Originally posted December 2009

The NGO people drive around in big white cars, live in our cities’ best houses and receive high salaries, though most of them would be jobless in their own country. They come here for two, three hours, and we tell them what they need to hear. They express empathy with our difficult situation, and then they get back into their air-conditioned four wheel drives and race off leaving us behind in a cloud of dust. Often they are never seen again.
—Farmers in rural Kunduz Province, 2006

Representing dozens of similar statements from average rural dwellers in Afghanistan, this apt quotation says a lot about how rural development agents are perceived in the Afghan countryside. Yet as perceptions are most likely to be biased in the eyes of the persons concerned, the critical reader might ask: Why should local perceptions matter anyway? And, by the same token, why focus on rural development programs?

Afghanistan is a rural country; the majority of its estimated 28 million people are in rural areas. With the exception of the large cities (i.e., Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i Sharif, and maybe Jalalabad), all other provincial capitals have no urban infrastructure. To speak of an employment sector does not address Afghan realities, as there are no statistics available, and no industries or service sector worth mentioning which would be indicative of an urban lifestyle and economic development. Whatever Afghanistan has could be categorized in some way as private business, though most of its people have subsistence livelihoods that rely strongly on large family networks with casual unskilled labor, and often remittances from kin abroad. Given this situation, the rural development sector is the most crucial in the framework of current attempts at state-building and economic reconstruction in Afghanistan. If the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan population are supposed to be won by the international community, the rural countryside is the arena — not elite circles in Kabul whose members are estranged from the rest of their country and its people. The success of even modest reconstruction and development goals will depend on how effective and sustainable rural development programs are in the eyes of the rural population.

If we take stock of some of the biggest rural development programs which have been applied (not completed) so far, the gap between money spent on rural development measures and perceived benefits is enormous. The National Solidarity Program (NSP), the predominant nationwide effort to develop rural infrastructure and overhaul traditional local governance in the whole of Afghanistan’s countryside by participatory empowerment, has a mixed record. The program is financed by major donor governments of the international community. The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has oversight over the implementation by so-called Facilitating Partners, until recently all of which (with only one exception) have been foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Donors and the Afghan government consider the infrastructure component, which includes the block grant financing of communities of 20 to 300 families with $200 per family, to be largely successful because wells, roads, schools, hydropower facilities, bridges, and health stations were built. Even if portions of the funds have been misused by “corrupt” community representatives or NGO and other administrative staffs, and not counting the quality and probable rather short longevity of construction, the infrastructure build-up is visible — given the baseline of more or less complete destruction. This is acknowledged by the rural population, although questions of privileged access and the benefit of the infrastructure and the cash-for-work construction programs hint at the fact that the second program component, the promotion of good local governance, achieved very limited impact. Newly set-up Community Development Councils, which were supposed to be democratically elected and to represent the interests of all community members, often have been found to act in the interests of a few. Women councils were set up on paper but not in practice.

Another example is the Kunduz River Basin Program, a pilot program funded by the European Commission in North Afghanistan that aims at restructuring the irrigation water sector according to river basin units. Accordingly, new administrative levels (e.g., River Basin Council, Sub-Basin Councils, etc.) are being introduced. In cultivation areas, at the local level, water users and farmers are organized into Water User Associations and Canal Committees. In the upper catchments of the Kunduz River Basin, Natural Resources Management Committees are being established. The record of failure in good local governance promotion for these councils and associations is similar to that of the National Solidarity Program’s Community Development Councils. When asked what meaning and benefit the newly established institutions yield for them, rural Afghans commonly respond: “We have our works, and this is an NGO-matter.” This response reflects an attitude dominated by suspicion and distrust towards outside interference in the local social order. At the same time, it is a matter of course that material advantages are sought (like the infrastructure measures) and resource flows tapped. A brief look into the Afghans’ experience with foreign interference is self-explanatory in this regard.

While massive aid flows were directed towards Afghanistan during the two decades of civil war and violent conflict prior to 2001, these funds either were disbursed in the form of military aid for the various mujahidin factions and later the Taliban through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), or NGO donations that reached segments of the population very selectively. Because humanitarian aid distribution was guided by the ideological presumptions of the respective donors whose main aim was to harm the “enemy,” associated factions were supported with material or financial goods with no strings attached. Even if loyalty was most likely expected in exchange for funding under the guise of humanitarian support, neither donors nor distributing agents and agencies applied any sanctioning mechanism for cases when loyalty was passively withdrawn or clients openly defected to the opposite camp. As a result, the recipients of this kind of aid developed an attitude that can best be described as a “donees’ mentality.”

Today’s reconstruction and development efforts aim at more than pure humanitarian relief and have to struggle with the “donees’ mentality,” as current efforts include conditionality by implicitly demanding the replacement of asymmetrical power relations with equitable and participatory governance patterns, including women’s empowerment. Yet in the locals’ eyes, the donors’ local good governance approach constitutes an attack on the various local institutions for resource distribution, conflict resolution, and the like, which are already in place. The sheer ignorance of local norms and ex-ante condemnation of the local structures as inefficient, undemocratic, and unequal has caused local rejection. What is more, this rejection is covered by superficial compliance with demands to establish Water User Associations or other councils. These are then set up with the sole purpose of meeting donor and NGO requirements to qualify for funds and material resources. What is perceived as success by donors, based on reported numbers of new governance institutions, is actually a misperception. Overall, the continuation of this misperception between local target groups of rural development and NGOs as the agents of international development is the crux for understanding the current flaws and setbacks diagnosed as the local population’s lagging commitment and support for the intervention. Consequently, to remediate development in Afghanistan the interface of development programs and local communities deserves development practitioners’ and policy makers’ attention. To begin with, the education and training of local NGO staff, especially social mobilizers and translators, needs to be enhanced because it is they who are negotiating rural development with local communities.