Over the years, we’ve seen some tremendous progress. The number of children in school has increased from 1 million under the Taliban to 7 million today, a number unmatched in Afghanistan’s history. The number of girls in school has increased from almost nothing to nearly 3 million. Eighty-five per cent of the population has access to basic health care, up from 10 per cent in 2001, and the child immunisation rate has risen from 31 to 83 per cent. Child mortality has fallen by 26 per cent. There’s an elected government and a constitution that guarantees equal rights to all citizens, and women occupy 27 per cent of all seats in parliament. These are achievements of which the Afghan government and its international allies, including Australia, can be proud.
But laudable as these achievements may be, development indicators in Afghanistan remain among the lowest in the world. Less than one in five births are attended by skilled birth attendants and one in eight women die during childbirth. With more than half of all Afghan girls marry before their 16th birthday, many of the mothers dying in childbirth are themselves children. One in nine children die before their first birthday and one in five die before the age of five. Every day more than 550 children die of preventable disease. More than 4 million children lack access to education, most of them girls, and of those who are enrolled in school, almost one in five are either temporarily or permanently absent.
The amount spent by international donors on aid to Afghanistan in the past decade – almost $60 billion – dwarfs that given to any other country. The Australian government will have spent almost $1 billion on aid by the end of the decade (2001-2011). But Afghanistan is alone among the top 10 recipients of Australian aid in not having made significant progress towards combating poverty. State institutions remain unable to provide good governance, deliver basic services or protect the population from harm, and as the insurgency spreads into areas that until recently were relatively secure, humanitarian needs are escalating. And yet still the international community does not have a coherent strategy to strengthen the state before the handover of security responsibilities to the Afghan government by 2014. How did we get to this?
At the heart of the problem is the fact that in the allocation of aid funds, international donors have been guided more by military and strategic objectives than by the needs of Afghan men, women and children. This has resulted in a preference for quick impact projects, often implemented by military actors and aimed more at winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population than alleviating poverty. But there’s a growing body of research questioning whether this sort of aid really does contribute to stabilisation objectives, and suggesting that in Afghanistan it may in fact have had the opposite effect.
Also problematic in the Australian context is the paucity of public reporting regarding the expenditure of aid funds. In contrast to a number of other countries, the Australian government is not required to report regularly to parliament on progress in Afghanistan. There is a particular lack of transparency around aid money spent by the defence forces. Earlier this year, the Australian government said that the ADF had spent $252 million on aid in Afghanistan in the past four years, but that less than 20 per cent of this had been spent on actual projects such as schools and clinics. Not only is there no detailed public reporting regarding ADF-managed aid funds; because these projects are not evaluated, we’ve no way of assessing their impact. So we’ve no way of knowing whether Australia’s military-led aid results in sustainable development outcomes.
It doesn’t take much to make a difference. It costs just $350 to train a community health worker, and doing so can save thousands of lives. Afghanistan has a shortage of about 10,000 community health workers. Just $3.5 million could fill the gap. We can still make a world of difference in Afghanistan, but only if donors stop subordinating the needs of Afghan men, women and children to their own strategic objectives, and hold themselves accountable – both to their own taxpayers and to Afghan communities – for the expenditure of aid funds.
There’s a generation of Afghan children who were not even born when the bombs started falling in 2001, but whose lives will be forever shaped by the legacy of the war. We owe it to them to ensure that their needs are at the heart of the transition strategy.
Rebecca Barber is the humanitarian policy adviser with Save the Children.