Aid Money May Not Be Accomplishing Its Goal

A key part of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to win the heats and minds of the population with development aid. There is concern that aid money to Afghanistan actually is helping insurgents. Andrew Wilder, research director at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, tells Renee Montagne that aid money often ends up fueling corruption.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in Iran's neighbor, Afghanistan, a key part of the U.S. strategy to keep the support of the population is development aid. The idea is that assistance will make Afghanistan more stable, so Afghans won't turn to the Taliban. Our next guest argues that aid dollars can sometimes do just the opposite.

Mr. ANDREW WILDER (Director, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University): If you spend lots of money too quickly in highly insecure areas, this often ends up fuelling corruption. And it's this corruption which, in turn, I think, has had a major destabilizing effect.

MONTAGNE: Andrew Wilder is a research director at Tufts University's Feinstein International Center. His team has spent over a year interviewing hundreds of people across Afghanistan about their perceptions of massive aid projects, like building roads.

Mr. WILDER: There's a lot - hundreds of millions of dollars are being spend on building roads. And, of course, roads are important. But when these contracts are given to build these roads in highly insecure areas, quite frequently, these construction companies end up paying some money to the Taliban, basically to guarantee their security when they're working doing these projects in these Taliban-influenced areas.

MONTAGNE: And then when you say corruption, maybe something like, what, a clinic, it's not built well because the subcontractors and contractors pocket the money and...

Mr. WILDER: Well, there's that problem that - there's a practice of what's called flipping contracts, where a construction company will win the contract, then they sell it on and take, say, 10 percent of the money. Often, you have some of these contracts sold on four or five times. The end person who gets it doesn't really even have enough money left to do the building properly, and so they do a very shoddy job. We've had schools collapsing, roads crumbling after a year.

MONTAGNE: You know, though, in a way, it's immediately counterintuitive. One would thing more roads, water wells, schools, clinics - it seems it would make people happier, healthier and less likely to pick up a gun.

Mr. WILDER: You would, and that's the assumption, and I think it's, you know, indeed why we're doing it. And, you know, in May this year, the U.S. Army published a manual called "The Commander's Guide to Money as a Weapon System." So we really do view development aid as a weapon system in our counterinsurgency. And I think right now there's a very, very limited evidence base that these aid projects are winning hearts and minds, which was the intent of a lot of this work. And my research is showing that not only is it not winning hearts and minds, but Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are largely negative.

MONTAGNE: Give us a few things that they're actually saying about these projects.

Mr. WILDERS: Well, for starters, you go into these places and a lot of people will say nothing's been done, when actually lots has been done. I mean, you can travel down a brand new road and there's a new school and a new clinic, and they have mobile phones and television coverage. Anyway, so lots has been done, but their expectations are raised to very high levels, and often those are now hard to meet. Another way in which aid projects can actually fuel instability is by creating perceived winners and losers.

And I was just down at Oruzgan Province in the south in June and July this year, and there's a strong perception, for example, that most of the aid programs are going to benefit one tribe - which, not coincidentally happened to be the tribe of the president - the Popalzai Tribe. And one of the, you know, elders I talked to there basically complained that, you know, in this area, the family and friends of Karzai get everything. They are corrupt and cruel people, but donors continue to support them. So again, this idea that our aid actually is making some groups stronger, and in Oruzgan Province, that it was having the affect that rival tribes who felt threatened by this were basically going to the Taliban to get their support.

MONTAGNE: Well, Andrew Wilder, you were raised in the region...

Mr. WILDER: Correct.

MONTAGNE: ...speak the languages. Are there projects that you would see working if only they were being done?

Mr. WILDER: Absolutely. And again, I wanted to emphasize that, you know, lots has been done in Afghanistan, development successes. The National Solidarity Program, you know, that kind of program which is dealing with relatively small amounts of money, say $27,000 in a village level where the communities are involved in prioritizing what they want to do and implementing the project and providing oversight, those are well perceived. So, my point is we should spend as much money as we can, as long as we can do that affectively and accountably. But when you try to spend too much money, as I think we're doing in the south now, it ends up simply fueling corruption or possibly even funding the Taliban.

MONTAGNE: Andrew Wilder is a research director at Tufts University's Feinstein International Center. Thanks very much.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you very much.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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