In Afghanistan, all policy is local

IN AFGHANISTAN, ALL POLICY IS LOCAL…. There hasn’t been much in the way of good news out of Afghanistan lately, which is all the more reason to take a closer look at this front-page piece in the New York Times on an aid effort called the National Solidarity Program.

Small grants given directly to villagers have brought about modest but important changes in this corner of Afghanistan, offering a model in a country where official corruption and a Taliban insurgency have frustrated many large-scale development efforts. […]

People [in Jurn, in the northeastern portion of the country] have taken charge for themselves — using village councils and direct grants as part of an initiative called the National Solidarity Program, introduced by an Afghan ministry in 2003.

Before then, this valley had no electricity or clean water, its main crop was poppy and nearly one in 10 women died in childbirth, one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Today, many people have water taps, fields grow wheat and it is no longer considered shameful for a woman to go to a doctor.

If there are lessons to be drawn from the still tentative successes here, they are that small projects often work best, that the consent and participation of local people are essential and that even baby steps take years.

After more than eight years of war, plenty of aid has arrived in Afghanistan from around the world, but much of it has gone through the dubious central government or gone to private contractors. The World Bank helped establish the National Solidarity Program six years ago, but the Bush administration was never fond of it.

That was a mistake — the NSP has, in many ways, proven to be a silver-bullet program for Afghanistan. It gets needed resources to Afghan villages; it promotes stability by connecting local governance and development with the national government in Kabul; and it fosters democracy and accountability throughout the country.

In the Jurn example highlight by the NYT piece, this was an area “tormented by warlords” in the 1990s, and detached from the central government today. With modest, direct grants through the NSP, locals improved local infrastructure and built schools.

“Local residents contend that the councils work because they take development down to its most basic level,” the article noted, “with villagers directing the spending to improve their own lives, cutting out middle men, local and foreign, as well as much of the overhead costs and corruption.:

A farmer was quoted in the piece saying, “You don’t steal from yourself.”

Robert Zoellick had an op-ed about the program last year: “The National Solidarity Program (NSP) that the World Bank helped launch with former finance minister Ashraf Ghani in 2003 empowers more than 20,000 elected Community Development Councils to allocate modest grants to local priorities, whether micro-hydroelectric generators, schools, roads, irrigation, erosion or water supply projects. It touches more than 17 million Afghans in all 34 provinces and has an economic rate of return of close to 20 percent. The program links self-help with self-determination.”

For more on this, Gregory Warner had the definitive piece on the NSP in the Monthly in 2007, called, “The Schools the Taliban Won’t Torch.” Take a look.