They call this 'aid'?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2007, 12:00am

In May last year, there was a huge riot in Kabul. It began when an American military truck sped through the city, smashing into several local cars and killing people. The convoy was immediately surrounded by angry Kabul citizens. Panicking, American soldiers shot four of them. President Hamid Karzai made no public attempt to quell the exploding tensions, and chaos ensued. As rioting spun out of control, the guest houses of foreign aid experts and agencies were pillaged. Now, why would Afghans attack foreign aid agencies and experts, who, theoretically, are helping them?

Truthfully, most Afghans cannot differentiate between aid workers from non-governmental organisations and military personnel. This is not their fault: the lines between the two are severely blurred in Kabul. A lot of aid for Afghanistan has been funded in co-operation with the US military, either directly or through other arms of the US government that may be linked to the military or intelligence community - if only by association.

US military personnel have reportedly been overtly directing aid work in Afghanistan. Little wonder, then, that Afghans cannot differentiate between aid programmes that might be intended to help improve lives, and what many interpret as their own colonisation - or at least administration by a president with foreign military backing.

The aid donors are the same countries that send military forces, mainly the United States and Britain, with token numbers from Germany, France, Japan and Italy. Because these donors control the purse strings, they also set the agendas. The NGOs and implementing agencies are, not surprisingly, from these countries as well. So the NGOs are there because of the donors.

Foreign aid is a business, an industry like anything else. 'Should we assume people working under UN contracts are any different from those working under GE?' reflects Jiang Xueqin, a former UN information officer who has just finished a tour of duty in Kabul.

There are many layers in the aid feeding chain, and funds are siphoned off at each level. Very little money actually gets to local people. With too many mouths to feed, minimal supervision of aid agencies, and so much cash in circulation, there are lots of temptations to steal.

Since 2001, the US Agency for International Development has pumped US$8 billion into Afghanistan. USAid is a development funding arm of the US State Department commonly known to have access to sensitive areas where intelligence is sought. So it may covertly have a dual mission. Strategic objectives cannot be discounted for USAid: many Afghans believe US military interests want long-term control of two air force bases, in Kabul and Kandahar.

USAid projects must, by regulation, use American contractors. This means companies like Halliburton - formerly run by Vice-President Dick Cheney - and construction conglomerate The Louis Berger Group get the turnkey contracts.

So locals cannot benefit directly, except at the bottom of this feeding chain. The commercial-practice side of humanitarian aid permits the main contractor to take 40 per cent off the top before subcontracting down the chain to so-called 'experts'.

These are thousands of foreigners with no knowledge of local problems, culture or language. Their high salaries - the US$200,000 range is not uncommon - trigger inflation in the local economy. This hurts local people the most, and heightens resentment towards a foreign, shadow government that seems to be supported by aid.

'I feel very strongly that we, the international community, are not helping the Afghans,' said Mr Jiang, reflecting on his recent sojourn there. 'We are making the country a lot worse. We are making it more likely that genocide will occur in a short timeframe after we leave their country, and the four major ethnic groups - Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras - begin to really fight each other. In the long run, this will come back and haunt us.'

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation