Criticism is easier than understanding but much less useful. Post columnist Al Kamen, writing about his colleague Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book “ Little America ,” cited an anecdote about an experimental “cobblestone road” that USAID built in Afghanistan as a particular example of the agency’s “follies” [“ Which side was ‘tribal’ again? ,” In the Loop, July 24]. There is another side to the story that neither Kamen nor Chandrasekaran bothered to tell — one that goes to a larger point about how to encourage a creative and innovative bureaucracy.
As Chandrasekaran observed, the Afghans preferred paved roads to stone roads. What he left out was that there was no way we could afford the high cost of paving roads all over Afghanistan. More important, there was no money available for maintaining even the roads we and the military were building. Without maintenance, these roads washed out and became as bad as or worse than unpaved ones after a while. The building of a stone road to connect small villages, not major routes, was an experiment proposed by USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and one that I supported as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
The road was built by villagers, by hand, and the only piece of equipment needed for the entire operation besides hand tools was a heavy-duty roller. In other words, once they were taught to build the road, the villagers had the ability to maintain it without assistance from either us or the largely nonexistent Afghan government.
I went to the road opening, less to “celebrate,” as Chandrasekaran put it, than to gauge local reaction; villagers who built it seemed proud of their work. I also wanted to find out for myself whether one could drive the road at some speed without shaking loose teeth. It was a smooth ride at 30 kilometers per hour. The stone road could take the weight of a heavy truck.
Whether the Afghan locals could ever have been persuaded to like stone roads, I don’t know, because the program died for lack of funding. Nevertheless, readers should understand three points.
First, building paved roads to every village was impossible.
Second, if the stone roads had caught on, they would have been both more sustainable and a better use of local labor than many other projects.
Third, and a far larger point, sometimes it is reasonable to try an experiment to see if a novel idea can be made to work.
The attitude that every experiment that doesn’t work must be condemned as folly will only encourage a risk-averse culture that tries nothing. In fact, experimentation and innovation are as essential in diplomacy and assistance work as in business. And, just as in business, not every new idea will be a success, but some will.
A happier example in Afghanistan was a USAID decision to direct significantly expanded health-sector funds through the Ministry of Health. This was risky, given the limitations of the ministry and the risk of corruption. Many would have preferred an approach in which foreigners managed everything, risks were minimized — and Afghans learned little. In this case, after extensive preparation, the approach worked. There may be some waste, but the Ministry of Health is widely regarded as among the best of the Afghan ministries. Health care has expanded broadly across the country. Maternal and child mortality is steadily dropping. Equally important, the ministry’s capacity to manage its own business has expanded because Afghans were not denied the opportunity to grow into their responsibilities.
Much the same result occurred through direct funding of the better-known National Solidarity Program, which funds small village projects. In each case, had the plan failed, there would have been plenty of blame of the “how could you not have known” variety.
In foreign assistance, we are often tied in knots trying to avoid failure through detailed studies while trying to move quickly. This is particularly true in crises, when time for leisurely study doesn’t exist. We desperately need a bureaucratic culture that seeks out and rewards innovation and experimentation. Yes, some ideas may truly be stupid. Many others, like many small-business start-ups, will look like good ideas and fail for any number of reasons.
Unreflective “gotcha” yelling about failure will ensure only a do-nothing bureaucracy; finger-pointing comes easier than thinking. If we want innovative individuals to keep pushing to succeed, we need to tell the difference between foolishness and an idea that was worth trying. Knowing the difference requires understanding the background of actions that fail and the hard analytical work to make sound judgments.