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Why Afghanistan Still Needs Foreign Aid

27/05/2016 16:03 | Updated 27 May 2016

Not long ago UK Prime Minister David Cameron was overheard describing Afghanistan as 'fantastically corrupt', a day before he hosted the country's president and other world leaders at the Anti-Corruption Summit, in mid-May.

For some, Cameron's unfortunately timed remark was another opportunity to criticise Britain's ring-fenced aid budget and challenge the amount it gives Afghanistan: £145million this financial year.

For others (myself included), Cameron's comments raised questions over why he singled out Afghanistan - alongside Nigeria - when corruption is, in fact, a global problem. For instance, figures released in May revealed that over $12trillion has been siphoned from emerging economies and into the hidden world of offshore finance, including the UK's overseas territories.

In addition to arguing about culpability, I believe it is important to ensure foreign aid is properly spent in places like Afghanistan, so that it reaches those most frequently overlooked in these debates: the women, children and men on the frontline of poverty.

Over a third of people are below the poverty line in Afghanistan, Asia's second poorest country. People here live in a state of continuous political volatility, uncertainty and insecurity, with limited development prospects.

This desperate situation is the result of over 30 years of destructive conflict - one that leaves the country struggling to provide for large populations of refugees, internally displaced persons and the tens of thousands who fled to Iran and Pakistan during the Taliban regime and are now returning.

A large part of governmental income is spent on military needs, with little investment in development. Afghanistan's economic, political and administrative structures cannot handle the development responsibility alone - nor should they, given the role of world leaders who were party to the flawed models of reconstruction after the 2001 US-led military intervention.

That's why I believe local and international NGOs represent the best hope for supporting a country characterised by poverty, gender inequality, conflict, insecurity, terror attacks, displacement, drought, floods, cold winters and mountainous terrain.

As an aid professional in Afghanistan, I have witnessed the extent to which overseas financial assistance makes a huge difference to those not yet able to help themselves.

Woman are a prime example. Gender inequality - a global issue - is particularly acute in Afghanistan. Women and girls are exceptionally disadvantaged due to religious, cultural, political and economic barriers stopping them from participating equally in society.

During the Taliban regime, women were denied access to education, health care, economic opportunities, resources, power and a political voice. Despite some gains, Afghanistan remains among the world's worst countries in this respect: even now, barely 16% of women have jobs, while fewer than 6% have completed secondary education.

However, things are changing, partly thanks to foreign aid. Such funds aren't given directly to governments, but channelled through international development agencies like Christian Aid, who partner with trusted local groups to ensure money is spent where the need is greatest.

For instance, over the past six years funds from the UK's Department for International Development (DfID), and its Programme Partnership Arrangement, have enabled Christian Aid to target nearly 48,000 poor, marginalised people, mostly women, in some of the hardest-to-reach areas.

With these funds, our partners have taught basic maths, literacy and income-management skills to women's groups and raised awareness of women's rights at community level, to start changing social and cultural practices discriminating against them.

Since women have very few opportunities for decent, well-remunerated work, we have worked to increase vocational skills, household income and rural entrepreneurship: one project helped 12,000 women earn around $200 each from silk trade, a huge boost to their earnings.

Initiatives like this, delivered in consultation with communities themselves, have yielded positive results. For instance, around 38% of voters in recent presidential polls were women, and in some provinces, including remote rural areas, some 50% of girls are now being educated.

Funds from other overseas donors have given us the means to provide safe drinking water to remote communities, legal services and tuition to women prisoners, and emergency relief to families caught up in conflict.

These are just some examples of how aid in Afghanistan is being used efficiently, cost-effectively and accountably.

Without outside help, things would be different. The fight for women's rights would falter; humanitarian assistance would be limited; access to education, healthcare, livelihoods support and employment would drop. Rural youth, who we have helped into work, would potentially be free to join opposition groups. The road to democracy and security would be compromised.

In short, the progress of the past decade would be reversed. Who would suffer most? The invisible, excluded, voiceless members of society: women, young people, the rural poor, those uneducated or living with disabilities.

Change takes time. It could be years, even decades, before Afghanistan can escape its cycle of conflict and underdevelopment, and embrace a future free from aid.

Until then, overseas aid will continue to be a much-needed lifeline for the poorest of the poor, not only in Afghanistan, and but in numerous other nations worldwide.

Subrata De is Afghanistan Country Manager for international development charity Christian Aid, based in Herat

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