The party's over for Afghan NGOs

By Ramtanu Maitra

On April 4, Afghan President Hamid Karzai finally stepped out of outgoing US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's shadow and called some of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating inside Afghanistan "corrupt".

After making known Article 8 of the new Afghan legislation that prevents NGOs from bidding for Afghan government-sponsored project contracts, Karzai called a meeting with ambassadors and representatives from the United Nations and donor countries based in Kabul.

Voicing his strong concern that some NGOs were responsible for squandering the precious resources that Afghanistan received in aid from the international community, Karzai told the gathering: "We have a responsibility towards the Afghan people, as well as the taxpayers in the donor countries, to stop NGOs that are corrupt, wasteful and unaccountable."

The Afghan president announced the establishment of a joint task force consisting of Minister of Economy Mohammad Amin Farhang, Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development Haneef Atmar and chief of staff of the President's Office Umer Daudzai to examine the issue and submit recommendations in no more than a month.

Bashar Dost's accusations
To many observers of Afghan developments, Karzai's denouement of the NGOs was overdue. Last November, Abdur Rasheed Saeed of the Institute for War and Peace (IWP) reported that Planning Minister Dr Ramazan Bashar Dost had told him of thousands (there are some 3,000 NGOs operating within Afghanistan, of which close to 350 are foreign-based) of NGOs that had failed to deliver effective assistance to the stressed Afghan people. In December, ostensibly under pressure from the NGOs and the countries they represent, Dost was forced to resign. It was evident that in asking Dost to step down, Karzai, whether he liked it or not, had to succumb to the external pressure.

Since becoming the planning minister in March 2004, Bashar Dost made it clear publicly that the NGOs were ineffective and had wasted money that should be being spent on the Afghan people. Pointing out that existing Afghan law "didn't clarify the responsibility of NGOs and the procedure for their control", Dost spearheaded a draft law that would regulate their operations. He noted that when an NGO received funds, either from a government or a non-governmental source, they are supposed to distribute most of those funds to the people of Afghanistan. "I have yet to see an NGO that has spent 80% of its money for the benefit of the Afghans and 20% for their own benefit," he said.

"International NGOs get big amounts of money from their own nations just by showing them sensitive pictures and videos of Afghan people, and there are even some individuals who give all their salaries to NGOs to spend it on charity here. But [the NGOs] spend all the money on themselves, and we are unable to find out how much money they originally received in charitable funds," Bashar Dost told the IWP.

Dost advocates elimination of "NGO-ism" - and not NGOs. He told the IWP that there are some so-called NGOs that operate for profit, like private companies. "I haven't seen any NGO at all which works efficiently yet," he added.

A predictable uproar
Dost's comments angered the NGOs and the United Nations. Paul Barker, country director of the aid agency CARE, declared: "These ill-founded, unsubstantiated and generalized attacks, from a government minister, are creating a climate in which the government is seen to be legitimizing attacks on NGOs." Of course Parker did not want to urge the Karzai government to investigate and substantiate Dost's charges, suggesting he is wholly aware that the planning minister was not whistling in the dark, and that evidence of a cobweb of corruption may come out if such investigations were carried out.

Instead, Barker, speaking for the NGO community, took the high road, accusing the planning minister of aiding attacks on the NGOs. Similarly, without making reference to the Afghan minister's charges, UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva told a news briefing in November: "Justification of violence in general, and against NGOs in particular, is unacceptable. The government has a paramount duty to uphold law and order and it cannot be involved in legitimizing or condoning physical aggression in any way."

Missing the real issue
The UN spokesman's statement is certainly true, in general. But both Dr Parker and the UN are dodging the real issue. The fact is that NGO activity in Afghanistan raises many legitimate questions. For instance, using their foreign and donor nations' links the tax-exempt NGOs have gotten access to government contracts that tax-paying local commercial companies should have won. The NGOs, using their political muscle and their well-oiled linkages to the International Security Assistance Forces, won some contracts by developing access to government officials, including ministers, some of whom were formerly their employees. Because of the higher pay they can offer, some of these NGOs have hired qualified individuals who would otherwise be available to serve the government.

One can get a whiff of the type of "NGO-Raj" that angered Dost in an article published in Outside magazine (December 2003): "When the world community of do-gooders arrives to rescue a nation from itself, the first sign is the blinding white traffic jam. White Land Rovers stack up thick at the airport; white Nissan Pathfinders block the streets at lunch; miraculous white-on-white Toyota Land Cruisers choke the traffic circles of the lucky target country. This caravan of chariots was triple-parked outside the Mustafa Hotel in downtown Kabul on a Saturday night. Late-model 4x4s filled the avenue and circled the block, churning up dust as the chauffeurs maneuvered for parking. I threaded my way through a cluster of acronyms: UN, UNESCO, UNDP, UNHCR, FAO, UNICEF, UNICA, UNAMA, UNOPS, UNEP, MSF, ACF, MAP, MACA, IRC, WFP, IOM, IMC. Even the hotel was painted white. I could hear Shakira [Colombian singer and sex symbol] playing faintly from above."

Similarly, a writer for the Chennai-based Indian daily The Hindu, posted in Kabul, observed: "People working in some of these NGOs lead a lavish lifestyle. A look at their offices and their houses, the way they are furnished, the air-conditioned cars they drive, all add to the resentment of the people, as it all comes out of the aid being pumped into the country."

In an article that appeared on March 26 in Der Spiegel, under the title "Afghanscam", Susanne Koelbl made a case, pointing out that in a country where the per capita income is just US$200, foreigners, or more appropriately the "$1,000 men" are jostling the streets of Kabul. Koelbl says the so-called $1,000 men were everywhere, hired by donor institutions like the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. Recently, a list of salaries surfaced, causing a medium-sized political earthquake in the government. An employee of the British consulting firm Crown Agents, for example, received $207,000 for his 180-day placement in the Aid Coordination Office, plus expenses. Another submitted a bill for $242,000 for 241 days - 10 times as much as the Afghan minister responsible for running the ministry earns in a year.

The $1,000-a-day men
In addition, hundreds of consulting firms are competing for huge projects, and the number of active consultants in Afghanistan is estimated to be at least 3,000. "Suddenly there were more consultants than flies and dogs in this city," said an employee of the US Embassy who has worked in Kabul for two years. One German diplomat estimates that at least a quarter of US relief aid is spent on foreign experts alone, Susanne Koelbl wrote.

The article discusses one such consultant, William Strong, a 67-year-old Californian who recently landed a $30 million contract. Strong has a valid background making money in almost all of the world's crisis regions. He lives together with a dozen international co-workers in a $12,000-a-month villa in the northern part of Kabul. Working for a company called Emerging Markets Group, he has been given the task by the Afghan government of surveying the country's land and clarifying property ownership. "This is a huge market," a rapturous Strong said, before complaining that it's hard to find people who are "more interested in their job than money", Koelbl reported.

Koelbl's article also looks at another successful company, Bearing Point. With its headquarters in McLean, Virginia, the global consulting firm's Afghanistan budget alone is more than $100 million. Reports indicate the company's chief executive, Ed Elrahal, has succeeded in placing 70 of his company's consultants in the government. Elrahal's employees aren't allowed to talk to the press and in the few cases where they are, they can only do so under strict supervision. Nevertheless, one of the company's employees in the Finance Ministry told Koelbl why he is working here - anonymously, of course. In Kabul, he earns the same amount he would in far more dangerous Iraq - a daily rate plus a supplement of 50% for hardship and danger pay. But he refuses to disclose the amount - "It's a company secret," he said. But those with experience here know that the daily rate for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which operates globally, is $840.

The lifestyle of the foreign NGOs is not all that draws the ire of Afghan locals. Objection has also been raised to the corruption associated with the forming of fake community organizations, delivering small credits to the rich or friends of the NGO staff, reporting fake community development schemes, sharing the funds allocated for such schemes with a few community members, conducting meaningless training just for the sake of training, and over-budgeting the same to the donors. What angers other Afghans is the exuberance of the NGOs in funding programs related to "gender and development", which the more religious types perceive as "anti-Islam."

There is also a deeper, political point. Bashar Dost is among those who point out that NGOs in Afghanistan have not always functioned the way they are now. When the Taliban were in power, most NGOs were truly involved in humanitarian activities. But now there exists a semi-functioning government that the international community - in other words, the United States - wants to strengthen.

Donors like USAID want NGOs to work hand-in-hand with the Afghan government and the US military, and to wear donor political support on their sleeves. They are reportedly being asked to subjugate their anti-poverty missions to broader, more complex political and sometimes military goals. And this raises serious issues that ought not to be swept under the rug.

Ramtanu Maitra writes for a number of international journals and is a regular contributor to the Washington-based EIR and the New Delhi-based Indian Defence Review. He also writes for Aakrosh, India's defense-tied quarterly journal.

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