The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Time to get it right: Humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan

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A young Afghan girl runs through ruined buildings. Photo: Travis Beard / Argus

Counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and development objectives converge in contested spaces, greatly complicating aid programs.

Erin Blankenship is a conflict, security and development specialist who has spent almost four years living and working in Afghanistan for a number of local and international aid and research organizations. She is the author of Oxfam’s new briefing paper, “Afghanistan: Contested Spaces.”

Modern armed conflict rarely conforms to traditional aid models. In a typical post-conflict environment, there is a clear end to hostilities and a political atmosphere comparatively disposed to negotiations and reconstruction. Contexts like that mean aid strategies are easier to determine.

Increasingly, however, interventions for development and stability are likely to occur in a “contested space,” an area of persistent low-intensity conflict and political violence, as in many areas of Afghanistan. Experience consistently shows that these environments are more sensitive to competing interests, with tragic human costs. Besides the access limitations (both to beneficiaries and to information), we see fluctuating levels of violence and dynamically shifting actors that render entire aid strategies more vulnerable to short-term changes of context.

Humanitarian and development programs must be able to respond accordingly in order to be effective. Yet coordination is strained and cohesive strategies are hard to come by. Ultimately aid actors leave large gaps in delivery due to their different mandates, agendas, capacities, and “red lines.” These challenges are multiplied by the increasing levels of aid politicization and militarization, particularly the distinct emphasis shift to security and counterterrorism influencing donor policies in since 2003.

Afghanistan demonstrates too well the challenges to aid delivery in contested spaces and of the consequences of not making the necessary adjustments. Thirty years of protracted crisis have had a devastating impact on human lives, as well as social, economic, and physical infrastructure. Meanwhile Afghanistan suffers a uniquely extreme competition between counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and development objectives, whose conflicting aims and tactics have severely undermined aid goals and effectiveness.

Oxfam research on humanitarian and development aid in the provinces of Kunduz, Nangarhar, and Kabul has shown an ever-increasing divergence between the types of aid provided and what communities actually need, a trend exacerbated by the competing objectives. This distinct gap between policy and reality means aid actors frequently fail to reflect or sync with the local context, from initial program design to making necessary adjustments in light of accurate impact assessments.

My paper suggests the gap between the policies of aid donors and implementers and the reality on the ground is driven by a few key factors:

  • Remote management, or more specifically the physical and theoretical distance and lack of direct communication between many aid actors and the communities they are trying to serve. This undermines: 1) the capacity to decide on appropriate projects, 2) sequencing of their delivery, 3) monitoring and evaluation of on-going programs, or 4) the ability to adapt to a changing local context.
  • Emphasis on outputs instead of outcomes has weakened potential positive long-term impact; generated negative community perceptions; undermined impartiality, capacity building, and local ownership; and led to conflict.
  • The lack of coordination and cohesion, both internally within organizations and externally between different actors, is as strategic as it is operational. This has intensified a disconnect between humanitarian relief and development and, in turn, debilitated aid effectiveness. I have seen no real consensus in Afghanistan on who gets to assess and prioritize objectives and decide aid strategy.

“Stabilization” has been the overriding principle guiding aid in Afghanistan, largely to facilitate political and military ends rather than what civil society calls “pure” humanitarian and development objectives. The issue is not whether stability is a worthy result, but rather what it actually looks like and the policies used to get there. Selection of target beneficiaries, types of projects, means to achieve them, and measures of effectiveness and success are all different—if not contradictory—between the various stakeholders.

Assistance programs in contested spaces run a great risk of contributing to the conflict, insecurity, and even popular resentment aimed at some or all of the international community. When aid actors fail to carry out sound development practice—creating linkages among programs and actors, planning programs with a detailed, comprehensive understanding of the conflict context, and prioritizing work based on beneficiaries’ identified needs—they can actually generate conflict. This means:

  • creating physical risk for beneficiaries and project implementers;
  • alienating the government and a range of other stakeholders;
  • damaging high-priority humanitarian and development objectives; and
  • undermining actors’ own security and stabilization aims.

My research in Kunduz and Nangarhar confirmed these trends, and that the overall consequences of this policy-reality gap have been weakened humanitarian assistance, development, and peacebuilding objectives; i.e. several programs that would never withstand the scrutiny of non-politicized assessments.

Many of the challenges and proposed solutions raised are familiar, from Afghanistan and elsewhere, and herein lay the problem. The international aid community has long recognized many of these issues but has been unable or unwilling to address them or force their acknowledgement at levels high enough to make changes sufficient to resolve the key problems.

The plans for sharp reductions in international troops and assistance to Afghanistan in 2014 means aid’s role will be limited in the coming years, adding pressure to “get it right” with what time is left.

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