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Go Fly a Kite

Afghanistan is drowning in aid dollars, but where’s the aid?
Kites2Enlarge
Afghan men and boys battle police for access to kites adorned with slogans promoting peace in September, 2009. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

Oh for the good old days, when “D&G” was the name of a luxury fashion house, instead of a losing battle in assistance to Afghanistan.

In Kabul, “D&G” stands for “Democracy and Governance” – a ballooning portfolio within the U.S. government aid program that in the next three years will consume close to $1.5 billion of taxpayer dollars.

But for what, exactly?

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID): “USAID’s Democracy and Governance projects promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that effectively serve the Afghan people.”

Good luck with that.

Governance has been a sore point in Afghanistan since the beginning of the international engagement in 2001. Now it has become a gaping wound, with everyone from Barack Obama to David Petraeus warning that a failure to improve the Afghan government’s lamentable record could torpedo any possible gains made in the war.

At least the various anti-corruption projects must be doing some good: this year Transparency International has ranked Afghanistan the third most corrupt country in the world. Last year it was in second place, with only Somalia ranking lower on the “clean government” scale. Baby steps.

Now a chunk of USAID’s D&G budget is going to help Kabul’s beleaguered mayor, Mohammad Yunus Nawandesh.

Nawandesh is an energetic and capable soul, who got his engineering degree in Ukraine during the years of the Soviet occupation. Moscow has a great deal to answer for in Afghanistan , but on the tenuous “plus” side, they built roads, hospitals, and factories, and educated a whole generation of professionals in some of the Soviet Union’s best universities.

In Nawandesh’s case, it paid off.

In just under a year in office, the mayor has transformed the face of the capital. He has planted hundreds of thousands of trees, paved most of the major roads, improved lighting on the streets and attempted to deal with the city’s overwhelming waste management problem.

In my own neighborhood I used to see herds of goats snacking on huge piles of garbage as I made my way to work in the mornings. While the streets are far from pristine, the goats are foraging elsewhere these days: orange-vested sanitation workers are out before dawn collecting the trash.

Nawandesh has been adept at getting internationals to fork over funds for some of his pet projects – parks, overpasses, solar-powered street lights.

Lucky for him, since he is trying to run a city of about 5 million people on an annual budget of just $30 million, less than New York City spends on snow removal.

By all accounts, Nawandesh is doing well; but, as he freely admits, he needs more revenue.

No fear, USAID is coming to the rescue.

The U.S. is coughing up $120 million for hizzoner – but the money is not earmarked for roads, garbage, or streetlights. Instead, it will go to ARD -- Associates in Rural Development, a U.S.-based consulting company that will spend three years – and a lot of money – building Nawandesh’s capacity.

According to USAID, the project is designed to: “provide technical and material support to Kabul Municipality … The project aims to enhance the capacities of Kabul Municipality’s administration and management functions… and improve the long-term sustainability and financial viability of Kabul Municipality.”

The mayor graciously, if a bit hesitantly, professes gratitude for the project.
But it seems to me that if he is able to keep Kabul afloat on $30 million a year, he could well be giving capacity-building lessons to some of our own city managers.

By contrast, the justice sector project implemented by DPK Consulting, a division of ARD, is a positive steal at just $33.7 million for two years.

It’s no easy task. The judiciary, after almost ten years and uncounted millions, is still woefully corrupt and inept. DPK is not expected to reform the entire branch of government – just to “increase access to justice, particularly for women, and increase public demand for rule of law.”

Granted, it has not had too many loud successes in its first eleven months: the advance team, lacking office and housing facilities, holed up at the five-star Kabul Serena for several months, amassing a whopping $300,000 hotel bill.

But they did have one major “accomplishment” last September: the great kite-flying event. The idea was simple: write slogans about justice and women’s rights on kites, distribute them to local children, and let the wind blow.

According to the New York Times, many of the kites were stolen by the police who were supposed to be managing the event. The kids who flocked to get their hands on the colorful paper toys were chased off or even beaten by truncheon-wielding security forces.

Still, DPK deemed the event a success, and took the Times to task for shoddy journalism. They even funded a follow-up impact study, although the results have not been made public.

It’s tough to know what to do, though. The money is outstripping the capacity to manage or absorb it.

When I first arrived in Afghanistan, over six years ago, the annual D&G budget was just about $6 million. In 2009 I bumped into a D&G chief from USAID at a party, moaning into his beer.

“I had just $20 million last year. This year it’s $128 million. Same staff. What am I supposed to do?”

Now it’s almost $1.5 billion. And the country’s still a mess.

There is a flood of assistance money in Afghanistan these days. But genuine assistance is a lot harder to spot.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/news/regions/asia-pacific/afghanistan/go-fly-kite