Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Afghanistan pursues at least $4B at huddle

Would-be donor nations seeking assurances of proper management

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan will seek at least $4 billion from international donors this weekend at a crucial aid conference aimed at propping up the country after most foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014.

Nations that once gave liberally, however, want more guarantees their taxpayers' money will not be lost to corruption and mismanagement.

Representatives from about 70 countries and organizations meeting Sunday in Tokyo will establish a road map of accountability to ensure Afghanistan does more to improve governance and finance management, and to safeguard the democratic process, rule of law and human rights -- especially those of women.

Foreign aid in the decade since the U.S. invasion in 2001 has led to better education and health care, with nearly eight million children, including three million girls, enrolled in schools. That compares to one million children more than a decade ago, when girls were banned from school under the Taliban.

Improved health facilities have halved child mortality and expanded basic health services to nearly 60 per cent of Afghanistan's population of more than 25 million -- compared to less than 10 per cent in 2001.

But donors have become wary of corruption-busting pledges that have not always been delivered. Some highly placed Afghan officials have been investigated for corruption but seldom prosecuted, and some of the graft investigations have come close to the president himself.

The stakes are high as President Hamid Karzai faces international weariness with the war and frustration over his failure to crack down on corruption more than a decade after the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban.

Afghanistan has received nearly $60 billion in such aid since 2002. The World Bank says foreign aid makes up nearly the equivalent of the country's gross domestic product.

Those funds, which are needed for basic services such as health care, education and infrastructure, are expected to sharply diminish after international troops withdraw even as the country faces continued threats from the Taliban and other Islamic militants.

Karzai has said he will ask for $4 billion annually for the first three years of what his government describes as a period of transformation from 2015 to 2025. That will come on top of $4.1 billion pledged last May at a NATO conference in Chicago to fund the Afghan National Security Forces from 2015 to 2017.

The World Bank has calculated Afghanistan will need $3.3 billion to $3.9 billion in annual non-security spending for those first three years of the transition to cover a shortfall in its gross domestic product of just over $17 billion.

But donors will be looking to provide their funds through the government's bureaucracy in a way that will minimize the risk of having them siphoned off in a country that was listed last year as the third-most-corrupt in the world.

Despite the concerns, Britain and other nations agree Afghanistan will need significant help in the post-2014 era so it does not slip back into chaos and civil war.

"Afghanistan faces enormous challenges in the years ahead, and will require significant long-term international development assistance. If that is not forthcoming, the progress made so far with security and development will be put at risk, with repercussions for Afghans, the region and us," Andrew Mitchell, Britain's international development secretary, warned during a trip to Kabul earlier this week.

Britain already has promised about $280 million in development assistance per year until 2017.

The World Bank said the delivery of international aid and its use in building a more effective state has been hampered by "inevitable waste and corruption, aid dependency and use of parallel systems to circumvent limited government absorptive capacity."

An abrupt aid cutoff, it warned in a report ahead of the conference, could lead to a collapse similar to the one after the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989, cutting off funding to the regime it once supported.

Humanitarian organizations and agencies fear the Tokyo conference will focus on accountability and managing declining funds to the detriment of Afghanistan's needy.

"The Tokyo conference will decide the lives of millions of people for years to come. We know that when the troops leave, the attention will leave," said Christine Roehrs, spokeswoman for Save the Children in Afghanistan. "We are worried that at Tokyo they will be talking about the conditions for aid rather than the aid itself."

Other organizations worry there is a feeling the Afghan war has been won or is at an end.

"There is a need to portray this as a success story, especially in the United States. There have been gains, but they are reversible," said Louise Hancock, Oxfam's head of policy and advocacy in Afghanistan.

The Afghan economy, which is largely driven by international aid and military spending, is widely expected to go into recession after 2014. The U.S. already has almost halved the just over $4 billion it gave in 2010 and that is expected to be further cut next year.

European Union countries are expected to contribute the equivalent of about $1.5 billion of the funds required post-withdrawal, but they, like others, worry about how their funds will be spent.

"We know Afghanistan will need continuous support and the EU is committed to that. But we are not blind and we feel a considerable fatigue among taxpayers in the EU and beyond," said Vygaudas Usackas, the EU's special representative for Afghanistan.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 A29

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