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Monday, July 23, 2012

EDITORIAL

Aid with strings for Afghanistan

The international community has agreed to continue its support for Afghanistan, committing at a conference on July 8 in Tokyo to provide $16 billion in aid to the embattled government. But donors have adopted a new mindset, demanding that the money be well spent and promising the government in Kabul — and taxpayers back home — that they will keep a close eye on the results.

Given the scale of corruption in Afghanistan, that will be a challenge, but donors must remember that the realization of their grand ambitions — the creation of a stable and effective Afghan state without the permanent presence of foreign troops — demands real progress.

Afghanistan is a ward of the international community. Not only are more than 100,000 troops from North Atlantic Treaty Organization member countries currently stationed in the country, but financial solvency is dependent on foreign assistance.

The World Bank estimates that foreign aid could exceed 95 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product; some experts put the figure at 100 percent. It is not clear what the world gets for that amount. One study reckons that no more than 10 to 25 percent of the $55 billion donated to Afghanistan since 2002 has actually been spent on the ground in the country.

Much of this amount goes to pay contractors and foreign staff, meaning that apart from inflating the prices of real local estate as rents skyrocket, underwriting security services and luxury car imports, little actually benefits ordinary Afghans.

Worse than the indirect effects of that flood of funds is the corruption it has perpetuated. It is virtually impossible to do business in Afghanistan without making payoffs.

Worse still is the outright theft of aid. Some of the country's highest-ranking officials have been accused of corruption. President Hamid Karzai's brother is regularly listed among the most egregious offenders. Arrests are rare, prosecutions even rarer. That must stop.

While aid has not been effective as it could or should be, it has had a powerful impact. At the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, less than 1 million children attended school in Afghanistan; the Taliban government even banned girls from going to school. Today, nearly 8 million children, 3 million of them girls, are enrolled in schools.

A decade ago, less that 10 percent of Afghans had access to basic health services; nearly 60 percent can make that claim today. As a result, child mortality has been cut in half, and life expectancy has leaped from 44 years in 2006 to over 60.

Just 6 percent of Afghans had electricity in 2002; that figure has tripled, but indeed it is the promise of what could be delivered that compounds the pain.

The international community has not given up on Afghanistan. Last May, governments pledged $4 billion a year in aid to support the police and local military forces that will create law and order and allow a functioning state and society to emerge. But that is not enough. On July 8, those same governments agreed to provide another $16 billion in aid over four years to support reconstruction of the war-torn country.

Mr. Karzai warned attendees that Afghanistan would be "vulnerable" and the Taliban could return to power if aid was not procured. That would be dangerous for the entire world: "The region as a whole, and the world beyond, will not be secure for as long as the menaces of terrorism and extremism persist, enjoying sanctuaries and support in some corners of the region beyond Afghanistan's borders." That has been the president's refrain, and he is likely to be right.

Of course, if he was more committed to eliminating corruption, the Taliban would find it harder to retake power; corruption erodes the legitimacy of the state and has pushed some Afghans to back the Taliban because of a sense that they do not steal.

Mr. Karzai is also correct to note that corruption and waste reflects the actions — or inactions — of both sides, the donors and the recipients.

To plug the drain, the Tokyo conference yielded a pledge from donors as well as the Kabul government to monitor the funds.

The Tokyo Framework for Mutual Accountability highlighted that the support depends on the Afghanistan government's meeting commitments of its own. These include the holding of free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2015, respectively, improving controls on financial markets, and tackling rampant corruption.

At least once a year, senior representatives from donor nations and Kabul will meet to assess progress. Some commitments, such as fixing a time frame for elections, are given specific deadlines.

Mr. Karzai no doubt feels that he holds the stronger hand. The world has bet heavily on his government and his stewardship of Afghanistan, and he knows that those NATO governments want their troops out of Afghanistan by 2014; those same governments are not going to pull the plug if it risks that deadline.

Just as important, donors know that cutting funds would most hurt the millions of people whose lives are only beginning to improve.

Japan has pledged $3 billion in aid for Afghanistan through 2016, $2.2 billion of which is for grants for development projects such as roads and infrastructure. As Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba explained, "With this agreement, it's finally possible to follow up on the use of funds for development and ensure Afghanistan's independence."

Indeed, by hosting the aid conference, as it has in the past, Japan has demonstrated that it is committed to building that future. But Tokyo, along with Kabul and other donor nations, must now work harder to guarantee those monies go to their designated purposes, rather than bank accounts and villas in the Persian Gulf.



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