How Aid Undermines the War

by Joshua Foust on 8/4/2010 · 5 comments

Way back in February of 2007, I wrote a piece for Jim Glassman’s TCSDaily about what foreign aid was doing to Afghanistan. The main takeaway?

The unfortunate reality in Afghanistan is that, no matter the amount donated, it would be too much. This is because Afghanistan’s biggest problem is not poverty, but government.

That still holds true today, more than ever. Ben Arnoldy of the CS Monitor just wrote an excellent feature article on what sloppy aid has done to Badakhshan:

The $1 million canal was part of a $60 million development contract that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had with PADCO, an American company. PADCO’s 2009 completion report claims to have tripled power in Baharak and nearby Faizabad.

But Afghan officials say neither community saw any extra electricity. And a USAID staffer who handed over the report to the Monitor advised, “Take this with a grain of salt. It’s designed to make USAID look good.”

On paper, the multipronged project revitalized a backward Afghan province, weaning it off poppy cultivation and winning Afghan hearts and minds.

However, a Monitor investigation reveals that even in spite of a few modest gains, the Afghans here were left angered over project failures, secrecy, and wasted funds.

The whole story is heartbreaking, but unfortunately, not uncommon. It is just another artifact of the ridiculous shadow foreigner economy at work in Afghanistan, one that seems to have only a negative effect on local communities. Even in areas like Badakhshan, which have been friendly to westerners—Faizabad is one of the few cities never conquered by the Taliban—our lazy, parasitic mentality toward aid projects has alienated the very people we mean to help.

USAID is a fundamentally broken agency (chronicled in countless books). That brokenness is why, for example, the DOD is taking over more and more development work. The whole system is designed for failure. I often wonder if we’d be better off is USAID just picked up its offices and went home. In fact, I think we would be.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Karaka August 4, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Do you think there’s any room for USAID to be overhauled into an effective organization? Or is it doomed?

Joshua Foust August 4, 2010 at 6:30 pm

I don’t know the intricacies of what it would take to overhaul it. But I mean, there are fewer USAID officers in the world today than there were in Saigon in the 1970s. Not that AID was super awesome back then, but it speaks volumes, I think, about how it’s changed as an agency.

Karaka August 5, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I agree that the numbers game is part of it; if you can’t get good people into your program it will inevitably decrease in efficacy. But I also wonder if this fabled overhauling of DoS could result in an increased interest in USAID and a focused hand tasked with reshaping it for the immediate and long-term needs of State.

Dilshod August 5, 2010 at 6:25 am

That was a revelation that shocked me, AID’s main principle is “akuna matata”.

Mirko Lomeo August 5, 2010 at 8:48 am

Yes, Afghanistan’s biggest problem is NOT poverty, but government. However it is also true that all people have the right to have access to basic public services like water, health, and education, and the “government” problem means that these problems could never properly be addressed without outside assistance (at least for now). Regardless, I think “How AID Undermines the War” would be a more appropriate title. There is no doubt that USAID has proven over the years to be the least effective and the most detrimental donor in Afghanistan in fact, paying inappropriate salaries, pushing projects through at an unrealistic pace to achieve unattainable short-term targets. But what about the dozens of other donors and dozens of NGOs that are implementing projects without the USAID salaries, deadlines, or targets? There are many of them out there, in Badakhshan and elsewhere, who are not always undermining “the war”. To generalize and say that aid in Afghanistan has “only a negative effect on local communities” is just simply not true–although sometimes the case–and it is comments like these that undermine the “humanitarian war” that is being fought to bring Afghans a better life… and which in some cases is a war that is being won, albeit away from the public eye.

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