David Brooks / Syndicated columnist
Foreign aid in Afghanistan: the failure of smart power
Foreign aid is premised on the assumption that development fosters stability, writes David Brooks. In Afghanistan, this assumption seems not to be true. The influx of aid has, in many cases, created dependency, fed corruption, contributed to insecurity and undermined the host government's capacity to oversee sustainable programs.
So far, few politicians have embraced my plan for a Marshall Plan Tax. The idea is that every time a think-tanker, op-ed writer or retired senator calls for a new Marshall Plan or a moonshot-type initiative to solve a social problem, they would have to pay a tax of $50. Within a few months, we'd have enough money to pay for an actual new Marshall Plan.
The problem with my proposal is this: Do Marshall Plans work? If this country really did galvanize its best minds and billions of dollars to alleviate poverty somewhere or to solve some complicated problem, could we actually do it?
Well, the U.S. has been engaged in a new Marshall Plan for most of the past decade. Between 2002 and 2010, the U.S. spent roughly $19 billion to promote development in Afghanistan. Many other nations have also sent thousands of aid workers and billions of dollars.
In some spheres the results have been impressive. Nearly two-thirds of Afghans now have access to basic health services, up from 9 percent a decade ago. Under the Taliban, 900,000 boys and no girls attended schools. Now more than 7 million Afghans attend school, and 35 percent of them are girls, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
But when it comes to laying the foundation for economic growth and stability, the results have been discouraging.
Stuart Gordon of Chatham House, a British think tank, studied aid efforts in Helmand province and concluded that in places where state capacity is weak and security is uncertain, foreign aid "may have as many negative, unintended effects as positive ones." After a thorough two-year review of U.S. aid efforts in Afghanistan, the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee emphasized, "The unintended consequences of pumping large amounts of money into a war zone cannot be underestimated."
Much of the aid effort was premised on the assumption that development would foster stability. Young men with jobs wouldn't plant roadside bombs. Communities with growing economies would reject the Taliban. This assumption was based on the modern prejudice that bad behavior has material roots. Give people money and jobs and you will improve their character and behavior.
In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, this assumption seems not to be true. A conference of experts brought together last year in Wilton Park in Britain concluded that there is a "surprisingly weak evidence base for the effectiveness of aid in promoting stabilization and security objectives" in Afghanistan.
Violence doesn't stem from poverty. It stems from grudges, tribal dynamics and religious fanaticism — none of which can be ameliorated by building new roads. The poorest parts of the country are not the most violent.
Meanwhile, the influx of aid has, in many cases, created dependency, fed corruption, contributed to insecurity and undermined the host government's capacity to oversee sustainable programs.
In the district of Nawa, for example, USAID spent $400 per person last year. The per-capita income before aid was $300. According to the World Bank, 97 percent of Afghanistan's GDP derives from spending related to the military and donor community presence.
This incredible infusion distorts labor markets. An Afghan can make $75 a month as a teacher but more than $1,000 a month as a translator or driver for aid workers. The most talented people get sucked out of the real economy and into the aid economy.
It overwhelms provincial governments. It fuels corruption. As aid workers grow frustrated by nonfunctioning Afghan bureaucracies, they build their own parallel ones that, in turn, take responsibility from and infantilize the Afghan agencies that are going to have to administer the country in the long run.
Meanwhile, turnover among U.S. civilians in Afghanistan is about 85 percent a year, according to the Senate report. Many in Congress fixate on "burn rates" — how fast a program can disperse money — not effectiveness.
Many gains that have been made may not be unsustainable. A flood of money washed into Afghanistan, and the reports warn about what will happen when the flood dries up in a few years.
The sad thing is, we are not foreign-aid rookies. People have spent years trying to learn from past foreign-aid disappointments and still, with all these resources, the results are discouraging.
This experience should have a chastening influence on the advocates of smart power. When she became secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton sketched out a very attractive foreign-policy vision that would use "the full range of tools at our disposal: diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural." But it could be that cultural and economic development works on a different timetable than traditional foreign policy.
Perhaps we don't know enough, can't plan enough, can't implement effectively enough to coordinate nation building with national-security objectives.
The peace and security timetable is measured in years or decades. Development progress, if it comes at all, is measured in generations.
David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.
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