The Real Transition That Afghanistan Needs

The Afghan guessing game is intensifying. Nobody can accurately predict what will happen in 2014 – the “transition” year – when international ground forces finally exit and a new Afghan president is elected. Pessimists foresee the outbreak of civil war and a rise in the number of safe havens used by international terrorists. This current rise in attacks, assassinations and abductions around the country will increase their anxiety.

May’s Nato conference in Chicago saw world leaders promise more cash to bolster Afghanistan’s fledgling security services, but can we not learn from history and recognise that no matter how much money and lives are expended on military intervention and training, more soldiering and policing will not deliver long-term security.

Military force seeks to prevent insecurity but ignores its root causes. Afghanistan’s insurgencies find acceptance among the poorest, most marginalised communities. These are villages in remote districts that are neglected by government and aid agencies. As US General Eikenberry was fond of saying, “where the road ends, the Taliban begins”.  Roads are important, but providing quality services that vulnerable populations can reach is vital.

Afghanistan’s under-development remains shocking. One in two children under five is chronically malnourished. Nearly half of school age children are out of school. Around half the population is underemployed. Over a third of the country lives below the poverty line. In such precarious environments, religious extremism, narco-trafficking, criminality and corruption thrive, for survival is paramount.

Undeniably there have been achievements over the past ten years. Access to primary health care has increased from 8 percent of the population to more than 60 percent. Access to electricity has increased by 250 percent. The Afghan government has increased its ability to collect revenue. And, yes, thousands of kilometres of roads have been constructed. Donors, development partners and NGOs have played a critical role in supporting Kabul in these and other areas.

But the fact remains that, despite over ten years of enormous foreign investment in Afghanistan, the lives of ordinary Afghans have changed little. About 40,000 Afghans die each year due to poverty and hunger. This figure is fifteen times more than casualties from war. Yet NATO has spent more than twice as much on its intervention in one month than all the combined international aid spent on social protection in eight years.

2012-03-24 14.08.22

Investments in the basic building blocks – quality education, nutrition and rural livelihoods – have for too long been dismally low when compared with the vast sums disbursed on governance and more “visible” macro-economic projects deemed to be the “silver bullet” for Afghanistan’s future GDP.

The poorest Afghans have understandably grown disillusioned with the corruption among Kabul’s political elites when tax-payers’ money should be going towards improving people’s social services. These Afghans naturally start to view the international aid community as equally self-serving and hypocritical. No wonder then that they accept the alternatives that are pressed upon them by Islamist clerics and their foot soldiers.

Next week, Afghanistan’s stakeholders from the international community will meet in Tokyo to discuss development. This is a major conference and needs to be treated as such, not simply as another stop-off in the Afghan diplomatic carousel.  It presents a genuine opportunity for policymakers to shift the balance of power away from war-weary Generals to the Ministers, Ambassadors and senior UN officials who will be responsible for the country’s future development.

If the “transition” is a discursive tool, let us frame it this way: the following two years should see the international community transition from a security-dominated agenda to a development agenda. Critically, this agenda must prioritise the most vulnerable Afghans’ needs and focus on sustainability. The UN must become the major partner in supporting the government’s development strategy.

One thing is clear: the elephant in the room at Tokyo will be the abject lack of human development in Afghanistan; that is, the international community’s failure to help the country’s poorest. Everyone there will be aware of it, but few will have the courage to speak up and propose solutions.

When aid targets the right people directly, it can work. The National Solidarity Programme, funded by the US, UK, Canada and Denmark among others, has empowered communities across rural Afghanistan to spend US$1.2 billion on their own development priorities. This kind of development practice is helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans move out of poverty. What’s more, such measures improve security, cheaply.

As western constituencies vote for accelerated troop withdrawals, and the military aid teams pack up their bases, and the media spotlight moves away from this country after over ten long years, we must finally transition to a more realistic approach. Spending a greater share of limited budgets towards ‘smarter’ development will improve the lives of millions of Afghans, both immediately and in the longer term.

Reducing poverty and hunger, preventing illiteracy and disease – these are not only inherently good things, but they also make communities less amenable to an insurgent’s methods of persuasion. This clearly benefits Afghan people and will go some way to relieving the concerns of a worried, if tired, international community.

Hunger

Locust Control in Madagascar

What is hunger? An abdominal pang you feel around midday? A craving for snacks at five in the afternoon? For over a billion people worldwide, hunger is a chronic state: suffered almost all the time, every day.

It’s a struggle of mental endurance as well as sustenance. I once went five days without eating, but I knew at some point I’d be able to eat, so while I became thin and tired, I was never mentally weakened. Chronic hunger leaves no such comfort; it’s as psychologically debilitating as it is physically emaciating.

This month the United Nations meet in New York to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Despite what those assembled will say, MDG 1, to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people suffering from hunger, is an embarrassing failure. There were 817 million hungry people in 1990. We were aiming at close to 400 million. Today there are over a billion. So why have we failed so spectacularly to solve the problem of hunger, what causes it and can we do anything to solve it?

Humans have never conquered hunger. Look back through the records of ancient Rome, China, the Mayans – all were beset by food crises that lead to famine and starvation. But today, as rich countries’ supermarket shopping aisles are stuffed with thousands of foodstuffs, a phantasmagoria of branded edible products, man has hopped on the moon, and we have instantaneous satellite communication technology, how can we still have failed to master hunger?

Before trying to prescribe solutions to it, we should understand that hunger is not a distinct entity; there is no single hunger, but multiple hungers, of diverse forms, severity, duration, origin and consequence. Hunger can be seen as a nested concept, within the larger bracket of ‘food insecurity’, and part of a process that leads to undernutrition,  or clinical forms of hunger, resulting from serious deficiencies in one or a number of nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins and minerals). A food insecure person can become hungry if their food availability, access or utilization fails.

Decades of research and indeed the lessons of history have shown that hunger does not necessarily stem from inadequacy of food output and supply, as alarmists from the production side and neo-Malthusian development theorists are prone to propagate. The warnings that world food output is falling behind population growth not only fail to address the causes of hunger, but also blind us from the complex range of causes that demand our attention.

Steve Wiggins from development think tank ODI says, “It’s never about food availability [production]. The big issue is distribution.” Wiggins adds that “people go hungry because they are poor.” Wiggins proposes poverty reduction and a focus on child healthcare as macro and micro level solutions to hunger. However, macro increases in income have not translated into proportional decreases in hunger.

Oxfam’s Chris Leather describes political will, community-based participation, good governance, fulfilment of ODA pledges, social protection, appropriate humanitarian assistance, international systems, multilateral collaboration and accountability mechanisms as priority areas for solving hunger. The list is exhaustive, and narrated with weariness, so as to make these concepts mundane, like a shopping list. Hunger is always highly localised; such all-encompassing prescriptions seem almost abstract.

The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, perhaps the world’s most renowned scholar on famine and poverty, has maintained the need for a nuanced analytical approach, yet even he veers into prescriptive overload. Economic growth, expansion of gainful employment, diversification of production, enhanced medical and health care, safety nets for vulnerable women and children, increasing basic education and literacy, strengthening democracy and reducing gender inequalities are, he argues, the right causal avenues to address.

The problems lie in our social, political and economic systems; most were not designed for the purpose of sharing goods equitably. The ‘smaller’ our world appears to have become through miraculous transport and communications achievements, the more tragically evident this fact becomes. Despite the advantages of globalization and the supposed dominance of liberalism in the international system, we nevertheless remain unable to re-organise these systems according to all peoples’ equal needs. This failure is ultimately an ethical one.

At the global level, tackling hunger requires structural changes, like transforming global trading systems. U.S. and European subsidies schemes render their leaders’ rhetoric on the benefits of the free market hypocritical. Most African countries have gone from being net food exporters in the 1960s to net food importers today. As the prices of imported commodities creep up again, millions more risk going hungry. At the rural community level, where most of the hungry are located, we need to focus our efforts on expanding social protection and promoting nutritionally-enhanced, pro-poor agricultural development.

Progress should be about fulfilling mankind’s needs. Today’s political, economic and ethical systems incentivise economic growth and individual wealth over real human equality. If we really wanted to address people’s hunger, we would change these systems, and the systems of thought that underpin them. Hunger is becoming one of the great moral failures of the 21st century; it doesn’t have to be. We need to galvanise our moral and political strength to change this.

The East African