After US Elections, Afghanistan's Future Is at Stake

08/11/2012 17:29 GMT | Updated 08/01/2013 10:12 GMT

News of a new US President always has an impact on others around the world. This week I am attending the World Economic Forum in India with leading politicians, economists, business leaders and community leaders. It is interesting to note that one particular issue has come to the fore at the forum this week after the US election result: a real and more focused conversation about the future of Afghanistan.

As anxiety surrounds the withdrawal of international military forces in 2014, it's important to highlight the achievements that Afghanistan has made and the concrete steps it has taken to build a generation of educated Afghan citizens.

When I travelled to Afghanistan in 2011, I visited a community based school near Haider Khallil where I watched hundreds of children being educated outside a partially constructed Mosque. It was an encouraging sight. More and more children were returning to schools and the government has stated that education is fundamental to its country's economic recovery. However local governments are still struggling to meet the funding needed to build more schools and hire more teachers.

The number of children attending school in Afghanistan has increased from under one million to more than seven million, an increase in enrolment unparalleled in any country's history. Even though mortality rates are still shockingly high, the number of children dying before their fifth birthday has halved and mothers are five times less likely to die from pregnancy related causes.

The international community has spent more than $60 billion on development aid to Afghanistan in the past ten years. No one working in development in Afghanistan would say that there hasn't been any waste, but they would also acknowledge that there has been very significant progress, and it's important that this is acknowledged and built upon. With around 57% of the population under the age of 18, investing in basic services for youth will be important for building a stable future. It is not the time to abandon a country as changes are starting to emerge.

Improvements in outcome indicators show that despite challenges with capacity or corruption, aid is working, and the government is delivering services. Funding for delivery of the basic health system is almost entirely managed by the government, and is saving lives.

In the space of 10 years, there has been significant progress. But it won't be sustained without substantial international assistance well into the next decade. To its credit, at the Tokyo conference in July, the international community made a $16 billion commitment to aid. It's a commitment that reflects a desire not to allow gains made go to waste. Yet it is a commitment that will be difficult to sustain without public support, particularly as Tokyo failed to decide about aid beyond 2016 when international attention for Afghanistan will have waned. Public support will rapidly diminish if the dominant narrative of Afghanistan continues to be one of failure.

Success or failure in Afghanistan isn't just about electoral outcomes, or the progress of military operations in gaining or losing ground to the insurgency. Even in areas where government control is at its most tenuous, access to healthcare and education is better than it was a decade ago. This is attributable to sustained investment in development aid. But it's also attributable to a growing awareness on the part of communities regarding their rights to essential services, and a growing willingness to assert these rights. This is something that can't be taken away.

Last week in Kabul, an Afghan woman working with the Afghan Ministry of Education was asked whether she had hope for the future. She said; "you need to remember Afghanistan is coming out of a war. To try to build it, you can't do it in 10 years. But in some provinces now, you can see schools even in the most remote areas. To see children going to school, it gives you hope. Schools are everywhere now. Maybe they're not all for girls and maybe the quality isn't good, but for this time period, at least for them to learn something, well, that's really something."