Thursday, 18 April 2013

We need to strengthen our public institutions before the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan

By Baseer Ahmad*

At the end of 2014 the majority of existing foreign troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. The international community (an amalgam of security, humanitarian and development agencies) arrived in Afghanistan to help build a stable and long-lasting Afghan state, capable of representing its people. Ousting the Taliban that ruled the country from 1996 till 2001 was one of its biggest achievements.

The uneasy journey to establish democracy and build peace in this fragile country began in 2001. The main successes so far have been the drafting of a new democratic constitution (2004) and the presidential and parliamentary elections (2004/5 and 2009/10).  However, attempts at building democracy and democratic institutions do not always translate into ‘governments of the people, by the people and for the people’. 

While most experts on Afghanistan identify institutional deficit as the main factor behind the limited functioning of the Afghan Government and its inability to deliver basic services to its people; in my view, it is the fact that most state institutions are run by individuals rather than on organisational mandates which is a key problem. Most of the mandates that exist are not operational, and it is individual leaders and executives who play an important role in formulating and executing public policies. However, many of them are incompetent and, in some cases, are former warlords, and the fact that they govern many of the central and provincial institutions by resorting to patronage, for example, hinders the ‘effective’ functioning of government.

A growing concern that public institutions are being monopolised by individuals

There are many concerns about the impact of the 2014 international withdrawal and predictions for the country’s future are difficult to make. UK Defense Secretary Philip Hammond recently said that nobody could say "with certainty what the future for Afghanistan" would be. One of the major concerns is the reversal of the current achievements and the recurrence of a civil war.

I see the source of this fear coming both from historical precedent and the recent developments around the monopolisation of institutions by ruling elites who are difficult to hold to account. Warlords, commanders, local militias and religious groups were the initial power-fillers after the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001. These informal powerbrokers have transformed into formal actors and become the main representatives of  Afghans to the international community. Supported by the international community in the fight against Taliban, they gained more power. After 2014, it seems likely that these warlords will play a more influential and active role in further monopolising institutions. However, it is uncertain whether these elites will remain united after their resources dwindle in 2014 and beyond. It is also likely that they would use their leverage and influence over the current Afghan National Army (ANA) and fragment it along ethnic lines. If this happens we could potentially face another civil conflict, which will reverse the achievements, made so far.

Is there an exit strategy for Afghanistan?

The exit strategy of the international community emphasises the negotiating and signing of bilateral strategic agreements which will chart out their future engagements and document their commitments to the Afghan state after 2014.

One major bilateral agreement that will determine Afghan security after 2014 is the current security pact under negotiation with the United States. While many in Afghanistan believe that a security pact should be signed with the USA following the bilateral strategic agreement (signed in May 2012), the immunity of the American forces remaining in Afghanistan continues to be a bone of contention between the two states, so the security pact has not yet been signed. Even so, Afghanistan has already been declared a major non-NATO ally which will enable access to US military training, military supplies, equipment loans, and financing for loans.

While the negotiations, debates and rifts define the recent relationship between Afghanistan and the USA, much less has been done to address the fundamental problems. The key issue that Afghan people are concerned with is who is representing them in these negotiations, which will ultimately determine their future security and prosperity. The current exit strategy and even the peace process excludes the majority of the societal actors representing the Afghan people. Instead the process includes groups which have dubious legitimacy and controversial histories.

Building accountable, effective and legitimate institutions

Building accountable, effective and legitimate institutions in Afghanistan should focus on moving beyond the ‘individual centric’ nature which has characterised them so far. Endeavours should be made to restrict the monopolisation of particular individuals and groups over institutions. The more "institutionalised" the institutions, the more deliberative, representative, consensual and legitimate the decisions will be. By "institutionalised",  I mean institutions that are run by mandates not by individual or groups.

Building post-conflict Afghanistan requires taking on board all interests and groups. But at the same time a balance between these interests and groups is critical to the stability of the country. Neutralising the enormous spoiling capability that the warlords have gained so far cannot and will not be addressed unless and until there are institutionalised institutions in place - with the ability to operate along the lines of their mandates rather than being at the whim of their leaders.

*Baseer Ahmad is currently undertaking an MA in Governance and Development at the Institute of Development Studies.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Is the World Bank's attitude towards Participatory Development changing?

By Ila Patlolla*

The recently launched World Bank Policy Research Report titled ‘Localizing Development: Does Participation Work?’ by Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao (who also gave a Sussex Development Lecture on the same topic a few weeks back) is both unusual and groundbreaking.

Looking at quantitative evaluations of various participatory development projects (both within and outside the Bank) that are touted to help reduce poverty and inequalities, improve service delivery and build capacity for collective community action, Mansuri and Rao not only push the World Bank to accept what is not working in their approach and admit mistakes, but also bring to the fore key challenges and possible solutions.

In their report, Mansuri and Rao distinguish between “induced” and “organic” participation, where one is driven by external agents (by pumping in money/resources), while the other occurs ‘naturally’ (arising out of the needs and initiative of the community). Recognition of this difference is important, given that the World Bank alone has invested over $85 billion on development assistance for participation. For such induced participation to be effective and sustainable, the World Bank and other external agents need to change their approach to development- to one that is long-term, context sensitive, accepts failure and learns from mistakes. The reasons behind this are:

  1. Participatory projects often fail to be truly inclusive. The wealthier, more educated, higher social status, politically connected, and generally male, tend to benefit. This is where local and national ‘context’ (geography, political system, local power dynamics, etc.) plays an important role in determining outcomes of development projects, as these factors determine who decides, how and for whom. Projects funded by the World Bank also often adopt strikingly similar project designs across regions and projects. This undermines the very fact that the needs and requirements of every community are different, and for projects to work and reach intended beneficiaries, one needs to tailor-make them to fit the context.

  2. Participatory projects are often unsustainable. During the course of the project, cash or other material incentives may induce people to participate and build networks, but when these are withdrawn the whole system collapses. This calls for a need for capacity building, where communities are equipped with the skills and resources to sustain systems beyond the life of the project. The World Bank and other donor agencies are also known for focusing on short-term, more tangible goals that can be measured and funded as per schedule, rather than long-term, more qualitative goals of changing socio-political systems and attitudes, that may or may not be possible to measure.

  3. Participatory projects are often unaccountable to the beneficiaries.  There are no clear mechanisms for downward accountability. Incentives are directed at improving upward accountability, rather than increasing discretionary powers at the lower levels. Planning and reporting requirements are also so complex that they’re beyond the capacity of local field staff often leading to too much time spent doing unnecessary paperwork and delays in decision-making. Project facilitators are also often told what the community think they want to hear, and aren’t always given the exact picture, which makes it hard to assess the impact of the project. This usually happens when project staff fear failure or negative feedback, without realizing that it is only the knowledge of their shortcomings that can lead to improvement.

  4. Participatory projects seldom recognise monitoring and evaluation systems as vital to the project, with poor incentives for honest, comprehensive and regular monitoring and evaluation. New, cost-effective and innovative mechanisms are needed in this regard, with adequate importance and priority given by senior management, such that projects can constantly be monitored and improved upon.

  5. Most importantly, participatory projects don’t have a predictable trajectory and it is often difficult and unrealistic to expect clear, measurable outcomes within a given timeframe. While planning is important, it should allow enough scope for experimentation and ‘learning by doing’.

In order to have a lasting impact, participatory projects need to be flexible enough to adapt to local contexts and reflect the ‘real’ needs of a community rather than ‘perceived’ needs.

Mansuri and Rao also point out that for innovation and evidence-based policy decisions to take place, one needs to create an environment where failure is acknowledged, accepted, and instrumental in leading the way for developing innovative solutions to development problems. While the message itself is not new, it is heartening to see this recognition and acknowledgement coming from within the World Bank.

The real test is whether these lessons will be reflected in changes in incentives, programming and monitoring. Will the rest of the Bank adopt this latest thinking and lead by example?

*Ila Patlolla is currently undertaking an MA in Governance and Development, at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).