Reviewing the Alternatives

by Joel Hafvenstein on 9/13/2010 · 4 comments

Since the fall of the Taliban, USAID has spent and committed close to $1 billion on alternative livelihoods (AL) projects, trying to help farmers grow legal crops instead of opium poppy.  The British and German governments have also put lashings of money into the sector.  The results have been, at best, mixed.

There are plenty of scathing media reports documenting failure and wastage in the US-funded AL projects, and I doubt Afghanistan’s farmers have yet reaped $1 billion in benefits attributable to the program.  At the same time, I can attest that a few of the activities have produced solid results; and to damn with extremely faint praise, AL might just be the second most successful “pillar” of counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan, after “public awareness.”  (It’s sure doing better than eradication, interdiction, or judicial reform).

When I say “good results,” I’m not referring to drops in poppy cultivation — those have happened for reasons that have little to do with counternarcotics work of any kind, let alone AL.  Rather, a good AL project aims to get rural economies working well enough for families to reliably make a living through legal means.  It removes barriers to existing livelihoods, helps households diversify to protect against external shocks, and (carefully) introduces new, promising ideas that have worked well elsewhere.  It does not limit itself to crops and livestock, but looks at the whole bundle of what families earn and produce.  (Though, realistically, it has to stay focused on local livelihoods.  Labor migration will remain a huge part of most rural Afghan livelihood strategies, but having an AL program that tried to remove barriers to labor migration — especially across international borders — would be both technically tricky and politically fraught).

In Afghanistan, unsurprisingly, the best AL results have come from areas where there were already thriving and diverse agricultural livelihoods – say, Nangarhar – where outside aid has improved crop and livestock quality, introduced new production and processing techniques, and facilitated trade connections.  In the heart of Nangarhar, many farmers (some with AL help) have moved into high-value horticulture and stuck with it, even when outlying districts returned to poppy cultivation.

Of course, those central districts around Jalalabad already enjoyed extensive irrigation, good transport connections, and well-developed market connections with Kabul and Pakistan.  Similarly, in southern Afghanistan, the best outcomes have been seen in Kandahar, where foreign aid has helped develop new export markets for the legendary local pomegranates.

In dry outlying districts, though, AL projects in south and east Afghanistan have struggled to make improvements, hampered by worsening insecurity and the poverty of existing livelihood options.  In Badakhshan, where much of the province remains reasonably secure, the AL program managed to achieve a few worthy results even in marginal districts: helping establish private para-veterinary clinics; connecting walnut growers to outside traders; building irrigation works to open up previously arid land.  But the timeframe for real success there would need to be longer than 5 years.

The worst AL results, in my experience, are associated with:

1.  Operating in highly insecure areas.  By 2006, Helmand was so violent that USAID contractors could scarcely stir out of their armored cars in the “island” of relative government control around Lashkargah, let alone the rest of the province.  It’s unsurprising that the AL ideas they came up with (e.g. the agri-business park near Lashkargah) didn’t get much traction.

2.  Short-term programming.  As someone who cut his teeth in Afghanistan on a Helmand emergency jobs project six years ago, I’m appalled at how much AL funding is still going to big cash-for-work projects and wheat seed distributions.  It would be one thing to have a huge emergency handout component to AL if poppy eradication were regularly wrecking farmers’ livelihoods — but eradication remains a bad joke in most of Afghanistan (and thank God, for the farmers’ sake).  So there’s no excuse for aid agencies to spend so much money on single-season interventions with no lasting benefit.

Of course these short-term interventions are popular – what farmer doesn’t like getting some extra cash or a bag of seed? – and it can provide a useful boost of acceptance for an aid agency trying to get in the door.  But slinging around short-term benefits can easily crowd out long-term benefits.  CFW and handouts distort the local labor and ag markets that an AL project should be aiming to put on a stable, sustainable footing.

A big part of the problem here: donor governments and the UNODC both focus excessively on year-on-year poppy results (measuring progress based on how many provinces happened to go “poppy free” this year), which puts pressure on AL contractors to try to “move the needle” by spending lots of money in a short timeframe.  Another problem: both donors and contractors like interventions with a simple, clear metric for success (e.g. handing out things) more than long-term investments whose benefits can be hard to measure.

Some of the metrics used for these short-term activities have been quite misleading.  For example, on the crucial question of how many jobs have been created by the project, some past USAID projects successfully won permission to count a certain number of days of cash-for-work as equivalent to one full-time job.  But in terms of AL outcomes, no amount of day labor, however high, equals a full-time job – the impact of the activity ends as soon as the last paycheck is handed out.

Moreover, it is all but impossible to carry out sustainable improvements to roads or canals on a cash-for-work project, where the budget for materials like gravel or cement is low.  Yet USAID still counts “kilometers of road and canal improved by CFW” as an AL success indicator, despite the fact that those improvements will probably be gone with the first serious rain, and are thus unlikely to have any positive effect on crop transport or cultivation.  (“Kilometers of canal” is a weak metric in any case – it doesn’t distinguish between massive irrigation channels and two-foot deep drainage ditches).

3.  Project-centric thinking.  There’s far too little coordination between different projects (even with the same donor, let alone different ones) or continuity between one project and another, especially if there’s been a change in contractor.  Many of the failures discovered in Badakhshan by the CSM might have been caught if USAID’s follow-on project had committed to finishing the activities left incomplete by the outgoing agency.

Most of the AL activities that impressed me during my time in Badakhshan were carried out by smaller NGOs with local experience and specialized technical expertise – Dutch Committee for Afghanistan (vet clinics), Roots of Peace (fruit crop improvements), AfghanAid (community horticulture education), ICARDA (seed potato production).  These NGOs were less likely than the big contractors to fall victim to project-centered thinking and timescales.  They had for the most part been operating in their (geographical and technical) areas before the contractor arrived, and intended to continue even if there was no follow-on project.

4.  Reducing AL to crop substitution.  This can manifest itself either in a single-minded focus on encouraging wheat plantation (especially with the wheat price surges of recent years), or on spending vast amounts of money and energy searching for new crops that are competitive with poppy in terms of dollars per hectare.

As David Mansfield’s AREU work has consistently emphasized, for asset-poor farmers and sharecroppers, the main benefit from opium is not a high cash return but rather access to basic assets – land, credit, inputs, technical expertise – which would otherwise be out of reach.  Farmers who might want to plant alternative crops for a lucrative harvest can’t do it, because they lack the assets — and because Western development agencies haven’t created an enabling environment that can stand up to the one created for opium by the traffickers.

For example, to date no donor has seriously tried to expand access to land or farm credit.  Credit was actually removed from the mandate of the USAID AL projects that started in 2005, on the (mistaken) idea that other US-funded projects would address it.  In fact, USAID’s big credit projects until 2010 focused on household-level microfinance and loans to agribusiness; they weren’t set up to take on the risk of loans to farmers themselves.  While start-up loans to agricultural enterprises are obviously vital, they don’t affect most of the people who are currently seeking loans from opium traffickers.  Only in July this year did the US finally start a credit program aimed at farmers.  We’ll see how it goes.

In general, when it comes to opium I am an advocate of the do-nothing strategy long articulated by this blog.  (Several years ago I took a pro-interdiction view, but the Afghan government’s continuing brazen involvement in the drug trade has made a mockery of the idea).  That being said, AL programs are one of the best-resourced attempts so far to improve rural livelihoods and create agricultural jobs in Afghanistan.  Anyone who advocates “more and better” development as a key part of the West’s stabilization strategy needs to consider what has worked and what (really) hasn’t so far.

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RScott September 13, 2010 at 5:51 pm

As you can well imagine, I do not agree with the do nothing approach to opium poppy cultivation at least in central Helmand where most of it is grown. The farmers in this area have been awaiting a (promised) serious counter-narcotics effort on the part of the government and the foreign doners since 2002, at least, that would put them back into legal marketable crops. And what can work in this area probably cannot work in other areas of the country. But when projects fail because of bad management, poor planning, bad timing, no field monitoring, trying to move to far too fast into areas that should not be entered because of security, short-term staff that do not understand what they are dealing with or what they are trying to do, etc. etc. all of which has been documented in the many failures, does not mean that effective programs cannot be planned and fielded. Whether they get long term and consistent funding remains an additional problem. And while public information is important and has been well addressed at least in Helmand (periodically) public information, like all of the other failed single answer approaches, will have no effect by itself. And putting people to work on their own irrigation systems for pay has a short term effect as you point out but it does not have to be short term with a short term effect. Irrigation systems the size of central Helmand (the largest irrigation system in the country mostly built with our (US) support between 1946-79, that includes more than three districts and more than 100,000 acres of modern irrigated land, require continuous maintenance, not short term, which it has not received since the 1970s. This work can be done by machine, as it mostly was in the 70s or it can mostly be done with hand labor. Long term but primarily organized through the Afghan agencies responsible for the irrigation system, HVA/HCU etc. But again with close field monitoring and technical assistance. Short term “answers” to counter-narcotics don’t work, as single element reconstruction/development projects don’t work, as the search for single crop alternatives to poppy don’t work. It has to do with long term planning, larger integrated programs put together by people that know what they are trying to address for a counter-narcotics program to succeed. It will be interesting to see what the planners have come up with in finally addressing the most important agricultural credit need in these major cash crop regions after 9 years of delay.

Joel Hafvenstein September 14, 2010 at 11:36 am

Hi Dick – as always, thanks for your comments. (For the unfamiliar, Dick Scott has more on-the-ground experience and personal connections in Helmand than any other American I know, having worked there since 1971). When I advocate “doing nothing” about opium, I don’t necessarily mean that Western governments should do nothing about agriculture in central Helmand. They have reason to do what little they can to improve livelihoods there in the middle of the storm — not least now that they’ve turned Marja into a high-profile test case for the “clear, hold & build” strategy (good luck, guys).

But counternarcotics is for the most part a dangerous distraction when it comes to planning rural development. Reducing opium supply should be far down our list of priorities in Afghanistan right now — we should regard it as a symptom of other problems and try to address those problems directly, not see them through the prism of opium reduction.

I think we might agree that in most parts of Afghanistan, it’s a terrible, terrible idea to do canal maintenance through cash-for-work. Traditional irrigation systems depend on community voluntary work (hashar) to stay viable; CFW disincentivizes hashar, further stripping Afghan communities of social capital. But as you say, the massive HVA irrigation works are a different animal, which historically have been maintained by government rather than hashar, and (given their scale) are unlikely to be receive proper upkeep from hashar alone. I agree that it would be possible and might be advisable to maintain the network primarily using government-paid hand labor rather than machines — and yes, that sort of plan would be very different from the cash-for-work projects I critique above.

Toryalay Shirzay September 15, 2010 at 11:58 pm

The usaid likes to deal with the middleman instead of directly dealing with afghan villagers.In our province, many local village cooperatives tried to obtain funding directly from usaid but they were all denied help.Instead the money is given to the middleman who pocket most of the money and the villagers get what trickles down.This is why the results of the usaid are small compared to the one billion or more dollar spent.
It is now well known or should be known by all those concerned that the Taliban and other islamic fascist thugs derive a third to half of all their operating costs from the opium business. This should be sufficient enough to convince any serious persons or agencies to stop this menace by any means necessary.Enough is enough,what kinds of results are we going to get here if most of those in position of responsibility act like sissies??!!

Joel Hafvenstein September 16, 2010 at 2:35 am

Toryalay – out of curiosity, how has Hambastagi-i-Milli (NSP) worked in your province? I agree that more aid money should be channeled to functioning local institutions.

Long term readers will know that both Josh and I believe we’re far more likely to help than hurt the Taliban with a “kill all the poppies” strategy.

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