The Aspirational (and imaginary) 50% Goal in Kabul
Kabul is in lock-down right now, with 40 foreign ministers and other assorted big wigs in town for a chinwag. And judging from the draft communiqué, they’ve been doing a lot of talking. It weighs in at 5900 words, which is impressive even by the long-winded standards of the pin-striped diplomatic set.
I can’t recommend reading the whole thing; it’s very dry reading even for the most wonkish among us (although the section condemning the 90s sitcom Saved By the Bell is unexpected and persuasive).
What did jump out at me (and at the NYT staff apparently) was the pledge:
“In line with the London Conference Communiqué participants restated their strong support for channeling at least 50% of development aid through the Afghan Government’s core budget within two years…”
This is an admirable goal for several reasons, but it seems highly unlikely it will ever be achieved.
It’s admirable, first, because money spent through the local government strengthens that government and its ability to provide services to the population. When donors are channeling all their funds through NGOs, to deliver healthcare for example, then the actual healthcare system is biased and suffers. Former Afghan Finance Minister, UN Secretary General candidate, and international trouble-making gadfly Ashraf Ghani and his partner-in-crime Clare Lockhart have covered this ground thoroughly.
It’s also admirable because aid money channeled through the local government has a much larger local economic impact. Instead of being spent on international consultants and bottled water bought in Dubai, it tends to get spent on Afghan civil servants and local contractors. In recent years, PDT researchers were able to prove this quantitatively here, here, and here. Roughly 80¢ on every dollar spent through the local government enters the Afghan economy. Whereas an aid dollar spent on an international contractor leaves only 10-15¢ in the local economy.
Finally, it’s admirable because it allows the Afghan people to see the Afghan government helping them, as opposed to internationals driving around in white armored SUVs. This builds support for the concept of an elected government, makes them more likely to pay taxes, and undermines public support for the Taliban.
But, here’s the rub. The international agencies are currently a long ways from reaching the 50% target. In 2009, PDT was asked to undertake a survey of all the donors. They were well short. How short? Hard to judge, given that they were reporting budgetary support in the same category as trust fund spending. Combined, those two channels only added up to 40%.
And this leads us to the second problem. Donors aren’t really tracking this. They don’t know how well they are doing. If they do, they aren’t telling anyone. For example, has anyone seen any numbers showing current budgetary support grants by donor? If you have, please share them.
And finally, the third problem is stories like the recent Wall Street Journal article that grossly exaggerated the level of corruption. It (understandably) spooks the donors. The donors sometimes take smart decisions like setting up a task force to help prevent corruption. But more often they take rash decisions to simply cut funding. So until the donors can see some progress on the perceived levels of corruption, there is no way they are going to even want to achieve the 50% goal they’ve set for themselves.
But here’s a secret from a former diplomat. It’s all ok. The donors aren’t really that concerned about the 50% target. First, it’s non-binding or “aspirational”, which in diplo-speak means “Wouldn’t it be great if….”. And second, they know that no one will really be keeping score when they all get together next summer in Tokyo. In fact, they might even dust off this pledge off and stick it in their communique.