Friday, February 9, 2007

Afghan aid an exercise in 'feeling good'; that is all it really is ...

Afghan aid an exercise in 'feeling good'
National Post February 07, 2007

Afghanistan is now the largest recipient of Canada's foreign aid, with the government committed to spending $100-million a year on reconstruction efforts there. Stephen Harper said in an interview published in the National Post yesterday that he believes we are "making progress," and hinted in a major speech at new initiatives to improve accountability in the rebuilding efforts.

Yet many people who have looked at the performance of the Canadian International Development Agency, through which the aid money flows, question whether this is just a "feel-good" exercise, as one person familiar with CIDA put it.

Critics argue that CIDA is little more than an automatic teller machine for agencies like the World Bank, who actually deliver the programs on the ground. A list of CIDA projects reveals it is already committed to spending $227.8-million on 41 different projects but has only a slight presence on the ground. By the admission of Josee Verner, the CIDA Minister, there are only 11 agency staff in Afghanistan. Sometimes the three based in Kandahar leave the Canadian Forces base "to take pictures of what we are doing," she said.

Norine MacDonald, the lead Afghanistan researcher for international think-tank Senlis Council, is based in Kandahar. "The impact of CIDA in Kandahar province is so minimal as to be non-existent," she said. "The first victims of this are the Canadian military personnel and, second, the Afghans."

A Senate defence committee report last fall made a similar point, calling CIDA activity "sparse." The committee called Ms. Verner to testify but said she was unable to provide details on how much aid was reaching Kandahar.

The committee concluded it was "unsatisfactory" that aid was distributed through multilateral agencies and the Afghan government, "which in its infancy has developed the reputation for some degree of corruption," since this made it "impossible to measure the success of Canadian development projects in Afghanistan."

"Giving it to third parties to use may or may not be efficient, may or may not be in Canada's interests or the interests of Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan," it said, before recommending that CIDA refocus its aid allocation so that most of it goes directly to development projects in Kandahar to be delivered by the military.

The Senate Foreign Affairs committee is set to report on CIDA's policy "failures" in Africa next week. One person familiar with the report said CIDA's problems are systemic and predicted the Afghan development story will turn out to be a "fiasco."

"No one will ever find out what happened to the money. It's all to make people feel good. It's a feel-good business."

These allegations are refuted by Ms. Verner. "We can be very proud of our programs," she said. "We are working closely with respectable organizations like the World Bank and we track the money very closely. We don't just write a blank cheque and say 'goodbye'."

She cited the microfinance investment program MISFA, which has given small loans to 300,000 Afghans to date, as an example of the type of project where Canada is playing a key role as the lead donor.

Independent third party analysis supports the view that some progress is being made. The Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit of England's York University recently sent five regional assessment teams into the field to look at the success of the Afghan government's National Solidarity Program, to which Canada has contributed $13-million so far. The researchers found that there was "significant evidence" of increased public faith in the system

of government, thanks largely to the establishment of thousands of village-level community development councils. "There have been many years of war but the NSP gives us hope and we know the world is supporting Afghanistan," said one person interviewed by the team.

Yet, despite the mood of optimism, the York researchers lamented that this alternative vision of Afghanistan is rarely seen. "The media continues to dwell on the activities of four or five thousand Taliban insurgents in five of 34 provinces. It is therefore hardly surprising that public opinion polls in Britain, Canada, Japan and the U.S. should continue to report a growing disenchantment with humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan," the report concluded.

The Canadian media must take their share of the blame for their fixation on the military over the mundane details of micro financing. But successive Canadian governments have also been culpable, putting lacklustre ministers in a portfolio that demands a forceful pitchman or woman. Ms. Verner joined Cabinet more for reasons of gender and geography than her ability to sell the Afghan mission to Canadians, and she can thank her lucky stars that the Prime Minister sacked Environment Minister Rona Ambrose last month--an admission of one bad Cabinet pick was seen as unlucky, two would've been considered careless.

Ultimately, the long-term success of the Afghan mission will be determined by whether Canadians believe it is making things better.

Canada has buried its war dead -- 44 soldiers and one diplomat -- as part of a mission the Prime Minister has described as "noble."

Canadians have always shown themselves to be prepared to endure tragedy, as long as it can be demonstrated the sacrifice is not in vain. In the battle for hearts and minds, the Harper government would be advised to look closer to home.