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Frank Talk On NATO's Aid Delivery Role In Afghanistan

  • Ron Synovitz

Italian ISAF soldiers stand guard during the launch ceremony of a girls high school, funded by the Italian PRT, in Herat in September 2009.

Italian ISAF soldiers stand guard during the launch ceremony of a girls high school, funded by the Italian PRT, in Herat in September 2009.

PRAGUE -- A top UN official in Afghanistan says NATO Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are sometimes doing harm while trying to do good.

Mark Ward, the United Nations special adviser on development in Afghanistan, says PRTs must let Afghans manage more reconstruction projects and funds on their own in order to achieve their goal -- to build the capacity of the Afghan government to deliver basic services to the Afghan people.

Ward made the remarks during a two-day conference in Prague this week that focused on PRTs, NATO-run bases in each province of Afghanistan that are made up of a mix of civilian reconstruction experts and soldiers. The PRTs fund and carry out projects like building schools, health clinics, and roads -- or training medical staff, teachers, and local administrators.

Ward explained that when the PRTs were established across Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005, there was no Afghan government in many provinces and local districts. That meant no real harm was done if the PRTs performed tasks that local government should do. Ward said the situation has changed now because an Afghan government presence has been established in many districts and provinces. But he says the behavior of many PRTs has not changed.

"In our view, the PRTs are missing a real opportunity to carry out their mission, which is to build local Afghan capacity," Ward told conference delegates. "The problem is pretty simple. Many PRTs are still doing quick impact projects when the Afghans can do those projects for themselves. And because the PRTs often have more funds than local Afghan authorities, they are competing with the local Afghans to deliver services to the community -- and they are winning."

Mark Ward
As a result, Ward said, the PRTs efforts can hamper the development of local government and leave Afghan communities confused.

"When they have a problem, we want [Afghans] to go to Afghan officials to solve their problems. That's how you connect the people and their government," Ward said. "But when the PRT is spending more money on local projects than the government is, why would a community turn to their government? And how are Afghan officials going to learn how to manage money and how to manage projects better if the PRTs keep doing those small projects for them?"

'Need To Evolve'

In the early days of the PRT system, NATO military officials believed they could help bring stability to Afghanistan's lawless regions simply by providing development aid. But Nicholas Williams, the head of the operations section at NATO headquarters in Belgium, said deteriorating security has caused the alliance to rethink that belief. He said NATO has learned during the last 18 months that low-level local development projects will not, on their own, help stabilize Afghanistan.

"The PRTs need to evolve. They need to change towards a more active civil-military role in terms of defeating the insurgency," Williams told the conference. "At the same time, the Afghan government must take responsibility, be encouraged to have ownership, and must be supported and enabled in any way we can in order to allow that government to assume full responsibility when it is able to do so. So it is necessary to continuously promote Afghan ownership and leadership, particularly in relation to PRTs."

International aid agencies welcome the idea of empowering local Afghan officials and building their capacity to govern. But they are warning against what they describe as the "militarization" of aid projects. They say the mixing of development aid with foreign troop deployments is potentially harmful.

"In the current situation, any association whether real or perceived with military [forces] can simply compromise NGOs' acceptance among the local population," said Tomas Kocian, an administrator on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the nongovernmental aid group People In Need. "The majority of NGOs, therefore, adopted a highly cautious approach to interaction with military forces for fear of being perceived as aligned to one side of the conflict. This is simply undermining the basic principles of humanitarian work, which is impartiality and neutrality."

Nicholas Williams
List Of Problems

Ahmadshah Salehi, the economics director in the Afghan Ministry of Health, said PRTs are playing a positive role by helping to improve health services for Afghans. But Salehi also presented to the conference a list of problems caused by PRTs due to a lack of coordination with Afghan health officials at the provincial level.

Salehi said that, at times, the types of health facilities being built are not warranted "given the population, the location, and other factors." He said some health facilities have been established without any coordination through the Ministry of Public Health to arrange donor funding to staff, supply, and operate the health facility after it is built. PRTs also have donated medicines that are not on the ministry's essential drug list and are not known by the health providers, which could lead to misuse.

"Uniformed PRT staff at times have visited health offices or health facilities which could place the health facility staff in jeopardy at a later time," Salehi said.

Rohullah Niazi is a senior adviser at the Independent Directorate of the Local Governance in Afghanistan, the branch of the Afghan government responsible for supervision of local and provincial governments outside of Kabul. He said some PRTs often implement infrastructure programs without coordinating with provincial development committees or other government organizations, making coordinated action difficult.

Niazi argued that PRT projects should use more local labor and that local authorities should be engaged in different cycles of PRT projects -- from planning to implementation -- so that they also help local authorities strengthen their ability to govern and manage projects. He also said funds were being wasted by the common practice of subcontracting the work.

"To improve the end product of the project and complete the project with a greater degree of cost efficiency -- this can be achieved among other measures by putting an end to the serial subcontracting practice," Niazi said. "I repeat that -- serial subcontracting practice."

Other members of the Afghan government reiterated the need for more development funds to be channeled through the Afghan central government and through local officials in order to bolster their management abilities. Only about 20 percent of international aid for Afghanistan is currently channeled through the government in Kabul. The Afghan finance Ministry wants that to be increased to about 50 percent of aid.

But Hugh Powell, an official in Britain's Foreign Ministry and the former head of the British PRT in Helmand Province, said ministries in Kabul must accept that they cannot do everything centrally. He said Afghanistan's central government must be more realistic about what capacity they can have on the ground.

"Being frank, there was far too much empire building by individual line ministries -- each wanting to develop its own delivery system," Powell told conference delegates. "And frankly, the capacity is simply not there to build lots of parallel delivery systems. What that meant for the PRT is that a big part of the job was, and no doubt is, helping the provincial governor lobby up the various chains of command -- the Afghan chain, the civilian chain, the military chain -- to get good enough appointments, key appointments -- whether it is district governors or district and provincial chiefs of police."

'Elephant In The Room'

Powell said corruption, and how it prevents the Afghan system from building capacity for Afghan governance, is "the elephant in the room" -- the issue that many conference delegates this week were reluctant to talk about. He said his experience on the ground in Helmand Province has shown him that it is almost impossible to get anything done when "key figures are either useless or corrupt." Improving the Afghan system of making appointments, Powell said, is absolutely critical to making progress with governance in the provincial regions.

"It seems to me that there needs to be some form of external -- I don't say international -- but some form of external scrutiny of key appointments," Powell said. "To somehow not squeeze out but reduce the degree to which key appointments are bought and sold and you end up with the placement of essentially narco-barons or criminals performing critical jobs."

Mohammad Omar, the governor of the northern Afghan province of Konduz, told the conference that there should be a more balanced distribution of aid across Afghanistan. He complained that areas in the south and east of the country, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, get more funding from NATO's PRT development programs.

But Powell responded that "equality in the distribution of resources is not desirable in theory or practice." Powell said the counterinsurgency campaign that the international community and Afghanistan are engaged in means that security and other resources need to be concentrated where the insurgency poses the greatest risk.