Value for money essential when delivering aid to Afghanistan


February 07, 2022

Truckers prepare for their departure to Afghanistan carrying containers loaded with food and other relief items for the Afghan people in Islamabad. (AFP)

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With the collapse of the former Afghan government last August, a majority of the country’s 40 million people face abject poverty, hunger and an uncertain future. According to the UN, more than 90 percent are already living below the poverty line. Beggars on city streets have become a common sight. But a small class of elites who made big fortunes over the past two decades of international aid flows are still enjoying a lavish lifestyle both inside Afghanistan and abroad.

There is nothing wrong if their money was earned through legitimate means, legal entrepreneurship and hard work. However, if it was generated by depriving millions of people of their genuine right to those resources, it is utterly disgraceful and a national betrayal. Such individuals will go down in history as the most despicable people on Earth and they will have no place in national politics in future. But this is not enough. They must be held accountable for their actions against their own people and for eroding international trust.

Afghans have been suffering through no fault of their own for more than four decades because of regional and international rivalries. Their survival and well-being should be looked upon as a moral obligation and humanitarian emergency. Due to the de facto rulers of Afghanistan’s lack of national and international legitimacy, global financial institutions and donor governments will increasingly rely on the UN as the only feasible way to channel aid to Afghan communities.

The UN has a long history of association with Afghanistan. It may not have a very successful track record in the spheres of politics and conflict resolution, but it has no doubt played a pivotal role with regards to the delivery of humanitarian aid and development assistance to the Afghan people since the 1980s. It has remained on the ground regardless of the circumstances, for which Afghans owe it a debt of gratitude, while paying tribute to those UN staff members who have lost their lives in the service of duty. The UN’s footprint in Afghanistan has significantly increased since the fall of the government last August, as several aid agencies and international financial institutions continue to use the UN to deliver support.

It is noteworthy that service delivery through the UN has had its drawbacks in terms of the effectiveness of aid and value for money. There is ample evidence that the decades of UN engagement in Afghanistan have suffered from issues of inefficiency, high administrative costs and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles in getting aid to end users. Former President Ashraf Ghani was one of the critics of the UN model of aid delivery, but he fell short of presenting any practical agenda for reform.

A new approach is needed due to the exceptional situation, in which every penny counts and could save the life of an innocent Afghan.

Ajmal Shams

One of the factors that drains the UN funds aimed at helping desperate Afghans is the composition of the project teams in various relief operations. Although internationally recruited UN staff are essential for the smooth delivery of aid, the associated costs significantly diminish the availability of resources for end users. Their salary and benefit packages are sometimes 20 times those of the locally recruited Afghan staff. While the UN has a defined salary structure for its various emergency operations and geographic locations, a new approach is needed due to the exceptional situation in Afghanistan, where every penny counts and could save the life of an innocent Afghan.

It is also the responsibility of donor governments and agencies to come up with more cost-effective and efficient ways of channeling assistance through the UN. With Antonio Guterres — a vocal advocate and supporter of the Afghan cause — as secretary-general, a new path forward for UN engagement is possible.

With the government’s collapse last August, the large number of Afghans who can compete with the international labor force in terms of technical competence and managerial expertise, with the added advantage of local knowledge, should be utilized to the fullest extent possible. This would not only help mitigate the current wave of unemployment in the country, but also significantly cut down on the UN’s administrative costs.

The other equally important part of the aid delivery equation is the role of national nongovernmental organizations. By internationally recognized definition and local laws, NGOs are not-for-profit organizations that are supposed to help Afghan communities with small-scale humanitarian relief and development projects. The track record of these local NGOs, judging by their role on the ground, is dismal. Afghan NGOs are accused of lacking transparency in recruitment, failing to enforce laws, and mismanaging funds. Donor agencies must be cognizant of partnering with local NGOs, with the latter hoping to win a share of the work from the billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan in the months and years ahead. While there might be some genuine organizations with a humanitarian agenda, the majority of these local NGOs are increasingly seen by Afghans as the “NGO mafia.” The UN and others should hold them accountable for the resources they spend. It is time these NGOs stopped looking at Afghanistan as a new haven for their commercial interests.

The international community, donor agencies and the UN must treat Afghanistan as an urgent humanitarian hotspot requiring smart ways of managing aid, not just business as usual. That way, they can protect the rights of millions of Afghans as well as judiciously spend the tax money of billions of their own citizens.

• Ajmal Shams is Vice-President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party. He was a Deputy Minister in the Afghan National Unity Government.
Twitter: @ajmshams

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view


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