Afghanistan still needs our help

International donors are meeting this month to disucss development funding for Afghanistan. Canada should step up.

By: /
November 18, 2020
AFGHANISTAN-WATER-SOCIETY-ENVIRONMENT
Afghan children fill water from a pump outside Jalalabad. Most Afghans still lack access to clean drinking water. Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images

Afghanistan in 2020 is buffeted by violence and misery. In recent weeks alone, dozens of civilians have died in terrorist attacks on a university, an education centre and a hospital. Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents are fragile. Much of the population lives in poverty. The government struggles to collect tax revenue. It will face additional security-related challenges because of America’s pledge to withdraw all its troops by Christmas. Ordinary Afghans’ hopes for an easing of their plight are slight.

Looming on the horizon is a November 23-24 conference in Geneva that may result in steps towards confronting some of the problems that plague Afghanistan. Canada and other donors will discuss with Afghanistan its 2021-2025 development plan and pledge financial support for the Afghan government’s budget. The voice of development has mostly been missing from the Afghan peace talks, but the conference and the joint declaration emerging out of it are expected to bring Afghanistan’s development agenda to the forefront.

In Geneva, the Afghan government will present its “National Peace and Development Framework,” which will focus on inclusive growth and poverty reduction built around agriculture, trade, the promotion of security and peace, women’s empowerment, health, basic education and good governance.

The government will also commit to finding political solutions to the ongoing conflict in order to realize these development goals. The framework highlights the mutually reinforcing nature of development and peace. While peace generates conditions conducive to development, development nurtures peace.

Canada is among 70 nations and organizations participating in the conference. It pledged $465 million in security and development support in 2016 but has not yet announced whether it will provide new funding at the Geneva conference and for how many years. Money from Canada and other donors will be critical to sustaining the progress — limited though it is — that has been made in the country over the last 20 years.

Canada has had a substantial development presence in Afghanistan since 2002, albeit with a checkered history of results. Its current development assistance is aimed at promoting access to economic opportunities, basic education, health and human rights — with a focus on women. These goals match Afghanistan’s development priorities.

A large bulk of Canadian aid flows through multilateral delivery channels, with the World Bank managing the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund and the UN development program administering the Law and Order Trust Fund. Direct funding is provided to Canadian and international non-governmental organizations for project implementation. Canada also supports NATO’s Afghanistan National Army Trust Fund to help financially sustain Afghanistan’s security apparatus.  

Clear analytic reports on outcomes in areas of Canadian support are not readily available. But the alignment between Afghanistan’s national plan and Canada’s assistance priorities suggests potential for fruitful cooperation and should be pursued.

However, it would be realistic to forecast less aid from donors this year, with stricter conditions and shorter time commitments. Uncertainties surrounding the peace talks are likely to sap donors’ confidence in Afghanistan’s future. Besides, the economies of donor countries hit hard by COVID-19 are sure to take a toll on donor commitments.

These factors might also drive the donors, including Canada, away from Afghanistan’s four-year funding proposal. Donors are likely to turn to an annual funding practice, which in the past has proven to be unsuitable for planning and implementing long-term national strategic development plans. Maintaining four-year planning and pledge horizons are preferable. 

“While Afghans’ reluctance to invite the Taliban is understandable, the insurgent group should be included.”

Predictability in aid allocation and disbursement based on agreed-upon conditions of effective use of funds, anti-corruption reforms and increased revenue collection to promote self-reliance is equally critical. Any cuts in foreign assistance flowing through the Afghan government’s budget should be avoided to promote fiscal stability. 

Continuous monitoring and evaluation of Canadian investment in Afghanistan will help Ottawa learn from successes and failures. Canada should consider the deployment of an independent monitoring mechanism for Afghanistan.  

A significant dilemma faced by conference organizers is the inclusion or exclusion of the Taliban from the table. While Afghans’ reluctance to invite the Taliban is understandable, the insurgent group should be included. They weren’t invited to the first post-9/11 international conference on Afghanistan, in Bonn, Germany, 18 years ago, following the Taliban’s overthrow, and the Afghan people have been paying the price ever since. It is difficult to imagine a future for Afghanistan in which the Taliban will not play a role. Inviting them would be an opportunity to discuss the peace process and to demonstrate donors’ support for it.