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Entries in reconstruction (1)

Thursday
Aug162007

The Gilded Tissue Box: Trying to distribute aid to Afghanistan

Right now I'm wrapping up my big report for IWA and getting ready to go back to Kabul, and on to the next job. The concept for the report is 'perceptions of NGO integrity in Afghanistan'. It's actually two reports, based on two questionnaires (one for the population as a whole and one for NGO professionals and political elites) with participants in twenty provinces. What we've found is this: There are major areas of Afghanistan who are confused about what NGOs are and there are lots of non-Afghans who are also equally confused. Now, at this point it's important to underline that people in highly educated societies tend not to know what NGOs are. Yes, but these same people tend also to live in functioning states which provide public goods. Afghans have a whole array of competing would-be public goods providers, amongst which the dominant one by far is not the Afghan state per se (please no one say they need a citation for this). These are my thoughts about the significance of this work.

Before we can move on to the Afghans, we need to look at the situation from the point of the NGO community itself. First and foremost there is a general failure to be practical--this means a relevant combination of theoretical and specific, not one or the other. The NGO community would do well to recognise the realities defined in political science and economics (which is often disdained in itself). You'll observe my point as I continue, the grand scales bears heavily on the specific analyses. Here are some ground rules for understanding the situation in Afghanistan:

  • States are geographically delimited public goods monopolies. As such, they try to build, maintain, and enforce monopolies over the production, distribution, and consumption of public goods, such as the rule of law, justice, freedoms, etc. The state is also the principle agent in the state system, which, thanks to a huge body of treaties and common law, has been growing since at least 1648. There global political arena is composed of states, bodies composed of states, organisations which operate under the auspices of the state, and those who define themselves in response to states and the state system (the last two need not be mutually exclusive).
  • Political actors are any person, group, organisation, body, multilateral institution, reptile, or platypus which has an effect on the any political economy or ecology. Yep, every conscious being is pretty much a political actor.
  • Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are just that. Your local sewing circle is any NGO, as is McDonalds, Bearing Point, Louis Berger, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, Counterpart International, and the Foundation to Protect Swedish Underwear Models. For the purpose if this spiel, I'm talking about NGOs as organisations that distribute aid.
  • While a given organisation is either part of the state or it is not, it's relation to the state could be discribed on a continuum. At one end of the continuum you have the organisation being completely inside the government, basically the Man's bitch. An example would be the Department of State in the US. At the other extreme would be an organisation that has nothing to do with the government (like the secrecy-shrouded PLF--Platypus Liberation Front; holed up in an undisclosed location). Yes, the reality is that every organisation falls somewhere in between, and there's a handy adjective for this, official. The more anything is sanctioned by anything else, the more official it is, with regards to point of reference for definition.
  • Legitimacy is how much support something has. It doesn't matter what it is or how official it is.

So, in Afghanistan we have a lot of political actors, all with varying degrees of officialdom. On the official side we have the internationally recognised government of Afghanistan and bodies (militaries, embassies, development agencies) of other sovereign states. On the unofficial end we have the Taliban (boo!), warlords, clan, kin, and tribal structures. None of the above are necessarily good or bad, and all have varying degrees of legitimacy.

The state can not distribute the amount of public goods necessary for all the citizens of Afghanistan, so other organisations fill the vacuum. Some organisations are official; the Afghan government and other states acknowledging its lack of capacity open bids, sign contracts, and invite other organisations to provide [public] goods. Along with the actual provision of public goods, said organisation also often help to strength the Afghan state's ability to do so (capacity building).

Uninvited are the Talban and other traditional power structures. The Taliban want control over the state and hence the monopoly, warlords want the added prestige and wealth associated with the ability to distribute public goods, and maybe a monopoly over an area as well. Tribal or clan institutions may or may not compete with the state, but given different discourses of legitimacy, traditional institutions may serve as an arbiter between the average citizen and larger actors. Actors that can best tap into and influence the discourse of legitimacy gain the most power.

Most actors lie somewhere between official and unofficial. Non-official actors such as warlords or local jirgas may be coopted into the state in exchange for improved legitimacy and interest aggregation and adjudication. NGOs also lie on this continuum. USAID is a highly official arm of the US government. It contracts out a project to an independent NGO, say, Counterpart, which then becomes a more official player in so doing. The individuals and organisations who then work with Counterpart have varying degrees of officialdom within the resulting structure. Notice that whether the NGO is for- or non-profit is of only tangential importance. Legitimacy is often misconstrued, by those within and with the NGO community to be a function the profit motive. In reality, an NGO is a business and a corporation, and it's profit status doesn't necessarily relate to its transparency, accountability, efficacy, or legitimacy.

The point of IWA's recent survey is that, while Afghans are more aware of NGOs than, say, the average American (they deal with them more), they are still quite confused. Some provinces where people rate official power structures as most influential are unlikely to ever have experienced proper governance by the national government. In other places, political actors blur together, with local government, NGOs, and warlords being identified with each other in important ways. Aid delivery must be thought out and organised, yet there is a paradox because we know that command economies don't work. This means that not only do NGOs have to coordinate, they have have to coordinate in structuring and regulating the market to increase the demand for [certain kinds of] aid and integrity in their consumption and distribution.

One of the most important points in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness is that harmonised aid is important, but it does not go so far as to recognise the necessity of adapting to market forces. Along with economic markets, there exist also ideological markets, requiring marketing and PR. The branding, marketing, and packaging of aid are as important as the product itself (of course the product also needs to be good, as the makers of US foreign policy would do well to understand). We've all made fun of the 60-odd page brand identification manual that USAID puts out, but there's a logic there.

To go beyond what the results of survey, or even what a trough of phenomenological interviews can suss out, the problems faced in the reconstruction of Afghanistan are at least as much a result of structural factors in the aid distribution regime as they are the result of specific factors in the Afghan beneficiaries. These include the problem of dual accountability, whereby aid distributes are supposed to be accountable to both their beneficiaries and their donors (who are often nation-states whose interests may conflict with those of the intended beneficiaries), and the problem of the orientation of NGOs themselves. But just as important is the notion amongst many non-profits that they are superior or more rashid than for-profits.

The tendency of non-profits to fully grasp the reality of the situation makes them overall less confident and less effective in aid distribution. Non-profits should strive to internalise the principles of integrity and accountability as deeply as they advocate them. They also need to realise that there is no magic bullet for accountability and hence to stop wringing their hands about it. The consequences are immediate. Afghans are confused over non-profits/ intentions as well as their identity, often not being aware of who is supposed to benefit or why.

The problem with accountability for non-profit NGOs is the lack of incentives. While for-profits are certainly involved in many abuses, their model theoretically creates a more efficient model for integrity. The same profit model that can cater to a baser instinct also introduces more checks and balances by which the for-profit should be more transparent and accountable, at least to its shareholders. Following the theory, a for-profit will lose money if it doesn't do the job and do it well, and furthermore it will face internal punishment if it loses out on revenue or future contracts (being unethical costs money!). In too many non-profits, this business ethnic is non-existent. No one gets fired when a product fails or doesn't get produced in a timely fashion. Donors sympathise with the non-profit NGO that can't balance its budget and don't cut off its funding right away. It is considered tolerable for a non-profit not to pay its employees (who work just as hard as employees of for-profits) well or be insolvent, whereas a for-profit would become a laughing stock for this. Most non-profits are accountable or at least genuinely try, but the non-profit model has serious flaws and strains which should be better addressed.

For the situation to change, NGOs have to grow up. (Some place are ahead--NGO discourse is much more advanced in the US and Iran than in Europe for example) In order to become truly effective, non-profits need to realise that they are just one of many political and economic actors, and that they are political and economic actors themselves. They also have to be as conversant and comfortable with economics as with the discourses of justice and public health. Non-profits also need to embrace markets, and embrace the hard game of politics with all the clever PR of Shell and Unilever. Economics is the moral science, explaining how humans satisfy their wants and needs and theirin explaining how we can help them be satisfied more often. The market for public goods in Afghanistan will be filled, the question is how we are going to structure the market.