American Incompetence, not Afghan Corruption: A Post-Mortem of Good Intentions
Like most children in Palestine, many of the first foreigners I met were well-intentioned volunteers and academics working for, and funded by, international non-profits and institutions. I idolized these young, lively, and worldly supporters of the Palestinian cause throughout my childhood. However, with adolescence comes cynicism. Despite being at least a decade younger, my friends and I could easily recognize the disorganization and ineffectiveness permeating many of these organizations. And while my view of the volunteers as individuals started to shift, the structural issues stemming from what we dubbed “The NGO culture” — the stifling of local grassroots efforts and long-term solutions by transient initiatives led by college students on a semester off — were by far the most worrying. Fortunately, over time the trickle of criticisms broke through into global discourse. By the late 2000s, terms like “white savior industrial complex,” “voluntourism,” and “trauma porn” were prevalent even in mainstream publications.
One can easily argue that this awareness of the potentially problematic aspects of non-profit work remains prevalent today. Anecdotally, during my graduate studies in the US, I became involved with a non-profit aiming at helping individuals experiencing displacement. I was elated to discover that cooperation with community members and grass-root initiatives, regular reflections, and careful considerations regarding the consequences were minimum requirements for a program even to be considered. When a university program we collaborated with wanted to send sophomores to refugee camps in Lesbos to hold “art therapy” classes for refugee children, our board turned down the offer unanimously. When a representative of another NGO pitched a program sending college students to volunteer as kids’ soccer coaches in “refugee camps in Africa” (one would-be volunteer admitted to never having played soccer), we simply never called back.
Moreover, even big traditional institutions began to tread more carefully. Universities were wary of getting involved with voluntourism programs. A genuine effort was sometimes made to include stakeholders in the decision-making processes. And many grants began to require reflections and post-mortem evaluations as conditions for funding.
Considering the above, the discourse surrounding recent events in Afghanistan is especially perplexing on the face of it. The very week after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, most major US news networks, including PBS, NBC, and CBS, published videos and headlines quoting John Soko — the Obama appointed Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — on how the rampant “endemic corruption” in Afghani institutions was a major driving force behind the downfall of the US-supported government. Still, one might have expected the major media networks to uphold the patriotic American mythos. What is truly surprising is the parroting of these talking points in “progressive” circles.
While researching a podcast series on Afghanistan, my team and I have interviewed half a dozen non-profit staffers and academics that worked in Afghanistan during the 20 years of the American occupation of the country. When asked what might explain the fragility of US-supported institutions and programs in Afghanistan, without fail, each and every interviewee paraphrased John Soko’s opinion. The absurd notion that provincial attitudes by Afghans led to the collapse of modern, American-designed, programs somehow became an accepted truth, and not one dissenting voice could be found.
One interview with academics from a renowned American university especially stood out to me. And while it is an interesting case study, I believe this initiative embodies many of the issues common in these types of programs. These academics were instrumental in organizing the extraction of close to 100 Afghans they collaborated with on a USAID-funded program. The initiative between the University of Kabul and the American university in question aimed to improve the agricultural yields of particular plants. The interviewees discussed in length the creation of a central database on the University of Kabul servers and the Masters’ students their program was supporting. The students selected were over 80% women as the academics felt that the gender ratio was too imbalanced in the Afghan team (the program was later marketed as gender-transformative). After the Taliban took over Kabul, the servers had to be wiped to protect the anonymity of the individuals involved. The interviewees lamented that this “necessary research” is now lost. The Afghan refugees are currently trying to register in a European university as their degree from Kabul is not internationally accredited. The program’s total cost was in the tens of millions of USD.
While one applauds the commitment to the safety of the Afghan colleagues, it is hard not to question the logic behind some critical decisions made during the over five-year run of this program. Afghanistan is notoriously decentralized, and UN think-tanks repeatedly emphasized that only local community-driven initiatives can succeed. Moreover, during the American occupation, online access peaked at around 13% and was mostly restricted to major cities using foreign infrastructure. Reading through the material released by the program, it is unclear how local farmers would be able to access or benefit from the centralized online database. The data collection would have been done by sending the Afghan staff (mostly women) from Kabul to farms all around Afghanistan multiple times a year. Finally, does a Ph.D. in Biology qualify one to lead a “gender-transformative” program?
After the interviewees asserted that corruption was the reason American initiatives in Afghanistan will not be sustained (how corruption relates to this specific program remained unclear), I pressed them on what they could have done to ensure this initiative has a lasting impact. The response was a deafening silence, even three months after termination, and despite giving dozens of interviews about their role in the rescue of their colleagues, a team of distinguished academics did not meet to do a post-mortem or reflect on the five-year multi-million dollar program.
The lessons learned through years of reflection on aid efforts in other communities were ignored in Afghanistan, and we are all reaping the bitter fruits. We must challenge the propaganda and assert that American incompetence, not Afghan corruption, is the reason for over twenty years of progress being unraveled in less than a month.