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World Bank Chief Says Afghanistan 'Has To Stand On Its Own Two Feet'

Robert Zoellick in June 2008

Robert Zoellick in June 2008

World Bank President Robert Zoellick has concluded a three-day visit to Afghanistan in which he challenged officials to "help create a better sense of meeting [Afghan people's] needs." The World Bank has committed nearly $2 billion to rebuilding Afghanistan since a UN-backed government was installed in 2002, but endemic corruption and other inefficiencies continue to plague the process. Zoellick talked to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan before wrapping up his visit, saying greater confidence is needed to deliver aid resources for the "tremendous, tremendous work" that lies ahead.

First, I'd like to know the reason for your visit to Afghanistan and the agenda of your visit.

Robert Zoellick: Well, my prime purpose, given the importance of Afghanistan, was to try to listen and to learn about ways that the World Bank can be supportive over the long term. So, this meant I wanted to meet senior government officials, but also get out of Kabul and see some of the programs, particularly the National Solidarity Programs, see how they are working in the field, talk to some of the foreign supporters in aid and the various ambassadors, talk to the business community, try to get a sense of ways we could be more supportive.

If there is one area [where] I believed we could give a positive push, I think it was the solidarity program because, from what I've seen, it has been an excellent device to empower local Afghans, but also help improve their lives by allowing them to pick local projects, whether it was the mini-hydroelectric project I saw yesterday or schools or roads or irrigation projects, and in doing so, show a large number of the Afghan people that they can have a say in the future of their country.

There are some 20,000 of these community development committees that are elected locally. I think they are in all 34 provinces. So, that is something that I think could use a boost.

RFE/RL: Would you mind giving us a briefing on whether the government of Afghanistan has achieved progress since 2001?

Zoellick: Well, given the terrible situation, I think there has been enormous progress. There are now 6 million children in schools that were basically shut down and some 35 to 40 percent of those are young girls, and I think there was, at best, about 5 percent of young girls in schools [before 2001]. The infant and child mortality rate has gone down, I think, about 26 percent. There has been a great expansion of health care, basic preventive health-care services, covering some 80 percent of the public.

Having said that, there is still tremendous, tremendous work ahead, and I think, you know, it's important for people to recognize that Afghanistan outside of Kabul was a poor country in 1978, and then it endured over two decades of war and conflict and tremendous destruction. So, I think, on the one hand, people need a strategic patience because it's going to take time, but I understand why Afghans are impatient. And so, part of what we need to try to do is to work with the government to help create a better sense of meeting their needs.

RFE/RL: And what do you think about the Afghanistan National Development Strategy for the next five years? I want to refine my question. On the one hand, we have billions of dollars in aid money donated by the international community. But, on the other hand, we have security problems and corruption. How can this money be used in the right way?

Zoellick: Well, I think the structure of the strategy is a good one, and it gives an encompassing sense and it is trying to focus building on past progress through areas such as agriculture and energy. But, I think there is so much in the strategy, it is important to set priorities so that one doesn't get lost trying to do everything, but instead try to build on that success.

I discussed with the president and his ministers the agricultural field, in particular. With the rising food prices globally, this is a challenging period for many Afghans who face higher prices and who have little margin and cushion because food is such a large component of their budget.

But, at the same time, we can turn this into an opportunity. Afghanistan is rich in water. If we can build better irrigation systems, some of them being small-scale, one can increase the production and the productivity with some agriculture extension services. One could get better seed varieties, make sure you get fertilizers, support for different yields for seeds. So, I think there is an opportunity here, but it will require the right leadership and a big push.

RFE/RL: The government of Afghanistan insists that all the aid money should be channeled to the Afghan government. Do you think the government of Afghanistan has the capacity to spend the more than $20 billion arranged at the Paris conference?

Zoellick: Well, the 20 billion is over a longer time period, and I think people can, at least, use that sum of money over a longer time period. We, at the World Bank, believe that it is very important to build national ownership and national capacity, so we channel our resources, which are on the order of $250 million a year, through the government, and we encourage other aid providers to do so, as well.

But there is a problem, in that for some of these governments, they are concerned about corruption, they are concerned about capacity, and so the Afghan government, and this is partly our partnership with them, needs to continue to develop the capacity and demonstrate the leadership so as to build the confidence to get those aid resources.

My message to people abroad is [that] we have to move in that direction because, ultimately, Afghanistan has to be able to stand on its own two feet, and that depends on Afghanistan building the state, building the institutions, not only in Kabul, but also at the provincial level and the local level, to be able to meet the needs of its citizens, whether they be security or health or education or economic.

RFE/RL: They say that before giving billions of dollars in aid, international institutions such as the World Bank should help Afghanistan in capacity building. What do you think or what is your priority, more aid or capacity?

Zoellick: I don't think it is an "either/or" [situation]. I think it has to be both. It is the case in Afghanistan, as in other postconflict countries, that you often need early investments in financial management systems, procurement systems, to make sure the money isn't stolen or wasted. And, in the case of Afghanistan, suffering through decades of conflict, it is not surprising that a lot of the ministries needed to be rebuilt.

And so, what we have found is that the best combination is to have a direction and projects, for example, a health-care program or education program, and then, in the process of developing those, to help build capacity in the ministry to be able to deliver them. So, I think the two have to come together.