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Afghanistan: Aid-cuts stare at poverty-alleviation

NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The 2020 Afghanistan Conference, a ministerial-level pledging event, took place in Geneva on 23-24 November, with the participation of 66 countries and 32 international organisations. The conference was co-hosted by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Government of Finland and the United Nations. The Afghan delegation was headed by Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar.

Besides the global pandemic, the conference took place in the backdrop of the lingering uncertainty from the intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban in Doha. The virtual nature of the conference along with the global economic crunch ended up affecting the aid-quantum from donor- countries by a significant margin. The format also reduced personal contact, and the advocacy opportunities for civil society organisations in the country.

Major takeaways

The outcome of the conference included pledges of financial support and the new aid architecture. The new aid architecture consists of two documents, namely, the Afghanistan Partnership Framework and the National Peace and Development Framework (which provides a wider perspective of development goals to be achieved).

The Afghanistan Partnership Framework is an agreement that outlines the conditions for providing the aid by keeping in consideration various guiding principles agreed upon in the conference. The principles are divided into three parts: peace-building, which talks about the political, social, and economic inclusion and the safety of women, youth and minorities.

The Communiqué also mentioned advocacy on human rights and migration issues. Besides, it pointed out how the international community, working with the Afghan government, needs to ‘stem irregular migration’ and help in ‘reintegration of returnees’. The document, however, fails to acknowledge the mistreatment of refugees, who are fleeing the war, in other countries. The Afghanistan government missed an opportunity to call for a more humane approach while dealing with the migration crisis in the conference.

The second principle mentioned state-building, which includes building effective, accountable and self-reliant institutions. The targets for 2021 as mentioned in the document include a ‘functioning anti-corruption commission with sufficient resources’ and ‘verifiable data on the number of corruption cases vs investigated cases. The delegation of the civil society also mentioned their concern that ‘the executive should respect the accountability and roles and responsibilities of the institutions enshrined in the Constitution’.

The third and final principle talkd about market-building, which aims at ‘reducing poverty through a vibrant private sector’. The general target is the reduction of the number of people below the poverty level and increasing the GDP per employed person.

Corruption, poverty and violence

Poverty remains one of the most difficult challenges for the Afghan government. Even before the pandemic, the poverty-level had increased from 34 percent in 2007 to 54.4 percent in 2017. The World Bank estimates that it may reach 72 percent, owing to the pandemic. The number of people who will need humanitarian aid during this time has also increased significantly.

Amidst the growing poverty level in the country, rampant corruption acted as a deterrent to foreign aid, which fell by a huge margin at this conference. The government had only met 27 out of the 63 deliverables and the sub-deliverables agreed upon in Brussels in 2017.

To fight graft, the Afghanistan government established an independent Anti-Corruption Commission in November, just before the conference, though it was long due. The commission members were sworn in just the day before the conference-opening. This move was met with a lot of criticism as most the participants believed that it was done in haste to please the donors.

In this context, a request for joint review was agreed upon. There will be two reviews. The first will be a senior official meeting in 2021 and the second will be a biennial ministerial meeting in 2022 to check the progress as Afghanistan nears the end of the transformational decade.

President Ashraf Ghani, while addressing the opening ceremony of the conference, spoke about the country’s fight against corruption and terrorism. He called for an immediate ceasefire and mentioned that their negations with the Taliban will remain firm.

The statement comes at a time when the civilian casualties have increased and violence has continued despite the peace talks. The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance increased from 9.4 million in 2019 to 14 million in 2020. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, also called for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire as the Afghan people have had it for too long and the Afghan women paid a huge price in the conflict. Almost 40% of the civilian casualties comprise women and children.

The Taliban was not invited to the conference as the peace talks didn’t yield results on the ground. According to Andreas von Brandt, the Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union, the Taliban lost out on a huge opportunity to present themselves to the world.

Imposed conditionality

The coronavirus pandemic had not only affected the Afghan economy but the economy of the donor-countries as well. The World Bank estimated that the Afghan economy will contract by fiver percent and it will take years for it to recover. Currently, Afghanistan’s annual public expenditure accounts to $  11 billion, of which only $ 2.5 billion is sourced from domestic revenues such as passport fees, road tolls, mobile charges and mining revenues. Despite the increase in domestic revenue over the years, the nation still heavily depends on international aid.

The international community has funnelled $ 72 billion between 2002 and 2018, making Afghanistan the leading receiver of foreign aid compared to many other developing countries. The international aid however had decreased over the years and in the Geneva conference, it was 20 percent less than the UNDP projection of the country’s need. The total foreign aid received in Geneva is $ 12-13 billion, which is  $ 2-3 billion less compared to the Brussels conference in 2016.

The US representative, David Hale, mentioned that Washington has assigned $ 600 million for civilian assistance in 2021. Out of that amount, only $ 300 million has been pledged while the remaining fund will be granted after carefully reviewing the progress in peace talks. There have been reports of fund-cuts even before the conference.

The US has taken a departure from the initial practice by not pledging the entire sum for four years. While the US is trying to follow an ‘out of Afghanistan’ policy with the fund-cuts and by removing troops from the ground, other countries participating in the conference also surprisingly moved away from a longer-term development pledge.

The UK, like the US, has decided to impose conditional funding and pledged $ 207 million, which is 8.3 percent less compared to the fund allocation in Brussels. The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, in a statement, mentioned that funding beyond the period of 2021 will depend on the situation of the peace process, poverty reduction, rule of law, protecting the rights of women and minorities and democratic governance. Canada, which in 2016 pledged $ 116 million per year till 2021, reduced its funding to $ 202.5 million for the next three years.

Germany, Japan and the European Union, unlike the rest, have decided to continue with their earlier funding levels. The European Union pledged a total of $ 1.43 billion over the next four years with the strict condition of ‘Key elements for sustained international support to Peace and Development in Afghanistan’. Germany, with circumstantial conditions, and Japan pledged a sum of $ 520 million and $ 720, respectively. Northern European countries like Norway pledged a sum of $ 68.2 million for 2021.

Indian contribution

India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar announced  at the conference the Phase-IV of the High Impact Community Development in Afghanistan, which aims at more than 100 projects worth $ 80 million. India also agreed to construct the Shahtoot dam that will provide water to two million residents in Kabul.

The main reasons for the fund-cuts are the repeated violence on the ground, the increase in corruption and the development agendas not being met properly. The donor-countries as well failed to bring policies that will effectively administer the funds allocated and keep the corruption in check.

There need to be stricter sanctions imposed if the development agendas aren’t fulfilled. The attacks on civilians continued despite the Taliban being offered a seat at the negotiating table. There are very few provinces in Afghanistan where the civilians are safe. The Bamiyan province which is a famous tourist spot reported the first blast in 19 years.

The international community is tired of the bloodshed and there’s little progress made in Afghanistan over the last few decades. Development and peace can only prevail when there is a ceasefire on ground. and countries will only invest when they see an opportunity for growth.

Ratnadeep Chakraborty  (ORF-South Asia Weekly)
15 December 2020

This essay originally appeared in South Asia Weekly

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