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How Effectively Are Funds Being Spent in Afghanistan

AS THE NUMBER of American troops in Afghanistan increases, so too does the amount of money spent on development. The assumption is that security and reconstruction are two sides of the same coin, but this may not be the case, according to Andrew Wilder, a research director at Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center.

Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace recently, Wilder discussed some preliminary findings of his ongoing research into the effectiveness of aid in achieving stabilization objectives in counterinsurgency contexts. The research is based on interviews with Afghans and others in the country. Wilder and his researchers asked interviewees about perceptions of security and insecurity, the drivers of conflict, perceptions of aid programs, and perceptions of aid actors.

While more aid money goes toward development and the goal of stabilization today than in the past —often funneled through military channels—“there’s little evidence of effectiveness,” Wilder told Security Management.

Given the lack of evidence of success, the assumption that development aid leads to security should be reconsidered, says Wilder, who established and led the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), a Kabul-based independent policy research institution, prior to joining the Feinstein Center.

Wilder points to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), which provides money to military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan so that they can respond quickly to humanitarian needs and reconstruction requirements, as an example of how money is being funneled through the military without a clear understanding of whether it is being well spent. From 2004 to 2008, the DoD spent approximately $1 billion on CERP, according to a May Government Accountability Office report. The 2010 defense bill, which was in conference committee at press time, is expected to appropriate between $1.3 and $1.4 billion to fund CERP.

Wilder notes that, according to a U.S. Army handbook that gives guidance on how to use aid funding, CERP money can be used to “win the hearts and the minds of the indigenous population to facilitate defeating the insurgents.” Some examples of CERP projects might include reconstruction of government buildings, providing school supplies, and repairing or restoring transportation infrastructure.

The goal is laudable, but throwing money into these areas without the proper controls is destabilizing rather than stabilizing, Wilder says. “One of the causes of corruption is the large amounts of aid being poured into Afghanistan, into insecure areas where there’s little institutional or human capacity to monitor,” he explains.

“Corruption comes up in every interview,” Wilder told attendees at the U.S. Institute of Peace event. Wilder further noted that anecdotal evidence suggests that a portion of security budgets for road building projects in insecure areas is often used to bribe the Taliban not to attack the construction company’s workers. That essentially funds the insurgency.

Wilder also questioned the sustainability of the impact of projects. People are happy when the project is being done, but when it is completed, they want to know “What next?” he said. “This idea that you can do a project and somehow just win hearts and minds, I think is quite simplistic.” He said perceptions of the aid effort are “resoundingly negative” at a time when more aid work is being done there than ever before in the country’s history.

Wilder also referenced lessons from history. “Historically, the times when a modernization agenda is being pushed, those are the times of the greatest instability,” he said, citing the ouster of Amanullah Khan, ruler of Afghanistan from 1919-1929, due to opposition to his political and social reforms.

Wilder cited a document prepared by U.S. consultants in the 1980s that attempted to compile the lessons learned from U.S. aid programs in Afghanistan from 1950-1979. The conclusion of the report was that the “use of aid for short-term political objectives in competition with the Soviet Union tended to distort sound economic rationale for development and in the process to weaken our longer term policy interests. Aid as a tool of diplomacy had its limitations.”

Wilder said programs that build long-term relationships between local communities and aid actors have the most potential for having a stabilizing effect.