All Cups, No Tea

Another humanitarian hero has tumbled off his pedestal. It remains to be seen whether Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea,” will be able to avert a total reputation meltdown. But last Sunday's 60 Minutes broadcast and a thorough exposé by Jon Krakauer provide convincing evidence for some serious allegations...

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In memoriam, Linda Norgrove, humanitarian in Afghanistan

The New York Times reports:

A Scottish aid worker who was taken hostage two weeks ago by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan was killed by her captors early Saturday during an unsuccessful rescue raid, according to the British Foreign Office.

The aid worker, Linda Norgrove, 36, was regional director of a jobs program financed by the United States Agency for International Development for Afghanistan’s eastern region.

Former colleagues described her as a person of enormous warmth and kindness who was deeply committed to helping people in poor areas of the world and who had spent years in Peru and Laos as well as in Afghanistan.

Ms. Norgrove loved Afghanistan from the first time she arrived in 2005 on a United Nations mission, colleagues said. While many United Nations workers stay for a year or two, she stayed for more than three years working on environmental programs and helping to administer an alternative livelihoods program for farmers in poppy farming regions.

In her latest job she was the only expatriate in the Jalalabad office of DAI, directing about 200 Afghan professionals and coordinating with Afghan ministries and local companies. Sensitive to local tradition, she always wore the long, loose tunic and trousers known as a shalwar kameez and covered her hair with a large scarf. “I’ve seen few people among Afghan and Muslim people like her,” said a man who worked with her who gave his name as Bakhtiar. “She was very kind, very helpful, a lovely lady, a very respectful woman.”

Deepest condolences and sympathies to Linda Norgrove's family and friends.

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Media now cares about Pakistan; aid workers’ surprising lack of confidence in Afghan army protection; North Korean jeans

Now abundant coverage of Pakistan flood, is it making up for previous non-story? Sorry, Karzai, Aid workers do want to keep their own guards in Afghanistan, as compared to corrupt and incompetent offical Afghan forces.

I always argue that comparative advantage is surprising, but even so was caught off guard by newly fashionable North Korean jeans.

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Can aid win hearts and minds?

A recent Christian Science Monitor article reported that USAID is “losing hearts and minds” in Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakshan province because of failed and shoddy projects, corruption, secrecy and waste. Given how much of the US aid budget is spent trying to make the world a safer and more secure place for Americans, you might think there would be plenty of studies testing the hypothesis that aid funds can reduce terrorism or shift hostile public opinion. In fact, there is startlingly little evidence that we know how to use aid for this purpose.

Andrew Wilder, who led a two-year study at Tufts on the relationship between aid and security in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa, has studied perceptions of the US following the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, for which the US quickly pledged $50 million and played an early and visible part in relief efforts. A widely-cited poll taken a month after the quake showed that the percentage of Pakistanis with a favorable opinion of the US had doubled, from 23 percent to 46 percent.

But it took only six months for those numbers to drop back down to near pre-quake levels. A year and a half after the earthquake, Wilder’s team found that while the US response was effective from a humanitarian perspective, there was “little evidence of any significant ‘hearts and minds’ or security benefits....”

A slightly sunnier outlook on the question  comes from a quantitative study on Iraq by Eli Berman, Jake Shapiro, and James Felter, entitled “Can Hearts and Minds Be Bought?” The answer seems to be a tentative “sometimes:” The authors concluded that increased public service provision did reduce violent incidents, but could only speak to CERP funds, which are allocated to small-scale projects and made up a very small fraction of overall reconstruction funding.

But researchers working with Wilder on the Tufts study conducting interviews in eastern Kenya found that small-scale projects (carried out in this case by AFRICOM’s Joint Task Force) didn’t succeed in getting communities to change their minds about the US. The authors explained:

…We found that attitudes were influenced by factors that went beyond the scope of aid projects- faith, the relationship between target populations and the Kenyan state, US foreign policy, and events in Somalia- were all much more important.

And in a context where US foreign policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East is perceived as an attack on Islam, a strategy that aims to win both "hearts" and "minds" appeared to people locally as an attempt to directly influence a Muslim community's faith and beliefs.

Wilder also tipped us off to a German longitudinal study underway in northeast Afghanistan. They found that aid positively influenced perceptions of the peacekeeping mission, but only when people felt that their own security was not at risk. Aid also had a positive impact on perceptions of local government, but these perceptions were “short-term and non-cumulative.”

So, are there cases in which aid COULD be used to promote security objectives? Maybe. The studies cited here lead to a couple of possible hypotheses, both of which would need much more research:

  1. Aid could help consolidate stability in areas that are already relatively stable, but is not much use in stabilizing a war zone
  2. Aid could help shift public opinion in a country that is already favorably disposed towards the US, but is less useful where attitudes are hostile to begin with.

It is hard enough to demonstrate that development assistance effectively promotes development. Especially in conflict zones like Afghanistan, the smart aid programs that can show lasting impact are sadly few and far between. The additional, unproven assumption that aid can tamp down terrorism and change the way people think about Americans in the midst of a conflict fought by Americans is almost certainly too much for it to bear.

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Oops, did I just prove "Confessions of a hit man" conspiracy?

Ray Fisman in Slate takes my paper with Daniel Berger, Nathan Nunn, and Shanker Satyanath on Commercial Imperialism as partial confirmation of John Perkins' allegation of a global conspiracy to take down poor nations for the benefit of rich corporations. This is fun, so let's run with it. Of course there's a eeny weeny difference between conspiracy theories and social science that just says, yes, CIA interventions could have been helpful to US corporations making a few export sales in US client states (Fisman knows this as he makes clear in the article). The full-fledged conspiracy version has the World Bank coordinate and centrally plan the actions of myriads of large corporations, US government agencies, and other aid agencies, all with their own separate interests, to all work for the general obscene profit of all corporations. Which is a bit implausible when the World Bank can't even plan malaria control.

Alright, you got me, I'm part of the conspiracy. They threatened my dog Lucy if I did not recant my candid research. Which is also kind of the problem with conspiracy theories: if there is no evidence for them -- it just means the conspiracy hid the evidence! Conspiracy theories never go out of fashion because it's impossible to disprove them.

The NYT today had a front pager about a conspiracy theory in Pakistan that sees a vast effort to destroy Pakistan led by an American "think tank." I wonder which one? Some think tanks I know (NOT including my good friends in think tanks) could possibly wield deadly weapons of mass boredom.  Let me investigate further and get back to you.

Unfortunately for those fighting the proliferation of conspiracy theories, the US military is doing it's best to spread mass paranoia about Americans everywhere. According to the headline story in yesterday's NYT, General David Petraeus has ordered a vast secret intelligence gathering program around the world, among other things:

General Petraeus’s September order is focused on intelligence gathering — by American troops, foreign businesspeople, academics or others — to identify militants and provide “persistent situational awareness,” while forging ties to local indigenous groups.

Thanks a lot General Petraeus! Now no American academic can go anywhere in the world with being seen as a spy. John Perkins knew it all along...

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We have met the enemy and he is powerpoint: NYT on the military

The New York Times had a front pager today on a story that this blog (twice: Dec 22, 2009 and Dec 12, 2009 ) and other blogs has been all over for months -- the use of nonsensical Powerpoint slides to guide the US military in Afghanistan. The NYT reproduced the infamous Afghan nation-building spaghetti chart over most of the front page:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

It gets worse:

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious. ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

What's bizarre about this is that there are so many high-ranking military critics and yet war-by-Powerpoint continues. This blog's criticism got a friendly response from high-ranking military also. Yet none of this was enough to stop a practice that would get the military held up to ridicule today in the New York Times.

Indulging in sheer speculation here, is it because Powerpoint is indispensable to make  the military's assigned task appear feasible when it is inherently infeasible  -- to achieve development, democracy, and peace by military means?

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The worst-kept secret in aid: aid-receiving governments run the aid agencies

see UPDATE at end of this post

Thomas Friedman had a good NYT column about Karzai yesterday. {{1}} His column cleared up the puzzlement created by a Dallas News editorial and other very similar stories about how Obama’s visit to Afghanistan to get Karzai to clean up corruption was great for “seizing Karzai’s attention.” Now we know why there’s corruption in Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai just FORGOT to deal with it. Could one of our army doctors give him A.D.D. medication?

Friedman is more realistic about a phenomenon that has been long known in donor-government /recipient-government relationships:  the recipient is the one who runs the donor government’s policies towards the recipient government. The same happens in multilateral aid agencies. We saw this all the time at the World Bank, where the corrupt autocrats receiving our loans would let us know what conditions we should put on the loans to them.

Friedman has a pithy rule that donors routinely break:

Never want it more than they do.

Of course, when the donors want something more than the recipient, and the donors know they MUST continue the aid relationship, the recipient is in a strong bargaining position to ignore that something, and no amount of attention-seizing is going to work. As Friedman says:

If we want good governance in Afghanistan more than Karzai, he will sell us that carpet over and over. How many U.S. officials have flown to Kabul — the latest being President Obama himself — to lecture Karzai on the need to root out corruption in his administration? …. he believes he has us over a barrel and, in the end, he can and will do whatever serves his personal power needs because he believes that we believe that he is indispensable for confronting Al Qaeda…

Even in less fraught situations than Afghanistan, the donors have an extremely poor record enforcing conditions on recipients. Not only do they break the Friedman Rule, but the department for Country X in the aid agency MUST disburse its budget for Country X this fiscal year (or else it won’t get any budget next year). The recipient knows this and so can ignore the conditions. (For a more careful and technical development of this argument, see the classic paper on why aid conditions don’t work by Jakob Svensson).

The solution to the problem is as logically simple as it is politically difficult: give aid only to country governments who want IT more than we do.

UPDATE (4/1, 12:14PM): Karzai says to luncheon guests  that America is an obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. Well, THAT would really simplify the problem -- just remove the obstacle! 

[[1]]Just for the record, I usually think that whatever Friedman writes about economics is nonsense while what he writes about Middle Eastern/Central Asian politics is good. This may be because I know something about the former and nothing about the latter.[[1]]

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Three Afghan success stories

Today, finally a break from the doom and gloom on Afghanistan! Clare Lockhart, the CEO of the Institute for State Effectiveness, spoke at DRI’s annual conference last month and gave three examples of what has gone right in the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan. These reforms and projects have lasted despite worsening security conditions and will—Lockhart says—form part of the foundation for the next generation of reforms in Kabul.

1) Hawala dealers implement Afghan currency exchange. In 2001, there were three currencies in circulation in Afghanistan, all produced illegally by warlords, with frequently fluctuating values that only the hawala dealers—the country’s informal currency exchangers—could decipher. To move to one unified currency, international donors recommended that Afghanistan switch to the dollar for two years in an expensive and lengthy process that would require the assistance of 15,000 UN bureaucrats. Instead, the Afghans decided to tap into the extensive networks of the local hawala dealers. Once enlisted, they were able to reach every village and change the currency in just 4 months. Clare commented:

To me that’s a lesson of instead of us looking at what’s not there and what do we need to bring in from the outside, how do we turn it around and learn how to …look at what is there. What are the assets that exist on the ground, what are the networks, what are the traditional and existing ways that people manage their daily lives? And how can those be harnessed to the urgent and important tasks of the day?

2) Aid underwrites risk so Afghan telecom can take off. Telecoms were reluctant to enter the risky, post-US invasion Afghan market. Donors had suggested that the Afghan government would actually have to pay the telecoms to provide service. Instead, the government and the international community came up with an innovative way to cover the risk and spur investment. OPIC- a US agency that promotes development in emerging markets- stepped in to write a risk guarantee for $20 million for the firms willing to compete for government licenses. The $20 million was never used, and after $1 billion investment in the sector, there are now more than 11 million phones in Afghanistan.

3) Village-level grant program taps village know-how. Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program has provided grants to thousands of Afghan villages. The village councils choose how to spend the money, but must post their accounts publicly. Funds for the program are pooled into a locked trust fund that can only be replenished by donors once they’ve seen project audit reports. The program is growing as villages combine grants to take on larger projects, like an irrigation system or a regional maternal hospital, and although the NSP has developed some opposition from politicians who would prefer to be able to skim money off the top of these grants, it has also attracted wide support.

To hear Clare Lockhart tell these stories, listen to this 8-minute clip. If you have the time, it’s also well worth listening to her full presentation with slide show on the DRI website, here. [audio:|titles=Lockhart-Afghan-Success]

We wouldn’t be Aid Watch if we didn’t note that Lockhart is also an outspoken critic of failures in the aid system. Her talk contains many tragic examples of aid failures in Afghanistan, which we’ll post another day on the blog.

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In defense of being mean-spirited: response to a critic

People on Twitter yesterday and today called attention to this thought-provoking critique of yours truly (from Chris Conrad at his blog The Big-Push: Development and Aid Effectiveness)

I did want to take issue with one of Easterly's tweets from yesterday, in which he sardonically impugns USAID's efforts in Afghanistan, suggesting that the most benefit Afghanis have realized from USAID's years of war-time effort is the use of USAID-labeled vegetable oil cans to set up live WIFI nodes in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

...This is a very unproductive and mean-spirited use of anybody's time.  I honestly have no idea what Easterly expects the response to such a post to be -- this adds nothing to the debate, and perversely co-opts what is otherwise very positive news into an outlet for his nihilistic worldview.

To be intellectually consistent, I have to praise criticism of myself as much as I advocate criticism of aid agencies. So thank you, Chris, for taking the time to give me thoughtful feedback. I read something like this and I re-examine if I am going too far in ridiculing unproductive aid organizations. I will consider whether to dial it down.

At the same time, I still believe in vigorous criticism of aid when it deserves it. In other fields, we recognize a constructive role of even very harsh criticism. Alec Baldwin joked at the Oscars last night that James Cameon had sent his rival director and ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow a good-luck present of "a Toyota." This is a mean-spirited joke at the expense of a corporation that has years of quality service to consumers except for one recent accelerator pedal malfunction. And Toyota deserves every bit of it.

"Aid effectiveness" is a sleep-inducing word that has resulted in endless rounds of summits and declarations ("Accra Agenda for Aid Effectiveness, etc.) and little action. USAID is a politically entrenched bureaucracy that has gotten away with scandalous waste of billions of aid in Afghanistan. A mean-spirited joke at their expense is among the least of the consequences they should suffer.

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Afghans and social entrepreneurs improvise when official aid fails

From the blog FabFi (HT to blog Whirled Citizen)

{A} World Bank funded infrastructure project to bring internet connectivity to Afghanistan began more than SEVEN YEARS ago and only made its first international link this June. That project, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, is still far from being complete.

{Meanwhile} the Fabbed Long-Range Wireless Antenna Project, ... as of December 2008 is working on an installation in Jalalabad Afghanistan.

today (Feb 4, 2010)  marks a new peak in the size of Jalalabad's Fabfi network--26 simultaneous live nodes.

Pictured above is a makeshift reflector constructed from pieces of board, wire, a plastic tub and, ironically enough, a couple of USAID vegetable oil cans that was made today by Hameed, Rahmat and their friend "Mr. Willy".

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Day of mourning for military Development

afghan warNews sources say that President Obama will choose “escalate” with additional troops for Afghanistan in his speech at West Point tonight. I and many like-minded individuals find this disastrous. “Like-minded” means that critics of top-down state plans for economic development are also not fans of top-down state plans for military development. If the Left likes the first, and the Right likes the second, that just shows you how incoherent Left and Right are.

Will Wilkinson has a great column mocking the anti-PC Conservatives for mindless Conservative PC on militarism:

The public praise of martial virtue encourages a martial culture in which war is seen not as a gruesome tragedy but as a stage for the performance of righteous valor. … applause only reinforces a deeply ingrained American habit of easy patriotism so mindless and self-satisfied that we cannot see the brazen moral relativism of it. This is our war, so it is just.

And when you military claim the sanction of some development economists for armed intervention, I think other development economists have a right to fight back. If you military are going to do development, then we will do military. If you think you can impose conditions on Karzai for military aid, why don’t you read some of our articles on the failure of conditions for economic aid.

The somewhat clumsy words of George Kennan during the Vietnam War have seemed eerily appropriate to many reviewers recently:

If we can find nothing better to do than embark upon a further open-ended increase in the level of our commitment simply because the alternatives seem humiliating and frustrating, one will have to ask whether we have not become enslaved to the dynamics of a single unmanageable situation - to the point where we have lost much of the power of initiative and control over our own policy, not just locally but on a world scale.

And lastly the masterful essay by Garry Wills in a recent New York Review of Books:

We sink deeper into blood, with no foreseeable end in sight…Some leader has to break the spell before costs mount further while our wars are passed from President to President…Barack Obama said he would rather be a one-term president than give up on his goals. Here is a goal no other president we can imagine would have a possibility of reaching. Presidents who just kick the can down the road are easy to come by. Lost lives and limbs are not.

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Will Aid Escalation Finally Crash in the Mountains of Afghanistan?

There has been a remarkable escalation in the scale and intrusiveness of aid interventions over the years (this was one of the major conclusions of my survey paper on aid to Africa). It seems to be reaching the reductio al absurdum in the current debate on whether to escalate US intervention in Afghanistan.

Let’s review the record:

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Life in the Aid World: Caught Red-Handed, No Consequences

Last week, a report in USA Today brought to light a story of aid funds going badly astray. In case you have not followed the story, it seems that back in 2003, USAID contracted with the UNDP and UNOPS to complete a series of “quick impact” infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, to build badly needed roads, bridges, and community buildings. A US government report on the project, sparked by a tip from an anonymous complainant, found that many of the projects reported as “complete” by the UN were in fact unfinished or had such “life-threatening oversights” that they could not be used. The USA Today reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to access the government report, which he then published along with the article.

Here are a few highlights of the report:

  • According to a former UNOPS employee, some $10 million of the USAID grant funds was diverted to projects outside of Afghanistan, in Sudan, Haiti, Sri Lanka and, most memorably, Dubai.
  • The UNDP withdrew $6.7 million of project funds in 2007, after the project had ended and without USAID’s knowledge. The investigators could not pin down how those funds were spent.
  • A bank was built for $375,000 without electricity, plumbing or proper drainage. The report found that the basement had flooded, destroying stacks of money, and the walls were rotting.
  • A $250,000 bridge, reported as “completed,” was dangerous and unusable, having been designed too small for the site where it was built.
  • An airstrip budgeted at $300,000 actually cost $729,000 to build. After a description of the major engineering flaws in the construction of the airstrip, the report concluded that military planes cannot safely land there and that “erosion rills or ruts will continue to expand until they reach the runway itself, destroying it completely.” In other words, USAID paid $729,000 for a patch of mud.
  • There may be more to come: “questions remain unanswered” because several UN officials refused to be interviewed and the UN failed to provide requested documents during the investigation.

USAID is also to blame for choosing such a bad contracting arrangement, and for not having procedures to catch this earlier and seek full compensation. USA Today reported:

Federal prosecutors in New York City were forced to drop criminal and civil cases because the U.N. officials have immunity. USAID has scaled back its dealings with the U.N. and hired a collection agency to seek $7.6 million back, Deputy Administrator James Bever said. The aid agency hasn't heeded its inspector general's request to sever all ties.

"There are certain cases where working with the U.N. is the only option available," Bever said in an e-mail.

At a UN briefing last week, the UNDP spokesman said that “there have already been a number of meetings, including at the highest level of UNDP and USAID, to work through this matter.” He said that he expected that the UNDP would have to pay USAID no more than $1.5 million.

A disastrous aid outcome, exposure in the mass media -- so what were the consequences? A number of meetings, possibly some money back, USAID disregards its own Inspector General’s request to break off ties with the UN (some unspecified “scaling back” except in other unspecified “certain cases”), and yet more meetings “at the highest levels.”

Since the initial reports, there has been no further media coverage or commentary except for an editorial critical of USAID in the Las Vegas Sun on April 17th. The USAID web site accessed on Monday, April 20, 2009 still listed as implementing partners UNDP (who announces it “remains responsive to the changing needs of a nation still in transition from conflict to peace”) and UNOPS (“we help our clients turn ideas into reality.”)

The USA Today story broke the same day that a USAID rep presented at a meeting in Washington called "Open Innovation for Government: Answering President Obama's Call for More Open, Effective Public Service."

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