Under pressure: UK aid to Afghanistan

Farmers learn to grow crops profitably to gain sustainable livelihoods from a U.K. Department for International Development-funded agricultural training in Afghanistan. The aid agency's bilateral growth and livelihoods program accounts for approximately 30 percent of the U.K.'s 178 million pound annual aid budget to the country. Photo by: SAC Neil Chapman (RAF) / MOD / CC BY-NC-ND

The best aid programs look to the long-term.

In Afghanistan — which next month will hold elections to choose the first new head of government in over a decade, and where international troops are withdrawing by the end of the year — sustaining the benefits of aid looks challenging in the near future, so never mind beyond that.

That’s something all donors in the fragile country — which in 2011 received 10 billion pounds, over half its GDP, in military and humanitarian aid — are grappling with.

Expectations will be particularly high for the U.K. Department for International Development, given its reputation as being “more thoughtful than many other players,” according to Mark Foster from the U.K.’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact.

Looking ahead: Amber-red

Afghanistan is a major foreign policy priority for the United Kingdom, and pressure to achieve development results will only increase as the military withdrawal sees the British presence in Afghanistan defined by its aid program.

But an ICAI report published on Thursday, questions the effectiveness of that aid — specifically, DfID’s bilateral growth and livelihoods program, which accounts for approximately 30 percent of the U.K.’s 178 million pound annual aid budget in the country.

The research covered five projects, three of them in Helmand province, with a combined budget of just under 100 million pounds, and included interviews with 420 individuals across three provinces. Though they found positive results on livelihoods in the projects surveyed, evaluators were not always convinced that the impact could be sustained in 2014 and beyond, and they questioned how the projects fit into DfID’s overarching strategy.

ICAI suggested the agency review current and future projects to focus more firmly on reducing poverty; directly consult intended beneficiaries of new projects where possible; and improve independent monitoring to better assess impact.

Their overall conclusion: “amber-red,” in the commission’s traffic-light terminology — denoting significant room for improvement. The result may provoke calls to cut assistance, but the chair of the U.K. parliament’s international development committee sounded a note of caution.

“This is precisely not the moment to slash the budget,” said MP Sir Malcolm Bruce, adding that in parts of the country, “it is still possible to operate quite well.”

Urgent action required

Those recommendations come at a time when the U.K. is running out of time to become more effective in its aid to Afghanistan.

By year’s end, "meeting the humanitarian and development needs of the poor is likely to become even more difficult,” said Foster. “It is vital that DfID selects the right mix of projects for this context.”

DfID will “take all ICAI’s recommendations into account” in planning for post-2014, said a spokesman in response, who highlighted however the “incredibly difficult environment” in the country where two Britons were among those recently killed in suicide attacks in the capital.

Development challenges are also immense. Afghanistan ranks 175 of 186 countries in the 2012 United Nations Human Development Index, has one of the world’s youngest populations, and scores dismally in indices on corruption and ease of doing business. The report acknowledges that DfID’s staff members “work hard under demanding conditions,” but questions the impact of their work over the long term.

“Of our focus projects that will continue into 2014, none have made any specific preparations for drawdown, even though it is likely that they would be affected by more instability and greater risk,” ICAI stated in the report.

That is of particular concern since the U.K. — the fourth largest aid donor to the country after the United States, Japan and Germany — has repeatedly underlined its long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s development, including 178 million pounds in ODA until at least 2017.

Mixed results

Some DfID projects scored well for delivery. Implementing partner Halo Trust, responsible for a long-running demining program in Herat province, was praised for “very competent” delivery and “excellent cooperation with local communities,” while a road-building project in Central Helmand also “exceeded its target results” in a difficult environment.

Flaws often arise earlier in the process, however. Several programs did not consult intended beneficiaries in the design phase, which “although difficult in a context like Afghanistan … is not impossible to achieve,” said ICAI. The report also found “incomplete and poorly articulated theories of change.” In other words, there is insufficient evidence to explain why a particular activity should necessarily lead to the desired result.

Meanwhile, the benefits of umbrella programs, which manage several different interventions together to reduce costs and increase flexibility, have also been offset by delays and substantial changes to approaches, activities and budgets — with negative consequences for performance and impact.

In these cases, said Foster, DfID needs to be clearer about what it is setting out to achieve, “rather than shuffling the pack continually, or adding things for the sake of it.”

Realism over goals

There are important lessons to be drawn on monitoring too.

The indicators selected from the outset were found to be unsuitable in four of the five projects — meaning work may be effective, but cannot be definitively measured, nor can it lead to learning for the future.

For example, the Employment and Enterprise Program — DfID’s largest private sector project in the country, with a budget of 36 million pounds over three years — set out to measure its success using GDP growth rate and private investment as a percentage of GDP. But according to ICAI, such indicators are “inappropriate,” both because other factors — such as the changing security context — also play a role, and because the “quality of the reported metrics is very low, variable and opaque.”

So how can DfID improve its monitoring?

1. Prioritize “realism over goals,” said Foster. “There’s a tendency to be slightly ambitious with goals.” His team’s recommendations echo those of the U.K. parliament’s international development committee, which in 2012 warned DfID that its objective — to help build “a viable state” — was unrealistic. Instead, according to Bruce, DfID “should concentrate on where we can be effective.”

2. DfID needs better ways of gathering information: a combination of working to improve local capabilities to monitor, and also deploying opportunities in technology — such as mobile — as a feedback mechanism.

Preparing for change

DfID, which began to work in early 2013 on a new strategy that will run through 2018, is likely to take ICAI’s report seriously.

A number of recommendations from a similar 2012 report, which highlighted problems in DfID’s financial management in Afghanistan, appear to have been taken on board, with the independent body already noting “good progress” a year later. The current report expects action within six months, including formally reviewing current and future projects for a more evidence-based poverty focus, and finalising a plan that places Afghan organizations at the heart of DfID’s future monitoring strategy.

But what will changes within DfID, and in-country, mean for staff?

Foster confirmed that human resources — ensuring there’s a sufficient pool of talent, and that people are in-country for long enough — is a significant concern, although the issue was not dealt with extensively in ICAI’s latest report.

DfID has recognized “that it may get much harder for staff to get beyond the compound and improve their understanding of the operating environment,” and is preparing for the future with training in monitoring, evaluation and methodological design. But, said the report, “high turnover and relative inexperience of staff are ongoing challenges.”

ICAI — which identified staff capability concerns as a “recurring theme” in the programs it assessed in 2012-2013 — is therefore likely to address this issue in more depth in a future report on scaling up spending in fragile states, to be completed by November this year.

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About the author

  • Anna patton profile

    Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.