Tag Archives: USAID

Afghanistan’s advances for women could disappear as soon as US troops leave

Women of Hutal village discuss building a women's center with the Maiwand District Governor - courtesy of Cythia Hogle

Women of Hutal village discuss building a women’s center with the Maiwand District Governor – courtesy of Cythia Hogle

WASHINGTON — In a rural village southwest of Kandahar, a local police force operates out of a posh modern facility surrounded by mud-brick buildings.

Three years ago it was built as a cooperative US-Afghan venture to be a focal point for the advancement of women in the community.

The Malalai Anaa Center for Women and School for Girls in Hutal village was the face of success for American policy in Afghanistan: a collaborative effort by the US military, the US Agency for International Development, NGOs and local leaders and laborers. It would provide vocational training, a girls’ school and a water source for the women of Maiwand District. It would be a prime example of the advances women have been able to make in Afghanistan since coalition forces moved in.

Except, now it’s gone.

As soon as US forces turned over the area to the Afghan National Security Forces in 2013, local police closed the center, ran the women out and commandeered the building for their own headquarters.

“We could have predicted it,” recalled Cynthia Hogle, a cultural adviser with the US Army’s Human Terrain System who coordinated the project.

“We didn’t have any plan for sustainability and relied on the [Afghan] government, who made empty promises” to continue supporting the center, she told Medill News by phone.

Advancing Afghan women’s rights has been a key US policy objective since 2001, when Congress passed the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act. Under the previous rule of the Taliban, women were banned from schools, work, health care and all manner of public life.

Significant gains have been made over the last 13 years. But some experts are worried that without sustainable support, those inroads will reverse as soon as US forces leave the country.

According to USAID, the agency primarily responsible for implementing US gender policy in Afghanistan, girls today comprise more than one-third of all school children. More than 40,000 women are enrolled in post-secondary education, and women now maintain an active and visible role in economic and political life, including holding 25 percent of the seats in the Afghan parliament.

Yet increasingly, those advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan are subjected to violence and intimidation as well as government indifference, according to an Amnesty International report from April.

Throughout Afghanistan, the “common thread … is that the pattern of abuse against women human rights defenders is matched by the government’s systematic failure to provide an environment that protects them or to bring the perpetrators of abuses to justice,” the report claims.

Ill-conceived economic and political support from the international community makes the problem worse, AI says. Investment tends to be limited, focusing on short-term projects developed with little input from those who would benefit.

The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the agency set up by Congress to oversee approximately $104 billion invested in the country for redevelopment, is also concerned. Last month, SIGAR released an inquiry letter into the joint US-Afghan Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs (PROMOTE).

USAID’s flagship program for women’s empowerment in Afghanistan — and its largest in the world — plans to spend $416 million targeting 75,000 Afghan women ages 18 to 30 to become future political, business and civil society leaders.

But in the letter, SIGAR Inspector General John Sopko worried that “some very basic programmatic issues remain unresolved and that the Afghan women engaged in the program may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion.”

Donald Sampler, USAID’s assistant administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, acknowledged that the “context in which PROMOTE is being implemented is not an easy one,” but believes the program will be successful.

Sustainability will be achieved “by prioritizing local ownership of activities and employing Afghan organizations to undertake PROMOTE activities,” Sampler says.

Sopko, however, was unconvinced.

“SIGAR continues to have concerns about how USAID will implement the PROMOTE program, assess its outcomes, ensure its sustainability, and conduct oversight, concerns which are shared by other senior US and Afghan officials,” he said in an interview, adding that SIGAR will continue to monitor the program.

Even Afghanistan’s new first lady, Rula Ghani, was skeptical about the program in a speech last November.

“The immediate effect in Kabul [of PROMOTE] has been a flurry of NGOs, newly created or reconfigured with the view of attracting some of the windfalls of that budget,” Ghani said.

“I do hope that we are not going to fall again into the game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else.”

Between 2011 and 2013, USAID spent almost $850 million on 17 women’s empowerment programs in Afghanistan, but were unable to demonstrate this money directly helped Afghan women, according to a December 2014 SIGAR audit.

Despite general improvements in the status of Afghan women, according to the report, there is “no comprehensive assessment available to confirm that these gains were the direct result of specific US efforts.”

The women of Hutal village might agree. The Malalai Anaa Center — named for a local heroine who led Pashtun tribesmen to successfully revolt against the British in 1880 — might soon be just a memory.

“Without the support of their government or the men in their community, all the work and progress will come to a halt and the hopes of the women will be dashed,” Hogle said.

“There are just too many challenges for them to overcome without some source of continuing support.”

Published in conjunction with Global Post Logo

Aid workers pay high price for USAID policy in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON –Security for aid workers in Afghanistan is deteriorating and nongovernment organizations blame U.S. development policies for putting more lives at risk.

The U.S. Agency for International Development requires that humanitarian aid projects in Afghanistan support the military’s war strategy, a policy that has made aid workers targets for the Taliban, nongovernment organizations say.

“There are more attacks on aid workers now,” said Ann Richard, vice president of government relations at the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernment organization with programs in Afghanistan. “Security for NGOs has gone in the opposite direction.”

USAID policies explicitly support the counterinsurgency war strategy in Afghanistan, and the agency allocates funding to nongovernment organizations based on how their projects “contribute to COIN goals,” according to agency guidelines. COIN is shorthand for counterinsurgency, the war strategy used in the Iraq and Afghanistan that coordinates military force with development and peacekeeping efforts to defeat insurgent groups.

USAID grants require aid organizations work closely with the military on projects such as “battlefield clean up,” where aid workers are sent to clean up post-conflict damage in communities where there was heavy fighting, Richard said.

Merging nongovernment aid projects with military operations has tarnished the apolitical, impartial image critical to the safety of aid workers, many organizations say. The general assumption among Afghans is that aid organizations are working for the U.S. military, said one aid worker who helps run medical programs for an organization that has worked in Afghanistan for more than 15 years.

“If there’s anger at the military, then often times the NGOs will have to pay for it,” said the aid worker, who asked not to be named for fear he might jeopardize the organization’s programs.

Three aid workers were killed in July when suicide bombers attacked the compound of Development Alternatives, a consulting group that helps implements USAID development projects in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which officials said was a response to the recent surge of U.S. troops.

“Even the perception of being tied to the military can have tragic results,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at Center for American Progress and a former State Department official.

Development aid has been tied to counterinsurgency since the war strategy was implemented in Iraq during the Bush administration, but only recently have nonprofits started to collectively push back. The Obama administration has ratcheted up aid efforts in Afghanistan, where the need for infrastructure and humanitarian aid far exceeds that in Iraq.

Safety concerns are paramount in Afghanistan, where insurgents are killing civilians at a rate three times higher than they did during the Iraq war, according to a paper released in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The Taliban’s murder of 10 members of Christian organization International Assistance Mission on Aug. 5 has escalated fears among aid workers.

“It’s not a good situation,” said Beth Cole, director of intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Institution of Peace. “The Taliban are circling Kabul. The days are waning.”

Since the start of 2010, there have been 76 attacks on nongovernment workers in Afghanistan, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that provides security information for humanitarian workers in the country. Fifteen of those incidents, which include violent attacks and abduction, occurred in July.

Several nongovernment organizations working in Afghanistan have stopped applying for USAID funding and are instead seeking more funding from private donors and the EU, aid workers reported. Still, many organizations say they cannot regain the trust they worked to earn in Afghan communities since long before the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Some argue that aid workers’ blame is misplaced. Because of the increased threat from insurgent groups, development organizations have to learn to work closer with the military, said Richard Owens, director for community stabilization at International Relief and Development.

“You cannot rely on your good relationship with the local communicates to keep you safe anymore,” said Owens, who has a background in coordinating military-civilian operations. “In a world where the Taliban exists, all bets are off.”

Nonprofits are “naive” to think association with the military puts them at greater risk, said Andrew Natsios, a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University and USAID administrator from 2001 to 2006. The Taliban target aid organizations because they are bringing development to Afghanistan, Natsios said.

“Whatever is not 12th century in their world view is regarded as the enemy,” Natsios said. “What the Taliban is fighting against is modernization.”

According to media reports, the Taliban killed the Christian aid workers earlier this month because they were “spying” for the U.S. and “preaching Christianity.” The international group included Afghan nationals and had worked in the country for more than 30 years.

A senior adviser at one high-profile aid organization working in Afghanistan said his organization had been doing development work in Taliban-controlled areas because aid workers spent years proving to insurgents that they did not have a political mission. The organization is rethinking where they can send workers and type of projects they can do under increased security threats.

Development efforts have shifted to areas in Afghanistan where U.S. military forces are concentrated. Health programs in other areas of the country have been shut down, replaced by new projects in the south and east, where fighting is the heaviest, said Leonard Rubenstein, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins and former U.S. Institute of Peace fellow.

The inequitable distribution of aid runs contrary to nonprofit development practices that stress equitable resources across ethnic groups and has created animosity among some communities “who feel they are being penalized for being peaceful,” according to research by Andrew Wilder, an expert on governance and aid in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Some nongovernment organizations fear communities that have lost development projects may lash out at aid workers, creating new conflict in previously stable areas.

“It’s actually counterproductive,” Rubenstein said. “You’re really shooting yourself in the foot.”