U.S. Troop Drawdown Shouldn't Hurt Aid Work
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
When President Obama laid out his plan to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he also expressed a desire to move that country from - as he put it - an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.
The United States Agency for International Development is playing a key role in that transformation. The head of USAID, Rajiv Shah, joined us from our Washington studio to talk about his agency's efforts in Afghanistan.
RAJIV SHAH: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: OK. So as U.S. troops draw down in Afghanistan, what does this mean for your efforts at USAID?
SHAH: Well, first, I think it's important to note that we are drawing down from a position of strength. We've, in fact, achieved significant gains in security, in development and in governance that allow for this draw down and allow us to envision a future where Afghanistan has the security and safety to protect and govern itself without our active involvement.
MONTAGNE: So, in a way, what you're saying is you're not worried about the fact that, say, the country might get so unstable that you can't even work there.
SHAH: Well, you know, we always - always, in a war situation, it's a difficult environment. But I would look back on the last eight or nine years and look at a record of significant progress. Afghanistan has - with U.S. assistance, and with assistance from more than 20 other donor countries on the civilian assistance side - helped generate real economic growth at nearly 10 percent, in annual terms, for a decade. They've had great gains in human health with at first only nine percent of the population having access to health services, now 64 percent. And more kids are in school. Nine years ago, there were about a million kids in school, almost all were boys. Today, there's seven million kids in school, nearly 35 percent of whom are girls.
MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder, though, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee spent two years looking at how the U.S. is spending civilian aid money in Afghanistan, and it released its findings earlier this month.
One of its conclusions is that, and I'm quoting, "The evidence that stabilization programs actually promote stability in Afghanistan is limited." It also questions a basic tenet of counterinsurgency theories that assistance will win hearts and minds and ultimately lead to peace. Based on USAID's experiences in Afghanistan, do you have faith in that premise?
SHAH: You know, if I look across the portfolio of work that we do in Afghanistan, it is part of an integrated civilian and military effort that includes the military surge, the civilian surge. We have more than three times as many USAID staff as we had when I started in my role, and we now have a significant diplomatic surge. And these things all work together and will save the United States, you know, billions of dollars and significant lives as we accelerate the drawdown of American troops.
MONTAGNE: Well, could I ask you, though, there are people who will say or have said in recent times, you know, civilian surge. What civilian surge? Why is it that it's felt that it's just not working over there?
SHAH: Well, I think you have to put that in the larger context. You know, Secretary Clinton has highlighted that the civilian surge, for one year, cost about 10 days of military activity. And in fact, it is about two to three percent of the overall investment in this initiative. And so while it is a surge, and it certainly is important, I think it's very reasonable for people to look at the larger landscape and mostly see the military activity. And we're proud to be supportive of that effort.
MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, then, what do you see in the coming months as your biggest challenge?
SHAH: Well, I think our biggest challenge is going to be continuing the path of making the gains that have been achieved really sustainable and durable. For example, we've helped train more than 16,000 civil servants that now work in the Afghan government. Having them get paid in a way that is efficient and effective is actually quite challenging in a country where most people don't have bank accounts. And so we're working with them to develop a payment system where they can get paid on their mobile phones.
And we've found in some pilot programs that that actually reduces the risk of corruption. It improves the performance of the civil service. And I think the challenge will be to continue to find examples like that, where we can save money, improve outcomes and help continue on this path of transition.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
SHAH: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Rajiv Shah is the head of USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.
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