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All Afghanistan is asking for is $50 billion - that's 50 billion with a B. Even after years of work, that's what Afghanistan's government says it needs for reconstruction. And next month, Afghan officials go west to Paris to unveil their plan to spend the money. It's their first-ever development plan; the trouble is that Western governments aren't likely to offer a blank check.

The donor nations will be focusing on the kinds of problems we've been hearing about on MORNING EDITION this week - charges of corruption, mismanagement and a weak government. This morning, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports on the challenges ahead.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Here in the foothills of Kabul, hundreds of Afghan children pour out of a small school. It's only lunchtime, but they are leaving for the day to make room for another group of students. Teachers here say they have no choice but to split the children into these four-hour shifts. They say they can't otherwise accommodate 2,500 students in the school's 12 classrooms.

There are four times as many students than when Mahmoud Saikal attended here. Saikal is a senior adviser on his government's new national development strategy. He says he's not surprised about the overcrowding, given that officials have no idea who lives in Kabul anymore.

Mr. MAHMOUD SAIKAL: In the good old days, Kabul could hardly take 400,000 people. Now it has taken more than four million people, and I'm afraid the city hasn't developed much. You know, the city is still the same, the resources still the same.

NELSON: Saikal says squatters and a lack of planning have stretched public services in Kabul beyond their limit. But he says the Afghan government has come up with a solution: a comprehensive strategy not only for Kabul but for all of the country's development needs.

Proponents say the plan could pull Afghanistan out of poverty by 2020. It provides a road map for everything from electricity to railways to social justice.

Mr. SAIKAL: It's not as if, you know, these are verses coming from the skies. You know, the thing is that to the best of the capabilities of the Afghans to the best of the capability of a war-torn country, we have produced a national development strategy for the next five years.

NELSON: With a $50 billion price tag - more than three times as much as has been pledged here since 2002 - the strategy has gotten the West's attention. Most important, says Kai Eide, the United Nations' new special envoy to Afghanistan, is to persuade donors that the plan can make a difference here and to determine whether the Afghan government has evolved enough to take over the reins of development.

Mr. KAI EIDE (U.N. Special Envoy): We do not expect to see a kind of Switzerland, or a Norway, for that matter, over the next decades to come. But what we need to see is sufficient progress for the Afghans to sustain it and to continue it by themselves.

NELSON: Afghan leaders are itching to do that. Jalani Popal heads the new Independent Directorate of Local Governance.

Mr. JALANI POPAL (Independent Directorate of Local Governance): We prefer that all the assistance to Afghanistan should go through very transparent systems, regarding the cost and the process and everything. And the government of Afghanistan should be in lead of this assistance, which is not the case yet.

NELSON: Still, questions remain about the government's ability to supervise where foreign development aid is going. Many here point to the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development as a success story. Donors laud the ministry for getting hundreds of millions of dollars in wells, schools and other small projects out to far-flung provinces.

Yet how some Afghan contractors hired by the ministry spend international aid money raises serious questions. For example, one contractor in Kandahar Province recently agreed to pay $100,000 to a local Taliban commander to ensure his men would leave the project alone.

The builder claims he and other contractors have no choice but to cut such deals to protect their projects in high-risk areas like Kandahar. He allowed NPR to listen to, but not tape, his negotiations by speakerphone with the Taliban leader. He also sent the Taliban commander a copy of the contract to prove he wasn't making more on the project than claimed.

Ministry head Mohammad Ehsan Zia says he has never heard of his ministry's money going to the Taliban. He adds that security is the contractors' responsibility, and that his inspectors review all projects to make sure they are completed.

Mr. EHSAN ZIA (Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation): The reason that our projects have expanded so far is they're contracted with local people, with local Kandahari companies. If they pay Taliban from their own pocket, that's not my problem.

NELSON: But Western officials say that sort of attitude from Afghan officials has to change. They can no longer turn a blind eye to bribes and kickbacks, which are rampant. Again, U.N. Special Envoy Kai Eide.

Mr. EIDE: There is a serious lack of accountability on the Afghan side: the way money is spent, the way plans and priorities are set up. If there's one thing I would really like to see happen here over the next few weeks, it is a clear demonstration in concrete terms of readiness to combat corruption - not only verbally, not only in speeches, but in what we actually see in concrete measures.

NELSON: He says key at the Paris conference is for the government and donors to commit themselves to more than talk - because the patience of not only ordinary Afghans but of Western taxpayers is wearing thin when it comes to development in Afghanistan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Najib Sharifi contributed to this report, and you can hear earlier stories in our series at NPR.org.

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