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Lessons from Afghanistan's development success stories

Afghans in Kunduz province use a water pump financed by the World Bank-supported National Solidarity Program.
Afghans in Kunduz province use a water pump financed by the World Bank-supported National Solidarity Program. (World Bank)

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By Robert B. Zoellick
Friday, October 30, 2009

As governments reconsider strategies in Afghanistan, stories abound about why achieving progress in this "graveyard of empires" is so challenging: The country is racked by violence and opium production; confidence in the government is weak; its neighbors meddle; and fiercely independent tribes distrust any intruder -- whether from Britain, the Soviet Union, NATO or Kabul.

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The World Bank Group's experience in Afghanistan reflects all these problems. This is one of the most difficult environments in which we work. Yet we have seen real, measurable progress: in the health sector, education, community development, microfinance and telecommunications. Since 2002, the World Bank has committed nearly $2 billion to these and other projects and manages, with partners, a $3.2 billion trust fund for 30 donor countries.

Here are some of the lessons we have learned:

First, we need to "secure development" -- that is, create a strong link between security and development. Each reinforces the other, especially when we focus on communities and on resolving local-level conflict. A dysfunctional police force, justice and prison system feeds a lawlessness that breeds disillusionment with the government and sympathy for its opponents.

Second, corruption can be fought better through design than through calls for virtue or even a slew of investigations. Afghanistan's drug trade risks the criminalization of the state. But there are steps one can take to make corruption harder and less likely. Afghanistan's reform-minded finance ministers have taken practical steps to simplify government processes and add transparency to reduce opportunities for corruption, already raising government revenue 75 percent in the first part of this year. Recently the government slashed the number of steps to register vehicles from some 55 to just a few, reducing opportunities for bribes and increasing revenue.

Third, locally led projects are the most effective. The National Solidarity Program, which the World Bank helped launch in 2003, empowers more than 22,000 elected, village-level councils to decide on their development priorities -- from building a school to irrigation to electrification. So far, the program has reached more than 19 million Afghans in 34 provinces, with grants averaging $33,000. Development owned by the community can survive amid conflict: When an NSP-funded school was attacked in August 2006, the villagers defended it. The community councils also help build cooperation among villages and with the government.

Fourth, while local progress matters, government responsibility and capacity must be built at the national level. Currently, two-thirds of aid to Afghanistan flows outside the government because donors lack confidence in its competence and transparency. But this undermines those trying to build legitimate Afghan institutions. It can also grossly distort resource allocation: Some relatively secure areas are starved of money when they could be producing results. We can work with Afghans to strengthen public financial management. That said, in the absence of strong institutions, and facing considerable corruption, good results have been dependent on one-by-one partnerships with honest, reformist ministers. The new cabinet must include more such individuals.

Fifth, Afghans need to see measurable improvements to their lives, or they will not feel they owe anything to Kabul or local governments. There are success stories: More than 12,000 miles of all-weather rural roads have been built, connecting communities to markets; today, 80 percent of Afghans have access to basic health services, compared with only 9 percent in 2003; 6 million children are enrolled in school, nearly 35 percent of whom are girls, compared with about 1 million students and no girls seven years ago; competitive telecommunications networks now serve about 10 million subscribers. But a lot remains to be done.

Stability in Afghanistan also depends on good leadership -- especially in critical areas that have lagged behind, such as agriculture, energy, mining and private-sector development. The challenges of securing development so that it is self-sustaining are formidable. But progress is possible if safety is strengthened, the Afghan government assumes ownership, its partners build development through the choices of the Afghan people, and Afghanistan's neighbors decide they are better off with a successful state than with a perilous buffer zone that could send trouble back across their borders.

The writer is president of the World Bank Group.


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