Successful Development in Afghanistan: National Solidarity Program

HOST: Currently, foreign assistance supports all aspects of Afghan public service, from the police force to road infrastructure to farming. Unintended consequences often limit the effectiveness of these programs, but there is an alternative to the standard development model that results in waste, corruption, and conflict.

In the first segment of this series documenting the economy of Afghanistan and the measures required to sustain the Afghan state, War News Radio’s Jared Nolan examined the administration of foreign aid in Afghanistan and concluded that in many cases, the aid does just as much harm as good. In this part, Nolan focuses on a program practicing small-scale development at the community level.

NOLAN: You may never have heard of it, but the National Solidarity Program is the most successful development initiative in Afghanistan. And it’s not new; the project started back in 2003. Since then it has received over $1.5 billion in funding from international donors and reached all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces and 25,000 communities countrywide. All told, the program has directly affected over 18 million Afghans out of the country’s population of 29 million. So what sets this program apart?


ISMATI: I think the main reason is the design because compared to so many other development interventions in the country, NSP is totally different.

NOLAN: That’s Tariq Ismati, the Executive Director of the National Solidarity Program. He is referring to the alternative approach to development supported by Dr. David Kilcullen in the last segment of this series. Kilcullen founded Careus Associates, a consulting firm based in Washington and has counseled NATO in Afghanistan.

KILCULLEN: What i think we can say though is that the sorts of development assistance that tend to do better in a place like Afghanistan are things that focus on the village level or the district level.

NOLAN: But how does that work in practice? For the NSP it involves a two year process where communities apply for block grants disbursed by the Afghan government.  In the first step NGOs, what the program refers to as “facilitating partners,” reach out to the individual villages to establish elections for Community Development Councils, or CDCs. Once elected,  the CDC works with a facilitating partner ad identifes a project to serve community needs and then applies for a grant. When the money arrives the CDC organizes its development.

AYUBKHAN: And the projects implemented are those which a common person needs.

NOLAN: Ayubkhan is the Provincial Accountant for the Paktika Province division of the NSP.

AYUBKHAN: Paktika is located in a mountainous region, Here in most of the area underground drinking water is not available for the people and bringing water from one area to other is also difficult due to lack of transportation facilities, So people request for Handpump projects. And the most common types of projects in the province are Handpumps, Solars, Protection wall, Karez cleaning and Human capital development projects.

NOLAN: So these councils get money from the government to implement basic projects in their communities. About a quarter of the block grants go to transportation infrastructure, another quarter to improving water supply, and the rest is split between irrigation, education, and power. That’s all there is to it. But behind this simple design are untold advantages. The average value of the block grant that each community receives is $33,000 and maxes out at $60,000. According to Kilcullen, the limited amount of cash that can be allocated to any specific project has a number of positive effects.

KILCULLEN: One is it doesn’t create a big target for corrupt actors to come and try and win over a piece of the project.

NOLAN: Part of the project costs also come from the community members themselves. The village is required to contribute at least 10 percent of the costs, either in cash, labor, or in-kind. On average the communities provide 17 percent. This stipulation ensures buy-in from the community–they have a stake in the success of the initiative. So more often than not the projects proceed as planned. But that’s not even the most important thing.

KILCULLEN: Even though the project might be something to do with water or electricity the project is actually the community, not the thing itself.

NOLAN: Before this program, there was no institution at the local level, managed by Afghans, to organize development projects. Ayubkhan says the Community development councils have even exceeded their mandate.

AYUBKHAN: Our CDC is the base for local governance in the villages. They act as a bridge between the people and the government.  Now CDCs can share their problems and necessities with the  government and NGO’s at provincial and district levels.  They are able to resolve their conflicts within the communities by arranging a meeting in the presence of Mullah imam and elder people.

NOLAN: The CDCs have fulfilled the role of interim village councils and will continue to do so until formal elections can take place in the coming years. Ismati explains what this means for development in rural areas.

ISMATI: the important step for the sustainability of the development process is in fact afghan ownership in the capacity building and that’s why in order to have a sustainable change in the rural afghan communities we need to develop the capacity of afghans so in the future they can continue to work with those development processes in particular the local institutions at the village level.

NOLAN: So in order to ensure that development in Afghanistan continues, Afghans must be able to organize it themselves, and that is what this program accomplishes. Benefits are not just at the local level, however; the improvement in governance extends to federal institutions. The NSP is administered by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, or MRRD, one of the few Afghan ministries that has the proven ability to handle a large amount of development funds.

One of the main reasons behind this capacity is the amount of competent Afghans the program can retain at all levels. The NSP has resisted brain drain because it can offer salaries comparable to to the traditionally better-paying NGOs and contractors. Ayubkhan says that the NSP pays more than a regular government job and if he couldn’t find a position at NSP he would certianly work for an NGO. Ismati’s story is similar. For 12 years he worked in Afghanistan for NGOs and the United Nations on development and humanitarian projects.

ISMATI: and then i became part of MRRD since five years so i proved to be able leading different important programs in this ministry and as part of a competition process i was selected, been the director for two years.

NOLAN: Their career paths underlie an important trend. At its inception, the NSP’s management consisted solely of internationals. Now the only non-Afghan is in the finance department. This is what the experts mean when they say capacity building: Afghans having the ability to carry out development in their own country.

The NSP is now entering its third phase and the focus is on reaching the remaining 30 percent of communities. The program also plans to deliver a second round of block grants to a number of past recipients. The present concern, however, is that the remaining areas are the least secure in the country, and effectiveness of the program will drop since the facilitating partners cannot provide the same oversight to these communities. Ismati has a response.

ISMATI: it’s definitely a concern that insecurity will affect our program sometimes. but what is important that the program has been led and implemented by the local community in the past seven which we also had some areas that were unsecure but the people were quite able to support and defend the program. so given that strong commitment for that program encourages us that despite problems we might be able to deliver the program in those remaining areas.

NOLAN: Development can succeed when the villagers are invested. In fact, there are reported cases of community members defending their local projects from the Taliban, and as a result the Taliban are less likely to attack them. The program takes small steps by implementing very small projects to ensure that they reach completion and actually contribute to relieving poverty. It will never organize big development projects like highways or railroads, but it’s large-scale in the sense that it has improved the lives of so many people across Afghanistan. Overall, this program strikes a crucial balance between ensuring aid money is spent wisely and making a major impact.

Next time in this series on the Afghan economy and the search for a sustainable state, my colleague Alan Zhao will explore the complexity of illicit opium cultivation.

For War News Radio, I’m Jared Nolan.