A critical moment for Afghanistan's 'decade of transformation'

Haoliang Xu, United Nations assistant secretary-general for Asia and the Pacific and director of the U.N. Development Program’s regional bureau. Photo by: Kim Haughton / U.N.

Last week’s London Conference on Afghanistan was the latest in a series of international meetings that tackle the Central Asian country’s many serious development challenges.

The conference took place at a critical time for the fragile new unity government, and less than a month before foreign troops pull out after a 13-year presence, leaving behind a small contingent who will mostly train Afghan security forces.

Devex caught up in London with Haoliang Xu, United Nations assistant secretary-general for Asia and the Pacific and director of the U.N. Development Program’s regional bureau.

Unlike the 2012 Tokyo conference, where donors pledged $16 billion in development aid, Hu said the London conference wasn't aimed at being “a pledging conference.” Instead, its focus was on “reinforcing mutual accountability,” with delegates keen for proof from Ashraf Ghani’s unity government that it will follow through on pledges to strengthen reform and make Afghanistan a more attractive environment for private sector investment.

Here are more insights from our conversation with Xu.

There’s a lot of pressure on the Afghan government to institute reforms and show concrete action. One of these areas is election reform. How quickly will they need to move on this to solidify their mandate?

Again, the government’s paper commits to electoral reform as one of its priorities. But it will take time, effort and resources to get it done properly. If we talk about fundamental reforms, this will start with voter registration systems, biometric systems, and that is what the government has committed to. I’m quite hopeful that once the government is formed, we can talk about the pace of reform. The key issue now is the formation of the government.

How are the UNDP and other donors working with national and local authorities on transitional processes?

Aid and donor agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, U.N. agencies and many other bilateral agencies, have worked with the Afghan government — centrally and at the local level — for many years ... The government is of the strong view that we need to review this relationship. They feel that there is too much of "doing things" rather than building capacity, and they would like the donor side to help them build the [necessary] systems so they can do things themselves.

Are there priority areas for capacity building that might emerge from this conference?

The central focus of recent weeks ... is the desire of the government to have more external assistance to go through its budget; the on-budget, off-budget discussion. One view that has been advocated — which I think is very reasonable — is that irrespective of whether externally supported projects are carried out on budget, or off the budget, they should be recorded through the national budgetary system. In this way the Afghan government will have an overview of all resources being directed towards Afghanistan’s development.

While it is not realistic to expect that all external funding will go through the government, or expect that the government will have the capacity to implement this process fully, it is important that donors support the desire of the government to have all efforts recorded in the national system, as this will support the government’s effort to properly design development and a system of budgeting and implementation with accountability and transparency.

Do you see new opportunities for international nongovernmental organizations and private sector development implementers through calls for tender or proposals?

One of the governance reforms that the government has pledged is to reform its procurement system, to make sure that it is transparent and accountable. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there may be more opportunities for international NGOs or even local NGOs necessarily, or new business opportunities, but at least I think what will happen — hopefully — is a more transparent system.

There has been some tension between the government and the NGO community because the government feels that NGOs are competitors for service delivery; they feel it should be their job to deliver services. But from the other side there’s the question whether the government has the capacity to deliver services quickly and accountably. So there’s a chicken and egg situation. Hopefully I think what will happen is more dialogue on what is needed and what is available, and who can do what best.

One of the major focuses of this conference is to attract private investment — both domestic and international — to stimulate growth and create jobs. In that regard, one of the things that has been discussed is to improve the environment for doing business. The government has pledged to work on this. They want to reduce red tape, to create an environment that is attractive for investment.

Security has been a big turn-off for private sector investment. Is there way to meaningfully address this?

Security will not be a major focus of this conference. The government’s conference paper does of course mention it as an important factor for development. But I think it is really very much Afghanistan’s affair. Afghanistan is a sovereign country. It is in a fragile situation, but with the unity government formation, I hope there will also be a political process that will allow for a peace process that will bring all actors together to reach consensus on the country’s future.

Looking at the funding that is available, and the commitments the government has made, what sorts of policy areas will be targets for donor investment?

A lot of focus is on investing to stimulate economic growth and create jobs, and also to manage rural-urban migration. The economic sectors that have received a lot of attention, and which are critically important, are the agriculture and mining sectors, extractive industries. The government has also made transportation a priority sector for development. So you could say, very broadly, that the service sector, agriculture and extractive industries are the three biggest economic sectors where people think there is potential and are in need of quick support.

What do you think is the single most important action point in the minds of decision-makers here?

People are asking what’s different this time [compared to the Tokyo conference in 2012], and the government paper is very bold in asking the same question — why should the international community trust that this government will be different? For their part, they have said to look at the actions they are taking. The government has demonstrated its commitment by, for example, addressing the corruption issue, with the opening of the Kabul Bank case, which is now going through the legal procedure, and [they point to] other steps to tighten financial discipline, and their commitment to electoral reform, and also to local governance reform by pledging that a larger amount of development resources will be spent at the local level. So they say we are different, and we will carry through this commitment but we need your support. And this is what people are looking for. They are looking for a level of comfort that it’s worthwhile to continue to invest in supporting in Afghan reconstruction.

Are there lessons learned from Afghanistan that could improve how international development actors approach their work elsewhere?

There have been a lot of successes in Afghanistan, I would say; you were asking about elections, and election reforms so far in my view have been a quite big success, although of course the last stages of the last election were not particularly smooth. But the fact that a large proportion of the Afghan population came out to vote despite security concerns shows the [success of] awareness-building in election education, and of efforts to train Afghan nationals to conduct elections, to support the Election Commission and Independent Electoral Complaints Commission, and so forth. This kind of experience is valuable for other countries that are in conflict or post conflict situations. This can be done at a larger scale, and UNDP has been involved with security sector reforms including the payment of police salaries and so forth; again, there are lessons learned here on how you support security sector reform in other conflict or post-conflict situations.

Another area is local, or subnational level, governance programs, area-based development programs, which have provided lessons on how to support development at the local level. It is clear that you need to support local capacity, not only through government institutions, but also to build the capacity of elected representatives and work with central government [departments] that are working on local development issues. This experience — of working at all levels, because you cannot support local development by supporting one actor — this offers lessons that can be applied elsewhere.

I think the challenge for donors — and for the government — is that there are many successes where donors have supported a particular project, but the difficulty is in scaling up those that are successful. Many of our Afghan partners are saying that the international partners are supporting a lot of pilots. Some of them are successful. The challenge is to work together to bring successful pilots to scale, so that they have an impact.

Ashraf Ghani recently approached China to take a mediating role with the Taliban. This would be quite a new direction for China — could it offer new avenues for dialogue?

One thing I can say is that there is a lot of interest in regional cooperation, and we have different international processes, one of which is the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, which is led by Afghanistan with the support of regional countries, and the last ministerial meeting was held in China. So China has become more visible recently in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. But from the U.N.’s point of view, we support all efforts that are led by Afghanistan and supported by Afghanistan’s partners to find a political solution to achieve national consensus. Whatever we can do to facilitate that, the United Nations is committed to doing. We have a new U.N. secretary-general special representative for Afghanistan, so the U.N. is very much committed to supporting Afghanistan to achieve political consensus.

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    Corinne Podger

    Corinne Podger is a media development practitioner with more than 20 years' experience reporting for high-profile news outlets including the BBC World Service, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Economist. She works part time for BBC Media Action, the international charity of the BBC. Separately, as an independent consultant, she runs media skills training for a range of clients in her areas of expertise — social and multimedia, international news, science, health, climate change and religion.