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With New Pledge of Support to Afghanistan, How Best to Ensure Effective Aid?

July 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Earlier this week, representatives from more than 70 countries pledged $16 billion in aid to Afghanistan. In return, the Afghan government promised to crack down on corruption. Ray Suarez talks with Alexander Thier, USAID's top official for Afghanistan and Pakistan, about the effectiveness of U.S. economic aid to the country.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to Afghanistan.

Earlier this week, representatives from more than 70 countries pledged $16 billion in aid to Afghanistan at a donors meeting in Tokyo. In return, the government of President Hamid Karzai pledged to crack down on corruption.

The latest moves by the international community come as the stage has been set for some critical transitions.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. and its NATO partners have already begun drawing down forces and are preparing to hand off control of security operations to the Afghans.

To prepare for that milestone, the U.S. has spent more than $19 billion on civilian development projects. American tax dollars built roads, schools, and hospitals, and taught farmers new planting techniques. The U.S. and its allies believe continued international aid is critical for Afghanistan’s long-term stability.

But the violence hasn’t abated. On Sunday, six American troops were killed by a roadside bomb in the eastern province of Wardak. In the Afghan capital today, thousands protested the recent execution-style killing of an Afghan woman accused of adultery. The street justice was captured on video.

And the governor of Helmand Province in the south told reporters American assistance was key to securing past gains.

MOHAMMAD GULAB MANGAL, Governor, Helmand Province (through translator): There is no doubt that the Helmand economy is depending on foreign aid and foreign support, but I am certain that as the result of the drawdown of the coalition forces, civilian institutions will continue their economical support.

RAY SUAREZ: Not everyone believes economic aid is paving the way for prosperity.

In a new book, Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran chronicles a decade of conflict and a failed effort to rebuild the war-torn country.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, National Editor, The Washington Post: When it come to reconstruction dollars, instead of focusing on sustainable projects that the Afghans could one day take ownership of, we essentially carpet-bombed the country with money.

In 2010, we tried to spend $4 billion worth of reconstruction money in Afghanistan. In some places, that equated to more than the annual per capita income. And so it distorted the local economy. It built dependency. And it created sort of the development version of a sugar high. We pumped them up with lots of goodies, only to then see it crash later, as budgets would inevitably have to be cut.

RAY SUAREZ: The Obama administration disputes that and contends the money is important for solidifying the progress made since 2001.

American economic assistance is coordinated through the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. Its top official for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Alexander Thier, joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

ALEXANDER THIER, U.S. Agency for International Development: Thank you, Ray.

 

RAY SUAREZ: How would you sum of the mission of USAID and its collaborators in Afghanistan? What are you there to do?

ALEXANDER THIER: We have been working in Afghanistan over the last decade to try and improve the living conditions for the Afghan people. And that comprises many things. It means working on health, education, helping to improve the infrastructure, helping economic growth, all of the things that Afghanistan needs essentially to get back on its feet after what have been really almost 30 years of devastating conflict for the country.

RAY SUAREZ: The United States has been on the ground for about 10-and-a-half years. How much of that core mission has been accomplished?

ALEXANDER THIER: Well, I think that we have accomplished a tremendous amount in Afghanistan over the last decade. If you look at all of the statistics, Afghanistan in 2001 was almost the poorest country in the world, highest infant mortality rate, lowest literacy rates of anywhere in the world.

And, today, we have really helped the Afghan people to make some dramatic changes. Take, for example, health care. There was no health care system in Afghanistan 10 years ago. And, today, the health care system reaches some 70 percent of Afghans. And this is not fancy health care. This is simple, pennies-per-patient lifesaving solutions that, in the end, have raised life expectancies in Afghanistan 15 to 20 years in the last decade alone, which is probably the single largest gain of any population anywhere in the world in the last decade.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, in a recent speech at Brookings, you said, “We have helped the Afghans to develop more rapidly than in any previous decade in their history.”

And while that may be true, compared to what? We were coming into a country that was almost entirely devastated, with a non-functioning economy.

ALEXANDER THIER: It’s true.

I actually served in Afghanistan for four years during their civil war in the 1990s. And the country during that period was devastated. It was a systematic dismantling of everything, the government, the roads network. But, today, Afghanistan has really leapt into the 21st century.

Whereas before, there were no telephones virtually in the country, today, some 85 percent have access to a cellular phone network, and some people even make mobile payments using their cell phones, something few Americans do today.

Economic growth has been eight to 10 percent over the last decade. And so it’s true they are coming from a very low base, but the progress that we have been able to help the Afghan people make in the last decade, particularly if you saw it before, is really remarkable.

But at the same time, that progress does remain fragile, which is why it’s so critical that the sorts of commitments that the international community is continuing to make, like those at Tokyo this weekend, will help the Afghans continue to cement the investments of the last decade, but also to become more self-sustaining.

RAY SUAREZ: In recent weeks on this program, journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran was scathing in his appraisal of the USAID’s work in Afghanistan, talking about ill-conceived programs, badly administered spending in the support of Afghan governments in the provinces and the national government itself, shot through with corruption and cronyism, and cross-purposes.

What’s your response?

ALEXANDER THIER: If you look at the last decade, first of all, our spending, our civilian spending in Afghanistan has been equivalent over the entire decade to only about four to six weeks of the military campaign.

So that civilian investment has been relatively small in comparison to the overall. But I think if you look at it at a dollar-by-dollar basis, it has been extremely effective. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some problematic programs.

And it is important to remind viewers, of course, that Afghanistan does remain a conflict zone. It’s an enormously difficult place to work. But when you look at the amount spent and the difficulties in Afghanistan and the results that we have been able to deliver, I think that objective viewers would agree that the money has been well spent and that the progress from a U.S. national security perspective has also been well worth the cost.

RAY SUAREZ: The donors conference in Tokyo raised pledges of $16 billion for the four years going forward. But this time, they were conditional on the Karzai government cracking down on corruption. They have made those kind of pledges in the past and have been unsuccessful. What’s the chances now?

ALEXANDER THIER: Well, I think that we have done some really important things to change the dynamic of donor funding.

And we cemented them in Tokyo with a document called the Mutual Accountability Framework. This framework, which you can read online — in fact, I think we have it posted on our Web site at www.USAID.gov — outlines a series of benchmarks that the Afghan government has to meet in order for donor assistance to continue.

And the difference here is really twofold. First of all, we have been specific. There are things that you can actually measure. And if the Afghans, who have embraced this agenda, I should add, live up to those standards, then the assistance funds will continue.

But, at the same time, if they’re not able to do that, then the donor funding will go down. The second thing that we have put into place is a follow-up mechanism. You’re right. Often, these promises are made, and what we need in place is something that’s going to allow us to intensively follow up, to measure progress, to measure results, and to make sure that things are on track.

And we have done that in a couple of different ways. We have set up a mechanism by which we will review all of these benchmarks to see if the Afghans have met them, but we have also created something special called an incentive fund. And that fund will put a certain amount of donor money into a bucket. And if the Afghans are able to do things, like increase their revenues, then they will get disbursements.

And that really does two things. First of all, if they increase their revenues, it will make them be able to pay for their own government in the future, which is critical, because eventually the donor funds will go away. But it’s also forcing them to fight corruption on their own terms, because one of the biggest places where corruption hits the Afghan government is in customs revenues, for example, that are skimmed at the border.

But because they’re under pressure to increase the amount of those revenues that they collect for the central government, they’re taking more steps to fight corruption themselves, because they see it’s in their own interest. And that’s ultimately the only way you can succeed in fighting corruption, in my experience.

RAY SUAREZ: Alexander Thier from USAID, I want to continue this conversation online, but thanks for joining us on the broadcast.

ALEXANDER THIER: My pleasure. Thank you, Ray.