In Afghanistan, no easy path to development

Road construction in Afghanistan. The objective of the Strategic Provincial Roads program was to increase stability and build local capacity by improving roads throughout the volatile eastern and southern regions of Afghanistan. Photo by: International Relief and Development

This is one of two articles sponsored by International Relief and Development. Content was approved by IRD prior to publication. Find out more about IRD.

This month, more than 7 million Afghans turned out to vote in presidential elections. Despite threats of violence from Taliban insurgents, voters stood in long lines, many of them in the rain, to make their voices heard.

The turnout, more than twice the turnout of the 2009 presidential elections, is one of many tentative signs of hope for the beleaguered country. Despite decades of war and instability, health and social indicators have improved dramatically in recent years. Over the past decade, rates of maternal and child mortality in the country have plummeted. There are more than 7 million more children enrolled in school than there were in 2002, a third of them girls. And per capita gross domestic product increased fivefold between 2002 and 2010.

Across the country, Afghans are taking the lead not just by improving security but also by improving the delivery of education, health care and other public services. And communities that were torn apart by war have been able to repair some of the delicate fabric of stability.

While the complexity and fragility of the situation in Afghanistan make success difficult to judge, observers agree that the country is making strides toward more broad-based stability and development.

Throughout the past decade, the Afghan government and its international partners have relied on countless institutions to implement some of the most challenging pieces of reform. As one of the leading implementers of U.S. foreign assistance to Afghanistan, International Relief and Development, a U.S.-based NGO, focuses its work on stabilizing communities and building the capacity of government institutions to engage those communities and deliver services has been critical to sustain and expand gains that have been made so far.

“Ongoing conflict in fragile states like Afghanistan creates challenging work environments,” said IRD President and CEO Dr. Arthur B. Keys. “IRD’s approach is to provide development assistance wherever it’s needed. In our Afghan programs we bring both a political as well as a needs-based analysis to the development problems.”

As the second largest civil reconstruction partner with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, IRD has implemented more than $1 billion in USAID-funded projects over the past eight years. Among the largest was Strategic Provincial Roads, an ambitious project to promote stability and increase local capacity by improving roads in the volatile southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan.

The project resulted in a number of successes, including the construction or improvement of more than 650 kilometers of roads in some of the most dangerous and difficult terrain in the country, some of it near the border with Pakistan. The project also oversaw the construction of two crucial bridges in the eastern part of the country. Less recognized were the gains that were made by IRD on building the capacity of local construction companies and the project’s engagement in local communities to help resolve disputes and enable sustainable economic and social benefits from the road construction.

In addition to improving critical infrastructure, the project took an approach that made community engagement and capacity building central pillars of the construction efforts.

“That approach, engaging with the community in trying to implement donor-funded infrastructure, is key, but surprisingly, a lot of programs hadn’t done that in the past,” said Gretchen Soulé, a senior program officer with IRD who worked on the SPR project in Afghanistan. “They would think if we’re going to go build something, we should just do it and the communities will be happy. But the engagement is the most important part.”

By establishing a bottom-up approach to mobilizing communities along the construction route, Soulé said, IRD was able to help residents resolve potential conflict, identify community needs and encourage them to take leadership roles. The project formed 298 local community-based organizations to help resolve disputes and identify community needs. And more than $7 million in grants were distributed for community-based activities aimed at addressing needs in areas like health, gender, economic growth and employment.

In addition, as an “Afghan first” project, construction of the roads was led by local Afghan contractors. IRD provided formal construction management training to 22 construction companies in a six-week course and all 32 subcontractor road teams with training and mentoring in engineering design, scheduling and financial management.

“The overall capacity building that took place on the SPR project generated things that we won't be able to measure but will have a long-term impact,” Soulé said.

Tony Haslam, who was chief of party on the SPR project as it wound down, sees the same type of local capacity building driving the success of IRD’s work supporting citizens, communities and businesses that have been affected by violence. Through a program implemented by IRD known as the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program or ACAP II, the U.S. government provides medical care, vocational training and in-kind contributions of household goods and agricultural equipment to victims of insurgent attacks and coalition operations. The support is meant to boost the resilience of Afghan communities against crisis and unrest.

“This whole program is a local, national program,” Haslam said, citing 240 Afghan staff, 50 of them women, who are helping to implement ACAP II in villages across the country. “And I think that’s the reason we are so successful, because we have that senior Afghan leadership.”

Afghans employed through the project go into remote villages across the country to engage impacted communities, sit with elders and negotiate sensitive situations. Working with locals is crucial, Haslam said.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re foreigners or from Kabul: If they’re strangers, it’s going to be a problem,” he added.

Another critical aspect of the program has been to create a sense that government is on the side of the people.

“We work hand in hand with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and have the government take the lead,” said Haslam. “We do the procurement but when it comes to distributing benefits, the government is out there doing it.”

Of course, a reliance on Afghan institutions and local partners comes with its own set of challenges, and concerns regarding fraud and corruption have been constant.

IRD has established what Jean Hacken, the group’s chief compliance officer, calls a “cultural approach” to bridging the ethics divide, starting with broad conversations about differing cultural attitudes and moving on to in-depth quarterly training establishing the organization’s code of conduct and adherence to U.S. government requirements.

“It’s not us versus them,” she said.

But with its zero-tolerance policy for fraud, IRD monitored program implementation closely and changed course when needed to mitigate risk. Early in the SPR project, for example, IRD learned that the local community grants program was vulnerable to fraud. IRD temporarily halted the grants program to review and strengthen the process. Before resuming operations, IRD introduced changes that increased community oversight of the programs and reduced the risk of corruption.

Despite the challenges, the work of IRD and other institutions working in Afghanistan suggest that community resilience and governmental capacity can be improved even in the midst of unrest. The fate of fragile states remains critically important to global security, so the need for sustainable development cooperation is likely to continue.

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