Afghanistan’s Road to Recovery Starts NowNov 21, 2020
This week, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, along with Finland and the United Nations, will co-host an online ministerial pledging conference intended to refocus international attention on the country’s long-term development. After years of bloodshed, Afghanistan is on the road to peace, prosperity, and self-reliance. But the country cannot arrive there alone. Afghans need moral and financial support more than ever, and this week’s pledge drive is their best chance at securing it.
Officially the “2020 Afghanistan Conference,” this socially distanced gathering comes at a critical time in the country’s fraught history. After 19 years of fighting, the Taliban and Afghan government have begun mutual negotiations and signed a peace treaty in February 2020. Keeping the forward momentum, however, will not be easy.
Talibs have so far refused to take part in the constructive discussion on the dreams, interests, and plans for the future with either the Afghan government or their fellow citizens (50% of whom are women). The Taliban’s armed struggle and its “anti-politics” view on governing has, since 2001, effectively contributed to the ongoing division within Afghan society. This in turn has prevented the government from focusing on reconstruction and instead directed resources to fighting an endless civil war. In other words, simply having the Taliban at the negotiating table now has been considered a victory by many. But talk is cheap. Afghans need action.
Of critical importance is supporting the peace process. Western governments should encourage the Taliban to listen to the needs and desires of all Afghans, and continually remind the Talibs that their political momentum can only be sustained if they act as accountable politicians. This level of international support would be a morale booster to Afghans and signal that the development agenda promoted during many years of conflict continues to resonate in Western capitals.
The pledging part is equally important. One of the main aims of this week’s Afghanistan conference is to commit the Afghan government and the international community to shared development objectives for the next four years, and that includes financial support. Afghanistan remains highly dependent on foreign aid despite some improvements in its tax collection system. As political instability and fighting hampers economic growth (average annual GDP growth since 2015 is just 2.2%), a growing population is putting increased pressure on income generation and highlighting the weakness of the labour market. According to some estimates, the Afghan government needs at least $5 billion USD in aid every year “merely to prevent the collapse of its core institutions.”
To be sure, there are many challenges that Afghans must tackle themselves, such as promoting a culture of active listening, and governing by consensus rather than special interest. Issues like lawlessness, corruption, and the lack of trust in public institutions can only be solved with Afghans in the lead.
Other struggles, however, are purely humanitarian or systematic. This is where the international community can show its clear support and offer cooperation in line with the UN agenda of Sustainable Development Goals, the Geneva Conventions, and other international humanitarian and development standards.
Consider the example of waste management. The World Bank estimates that in Kabul alone more than 600,000 tonnes of solid waste are generated every year. Out of this, at least 15% of the waste is plastic and paper. But instead of recycling these materials and turning them into post-consumer products for domestic use, Afghanistan imports packaging materials from Pakistan and beyond. International assistance could help Afghanistan build a viable recycling supply chain – turning waste into jobs.
In northern Afghanistan, People in Need is working to do just that. With USAID funding, we’re helping to build a plastics recycling supply chain to create jobs, strengthen economic resilience, and produce socially inclusive and environmental-friendly businesses that meet international standards for worker protections and product quality.
A key objective for projects like these must be to empower young people and give Afghanistan’s youth reason to dream. Children under 14 represent 41.8% of the country’s 39 million people, a huge labour pool that will soon need jobs. But according to UNICEF, at least 3.7 million children did not attend school in 2019. On average, just 23% of all children (and 14% of girls) finish at least nine years of schooling. Without continued financial aid and expert cooperation with Afghan teachers and schools, opportunities for the current generation of Afghans will look strikingly similar to those of their parent’s.
The war-stricken country will need significant assistance to address issues linked to recurring draughts, floods, natural disasters, and other impacts of climate change. Improving access to education, lowering unemployment, and protecting natural resources – key elements of sustainability – will not come cheap. While life in urban areas has improved in recent years, these changes have largely bypassed rural regions or vulnerable groups.
There is understandably some reluctance to deliver the aid that Afghanistan needs at this juncture in its recovery. Questions of capacity remain, as do concerns that after nearly two decades of development, governments are simply not willing to fund the country amid growing signs of “Afghanistan fatigue” at home. Donors can address these concerns by ensuring that the Afghan government addresses problems that undermine reconstruction and development efforts and document the impact of funds.
Afghanistan’s road to prosperity and peace is riddled with potholes, but there is a clear path through the debris. The international community has a clear responsibility to support the Afghan people, and the Afghanistan conference is a unique opportunity to demonstrate that after coming this far, the world will not leave the country stranded.