Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE SCHOOLS THE TALIBAN WON'T TORCH....The Taliban has been increasingly resurgent in Afghanistan over the past year, but our problems there go well beyond the military. The Washington Post reported on Monday that "Afghanistan is so poor and so starved for modern infrastructure, one senior administration official said, that it could well be 'a longer, if not larger, challenge than Iraq.'" A day earlier, the New York Times reported that Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, "was coordinating another internal assessment of diplomatic efforts and economic aid — the sorts of 'soft power' assistance beyond combat force that officials agree are required for success."

In the December issue of the Monthly, Gregory Warner says a big part of the soft-power problem is simple funding: "According to the RAND Corporation, the American-led nation-building effort in Afghanistan is the least-financed such effort in sixty years." The solution, though, isn't just more funding, but funding the right kind of programs:

In a country where almost all the recent news has been bad news, the National Solidarity Program, or NSP, offers a rare glimmer of hope....The novel thinking behind the National Solidarity Program is largely the work of Scott Guggenheim, a maverick World Bank staffer who in the late 1990s pioneered a similar program in Indonesia.

....Guggenheim designed a program that would distribute small grants to villages....Local leaders were charged with administering the projects and required to take bookkeeping classes and keep minutes at planning meetings. Billboards above project sites indicated how money had been spent, encouraging local oversight. "The core elements were requiring that citizens participate and that there be high levels of transparency about how money was being transferred and used," one of Guggenheim's former Bank colleagues, Dennis de Tray, now at the Center for Global Development in Washington, said. "It had to be auditable."

....Maybe the most surprising characteristic of NSP projects is security related. In a survey last year of school burnings by the Taliban, Human Rights Watch observed that schools built by the NSP have less chance of being destroyed by insurgents than schools built by other aid programs. The reason, as Dennis de Tray explains, relates to the matter of local ownership. "If you're the Taliban, you feel some comfort in attacking things built by foreigners," de Tray says. "But you don't want to create animosity among citizens you're trying to recruit to your side."

The NSP has other benefits as well: village councils that successfully complete projects can apply for additional grants, and after the fourth or fifth grant cycle, Guggenheim says, "something like real responsive government started to emerge."

Unfortunately, although other countries have increased their funding of NSP, the United States has actually decreased its contribution. The result is fewer villages participating, and fewer of them getting to the stage where the grants start to produce real changes in the way local governments become more responsible, more closely aligned with the central government, and less vulnerable to the Taliban. And the savings involved? A tiny fraction of what we spend on military and counternarcotics efforts.

Read the rest of the story here.

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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Haven't these people heard of bake sales?

Posted by: Ross Best on December 18, 2007 at 1:35 AM | PERMALINK

I'll vote for whichever POTUS candidate promises to strangle Bush and Cheney with his or her bare hands.

Posted by: Disputo on December 18, 2007 at 1:38 AM | PERMALINK

NSP's may help build infrastructure and democratic institutions in places like Afghanistan, but they fail in one key respect: they don't provide adequate opportunity for an American corporation with close ties to the Republican party to cash in on some taxpayer-funded boondogle. All this does is help Afghan villagers. Why would the Bush administration give a shit about that?

Posted by: jonas on December 18, 2007 at 2:29 AM | PERMALINK

jonas is dead right; in fact the issue runs deeper than just boondoggles. Any aid officer, Republican or Democrat, gains by spending money and controlling programs, for specific targets that are defined in Washington. Even if those targets aren't designed to waste money on Republican-donating corporations, even if the targets seem to make sense, they are still DEFINED IN WASHINGTON. There is a direct conflict of interest between local "ownership" of programs, and aid officials being seen to meet the targets defined in DC. Let's say DC says "we want to build 100 schools". And then you hand over control of the programs to villagers, and only 50 villages want schools - the others want sewers. Then Mr. USAID in DC doesn't meet his targets, and Congressmen start calling him up: "What the hell did you spend our money on?! We wanted 100 schools!"

"Ownership" is exactly right. The Afghans need to own those projects. That means we need to tell congresspeople to back the hell off, and USAID officers to start really listening to the people they're supposed to helping.

Posted by: brooksfoe on December 18, 2007 at 4:46 AM | PERMALINK

microcredit is another tactic the high and mighty seem uninterested in, i.e. tiny loans to individuals in the world's poorest areas, where $50 can make a huge difference. for example:

"The mission of FINCA International is to provide financial services to the world's lowest-income entrepreneurs so they can create jobs, build assets, and improve their standard of living. In 2005, FINCA reached more than 400,000 clients, providing in excess of $100 million in small loans averaging $360. FINCA currently operates programs in 21 countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Women comprise 80 percent of its small loan clients, and the organization has a loan repayment rate of 97 percent."

that repayment rate would be pretty nice if you were currently sitting on a bunch of subprime mortgage loans made to speculators.

Posted by: supersaurus on December 18, 2007 at 4:49 AM | PERMALINK

Heavens above, you don't mean to say the participatory, community-led empowerment model espoused by development NGOs like Actionaid, Oxfam, etc, for most of the last few decades, in contrast to the hocus pocus BS of the world bank, has something to it...?

Who would have thought?

Posted by: mister z on December 18, 2007 at 7:19 AM | PERMALINK

Give a man a fish caught by a factory trawler, processed in a plant, shipped across the ocean and delivered in a military convoy, and the man eats for a day. He then has energy to work the next day to pay for the fish.

Whereas, if you give the man a net, the whole supply line goes to hell.

Posted by: Neal on December 18, 2007 at 7:29 AM | PERMALINK

How does this story affect a voter's wallet and happiness? "And when we do it this way, your wallet gets fatter, the crooks of the world get defunded, and there's less chance that you or your niece will get sent to a war zone."

Bring the story home. Close the deal.

Posted by: ferd on December 18, 2007 at 7:34 AM | PERMALINK

Imagine that! Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

We used to have that here. But there's no profit in it for the Repub fatcats, so it had to be suppressed.

Posted by: CN on December 18, 2007 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

Foundations and individual donors have been using this model for years. Get the local people invested in a local project, and it tends to last. Here in the U.S., a donor promises money for a neighborhood park, if the residents donate time and effort to help clear the site and install features. Charitable giving, when it's done right, is an investment, and no investor wants to piss dollars into the wind. That's the strange thing about our current administration: They're supposed to be the "grown-ups," the businessmen, and yet they simply do not seem to care what happens to the money they pour into Afghanistan and Iraq. Go figure.

Posted by: Winslow on December 18, 2007 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

They're supposed to be the "grown-ups," the businessmen, and yet they simply do not seem to care what happens to the money they pour into Afghanistan and Iraq

I think the idea is that they do care, very deeply, that the money they pour in comes right back out again, rather than getting soaked up by a bunch of non-voting non-donors who don't even speak English (ie the Afghans).

Posted by: ajay on December 18, 2007 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

I should just add that I started reading this story and thought "this sounds like a really good idea! Hurray for the international aid community!" and then the last seven years kicked in and I thought "but I bet that, in some way, the US government is doing something to screw this up". And lo, I was right.

Posted by: ajay on December 18, 2007 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

W. Bush and the Carlyle Group should reinvest their heroin dollars back into Afghanistan, but they won't. There is a chance for a greater return in Laos' rubber plantations now.

Posted by: Brojo on December 18, 2007 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

"The solution, though, isn't just more funding, but funding the right kind of programs"

Yeah, like the Bushies know how to spend our tax dollars effectively and efficiently under any program . . .

Posted by: Mazurka on December 18, 2007 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

from Kabul Press:
Aid agencies advised the UN Security Council that the international community’s assumption that Afghanistan can be made peaceful through a combination of military assistance, donor-driven aid, and Western-style democracy fails to attend to the history, society and culture of Afghanistan, a country which has witnessed failed foreign intervention time and again. There is an urgent need at this time to rethink current strategies in the interests of preventing the death of even more Afghans, avoiding large-scale destruction of infrastructure and livelihoods, and increasing chances that what goes on inside and around Afghanistan’s borders does not destabilize regional and global peace efforts.

"We trust the UN Security Council will use our concerns and ideas shared on behalf of ‘we the peoples’ to promote human security rather than continue to act on behalf of many UN Member State governments who unfortunately but increasingly have a tendency in the current GWOT climate to promote national security agendas at all costs.”

Posted by: Don Bacon on December 18, 2007 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

The NSP sounds like communism to me.

Who would have thought that the Republican administration will bring the rule of the proletariat to Afghanistan? Najibullah must be rolling in his grave with laughter.

Posted by: gregor on December 18, 2007 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, the last time you wrote about Afghanistan you bemoaned that "Nato hasn't exactly stepped up to the plate either"

I'm still pissed off about that statement of yours.Please clarify!

Posted by: Albert on December 18, 2007 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

Gee, it's almost as if they just want to funnel money to the military-industrial complex and don't give a rat's ass about anything else.

Posted by: scarshapedstar on December 18, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Ooh! I could be even more cynical and say that money funneled into the military-industrial complex is essential money funneled into their own pockets, via their stock portfolios and campaign contributions.

But that would be terribly uncivil.

Posted by: scarshapedstar on December 18, 2007 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

didn't Bush say in 2003 that we wouldn't turn our backs on Afganistan? lied again!

Posted by: don on December 18, 2007 at 8:31 PM | PERMALINK

Before the invasion, the US distributed solar/dynamo AM/FM/SW radios, some with lights. NATO is still distributing these radios. The solar/dynamos can be easily modified to charge AA and other standard size batteries beside the internal hardwired battery that powers the radio. This would allow people to use other small electronic devices like LED lights or, possibly, cell phones.

I've tried for a year to get further information about this program and suggest this modification, calling Afghanistan, Brussels, and my elected representatives. Nobody's interested.

Recently, I've also tried to interest the Central Asia Institute which builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan but it is beyond their purview. There is a group that is sending solar lights to Afghanistan, 50 Lanterns, and I will contact them in the New Year.

The combination of solar plus a dynamo allows for the production of low voltage DC electricity day or night producing a battery-based electrical infrastructure where none may have existed.

An additional possibility arises when this idea is done in the spirit of Badshah Khan, the Pashtun Gandhi, and utilized as a solar swadeshi, the soul of satyagraha.

Posted by: gmoke on December 18, 2007 at 9:07 PM | PERMALINK



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