growth in infrastructure. While the Government recognise the need, the difficulties in bringing about sustained infrastructural development are many. To begin with there are three partners involved: the donor, the relevant government ministry and the contractors. Donors tend to favour short-term projects with restricted funding, but too often with ambitious schemes. Government departments do not have either consistent construction standards or the capacity to monitor building safety. Contractors are usually from the West and, most importantly, do not budget either for training of locally employed staff or for maintenance. The result is a huge missed opportunity to train engineers, for example, who could then be involved in the upkeep and replication of major projects.

So, while it is acknowledged that economic growth is the key to counteracting insurgency and itself depends on a functioning infrastructure, Afghanistan remains woefully underdeveloped. An example concerns a widespread agreement between the Afghan Government and the donor community for the construction of a ring road to connect major cities, with a significant impact on economic development, social integration, political stability and service delivery. However, each section of the road was managed by separate contractors, resulting in endless delays and confusion, and the opportunity for regional co-operation—with Uzbekistan or Iran, for example—was missed since the contractors were predominantly western. Five years after its inception the road remains unfinished.

Of course, there have been welcome developments. It is claimed that Afghanistan has the potential to become economically self-sufficient with infrastructural investment. For example, Khan Steel has reduced the country’s steel imports by 33% with a $35 million investment. Furthermore, just under $900,000 spent on an air corridor with India increased agricultural exports by $30 million in 2015-16.

Building infrastructure might tick all the soft-outcome boxes—how many patients a new hospital can service, the number of lives saved and how many local jobs are created—but the safety of the structure in, say, a seismic zone, which Afghanistan is in, and the amount of training it will provide are left out, as is the national picture. Where, for example, it would be most cost-effective to build dams depends on the topography of the country, but regional interests intervene to undermine such rational planning.

The issue it seems is not more, or less, aid but the right kind of strategic aid. Between 2016 and 2020 the Department for International Development will have spent some £0.75 billion pounds on healthcare, education, safe drinking water, the creation of jobs and tackling corruption. The UK lists among the gains some 6 million children now attending school, up from 1 million in 2001; access to healthcare up from 9% to 50%; maternal mortality halved; and life expectancy at birth higher than it has ever been in that country. More broadly, there is a written constitution and a democratically elected Government, and Afghans now have an unprecedented voice in how they are governed, nationally and locally. These statistics are impressive but are the programmes having the intended impact?

The gains are undermined by a number of new demographic factors, the failure of too many programmes in rural areas and the continuing insurgency and corruption. There has been the emergence of a new generation of highly educated young Afghans who now work in the media, the private sector, civil society and government. They are, and will be, the leaders of change but their number is tiny when compared to the youth bulge in Afghanistan today. The massive investment made by international donors in the early 2000s was too often misguided. The major multilateral organisations, for example, believed that secondary and certainly tertiary education was too ambitious for Afghanistan. As a result, there is a dearth of professional, vocationally trained, skilled young people equipped to enter the modern knowledge economy. The skills required for management and leadership do not come about in the absence of a first-rate system of higher education.

Even primary schools have fallen far short of what was promised and claimed. Despite government incentives, teachers are poorly trained and in some cases not trained beyond basic primary levels; schools in rural communities either do not exist or have fallen into disrepair; and parents remain reluctant to allow daughters to remain in education, which is still not compulsory beyond primary school. Indeed schools are not equipped to cater for adolescent girls.

A 2017 Human Rights Watch report cites worrying statistics. Sixteen years after the US-led military intervention and countless millions of dollars later, only an estimated third of Afghan girls go to school, and even this figure is decreasing. Forty-one per cent of schools do not actually have a building, nor is there transport to bring children—again, especially girls—to schools. Only 37% of adolescent girls are literate, as compared to 66% of adolescent boys. Given that it is now established beyond doubt and the world over that educating girls promotes development, these are very serious gaps.

The President, Ashraf Ghani, himself recently inveighed against some of the major donor programmes and their failure to create fundamental progress. Afghanistan, he laments, lags behind in all the MDG and SDG goals, despite generous international support. He cites NGO reports of women’s health which exaggerate achievements. Who, he asks, measures the outputs, how much duplication is there, how sustainable are projects and what are the overhead costs? Ashraf Ghani advocates—even pleads for—an aid system united around a single flow of financing and rules.

Up to 2015 there had been a decade of transformation —political, military and economic—presidential elections, the withdrawal of most international forces and massive amounts of foreign aid. However, humanitarian and development assistance cannot be said to have been highly effective. For example, despite the massive foreign aid and military strength, Afghanistan has in the last decade become the world’s largest producer of heroin.

The news has moved on but conflict and insecurity continue and even increase. Afghanistan’s insecurity creates a haven for terrorism and a continuing stream of refugees, and is one of the main factors imprisoning the country in a state of poverty. There are many complicating factors to any immediate solution. While we cannot dismiss the killings perpetrated by the Taliban in cities, with appalling death rates, in May 2018 the UK Minister Gavin Williamson openly called for talks with the Taliban to secure peace. Others in the international community now see that dialogue with the Taliban is a way forward. A June 2018 ODI research report notes the remarkable degree of co-operation between the Taliban and the Government through various ministries and at provincial levels.

Once the NATO troops began to draw down in 2015, the Taliban became more organised, reasonable and committed to services at the local level. In the words of one Talib: “With international troops leaving, we could be less warlike and we could focus on government”. Before this, many believed that to provide services was to support the infidel West and a puppet Government in Kabul. Today, in many districts, it is the Taliban that enforces teacher attendance at schools, reporting to the Ministry of Education. The Taliban sets the rules in vast swathes of the country with the full compliance of the Government. In seven provinces and over 20 districts, the Taliban controls and exerts influence over service delivery, collects taxes and provides receipts, provides local courts for local community dispute resolution, encourages vaccination programmes and puts pressure on government to supply better-quality healthcare.

Bad governance is the root cause of conflict and functioning institutions are the key to stability. If we acknowledge these key factors in achieving greater degrees of security and economic growth, it is depressing to see how far major donors depart from these criteria. Let me end with the words of President Ashraf Ghani himself:

“To address the most serious of the world’s problems … poverty and global terrorism … the aid system must orient itself around the task of building effective, functioning states”.