INTERNATIONAL. Next week President Obama hosts a NATO summit in Chicago. It comes on the heels of his recently announcement of a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan.
In broad terms, the agreement commits the United States to support the Afghan government militarily and economically for the next ten years.
While most of the discussion has understandably focused on the security dimension, what this agreement means in terms of continuing investment in civilian economic and social development could be even more important over the long-term.
While security is necessary, it is not sufficient to ensure peace and stability. That requires sustainable development that provides citizens with a reason to support their government.
Afghanistan is one of the larger reconstruction projects in history. Since 2001, the United States alone has invested more than $80 billion to help Afghans improve their governance, develop their economy, and improve the quality of life of its citizens, including women and girls.
There have been significant successes, many of which are unknown outside Afghanistan. Hundreds of miles of new roads have been built, increasing the mobility and personal freedom of untold numbers of Afghans.
Communities now have greater access to healthcare, education, government services, and internal and external markets. In 2002, the country’s per-capita GDP was well under $200 a year, and fewer than 9 percent of Afghans had access to healthcare. Today, annual per capita GDP exceeds $1,000, and more than 60 percent have access to healthcare. Likewise, infant mortality has dropped, and female life expectancy is climbing.
What is extraordinary about this story of human and economic development is that these gains have been made in the midst of conflict. Many Afghans – and their international partners – have sacrificed to build a stable and peaceful society, and many Afghans are committed to building a better life. Afghanistan needs a stable government structure and a secure environment for its citizens to build on these gains.
These things can only come about if there is a political breakthrough. A peace settlement of some sort is necessary, even if it is not comprehensive. An accommodation is needed that allows each side to coexist without resorting to violence to achieve its goals.
The international community and the US government need to continue to work together to bring about a political settlement and stable government. As importantly, the US Congress will need to invest the necessary resources to maintain stability, improve governance, and keep the country on the path to development. How should these civilian aid programs be planned and implemented over the next decade?
First, build on what already exists. Development programs are especially effective when they seek to help people improve what they already do. In Afghanistan, this first and foremost means agriculture. It involves direct work with farmers, as well as investments in the infrastructure that expands market access and overcomes constraints along the value chain. Investing in infrastructure – roads, bridges, and the electrical grid – can yield impressive results for the development of market-driven agriculture.
Second, government aid groups and non-governmental organization must continue to work with and through communities. Sustainable economic and social development only succeeds if it identifies and engages with local power structures and leverages the knowledge and capabilities of local leaders and groups.
By engaging local leaders, we help resolve feuds that impede work, organize resistance to those who would disrupt it, and develop the long-term commitment and resources to maintain infrastructure.
Finally, we must build the capacity of local partners. As the US Agency for International Development puts it in its USAID Forward initiative, development organizations must build in sustainability from the start.
The ultimate goal of development cooperation must be to enable developing countries to devise and implement their own solutions to their development challenges and to develop resilience against shocks and other setbacks. Sustainability is about building skills, knowledge, institutions, and incentives that can make development processes self-sustaining.
In the midst of terrible loss, Afghanistan has made real gains. The losses and gains only make sense if Afghanistan remains on the path of sustainable development. Economic and social development does not eliminate conflict. But it is nearly impossible to prevent conflict without real development. It is up to those who care about Afghanistan and the long-term interests of the international community to see that development in Afghanistan continues.
That must be on the agenda in Chicago—and in the halls of Congress in the months and years ahead.
Note: Dr. Arthur B. Keys, Jr., is founder, President, and CEO of International Relief & Development (IRD) of Arlington, VA.