London Conference on Afghanistan

A Call for More Efficient and Inclusive Development Assistance

Washington DC, January 28, 2010 - According to the United Nations, 2009 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan, 1 and the January 18th Taliban-sponsored bombings in Kabul suggest 2010 is not off to a much better start. With the national elections postponed for 4 months, the future for this troubled nation seems more uncertain than ever. Widespread corruption and immense poverty compound problems, pointing to mounting problems despite immense international investment--more than $20bn since 20012. As in the rest of the world, Afghanistan's women are more likely to live in poverty and be targeted for violence, and less likely to enjoy the benefits of national services or international aid. "There are two Afghanistans," says Sweeta Noori, Women for Women International's Afghanistan Country Director, "The international community often sees one Afghanistan that is progressing and developing. Yet there is another Afghanistan that is violent, unstable, and very scary for women."

The status of women is increasingly accepted as an indicator of the overall stability and openness of a state-women are the bellwether of society. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in today's Afghanistan. It is the 2nd poorest nation in the world, with over 42% of the population living in absolute poverty.3 Poverty exacerbates tension, displacement and conflict, leaving people vulnerable to exploitation and extremists' demands. As donors refine priorities in tackling enduring challenges to security and development in the country, we must look again at the trajectory of Afghan women, asking ourselves difficult questions about the efficacy of our efforts, whether or not our funds and efforts are reaching the people they are intended to help, and how we can readjust our focus to ensure that our approaches ensure the effective and inclusive development of a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan. We must commit ourselves not only to frontline discussions of war and troop levels, but also to backline issues of health and social, political and economic participation- the very issues that define the status of women.

Security and Development: A Direct and Incontrovertible Link

The security situation in Afghanistan is increasingly unstable. According to the UN, 40% of Afghanistan is still vulnerable to Taliban.4 The civilian death toll continues to rise, as do rates of violence against women. At the same time, Afghanistan is home to among the world's most extreme poverty levels. Approximately 8.5 million people (37%) are on the borderline of food insecurity, and 7.4 million people - nearly a third of the population - are unable to get enough food to live active, healthy lives.5 The case study of Afghanistan demonstrates how inextricably intertwined and mutually-dependent security and development are: without adequate security, there will never be a safe space for sustainable development.

The outlook for women is especially bleak. Afghanistan has the world's second highest maternal mortality rate and 7% of women die in child birth. That is one woman every 27 minutes.6 Just as alarming, the UN reports that 80% of women are affected by domestic violence. Rape has become an everyday occurrence. Women who attempt to participate in public life are consistently threatened and attacked. Female politicians, journalists, and even women and girls seeking education are assaulted and sometimes killed.7 Despite a 25% parliamentary quota for women's seats, would-be female candidates sustain threats and worry that contending for this year's parliamentary elections could cost them their lives or family members. 8 Women who seek the vote are also intimidated-Noori describes entire communities where women were unable to visit the polls in the August elections while men and boys as young as twelve voted "for" them. Furthermore, says Noori, elected female politicians are paraded about as "window dressings," often purely cosmetic indications of women's political participation.

International Assistance: More Direct Investment in Women Needed

Despite tremendous international investment in Afghanistan, crippling poverty, instability and unsanitary conditions prevail.9 Closer examination of existing aid patterns reveals an estimated 40% of aid goes back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries - some $6 billion since 2001.10 Between aid flight and widespread corruption, little aid reaches the ground-security and lack of infrastructure prevent further obstacles, with rural areas rarely benefiting from international assistance. Of the small sum that reaches poor Afghans, even less reaches the most vulnerable people at the bottom of the social pyramid: women and children.

Although programs like the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) are beginning to address these problems by diverting funds from Kabul to the provinces, there is still insufficient support for women. Although 10% of NSP funds and a few provincial council positions that disseminate those funds are reserved for women, often intimidation of female candidates prevents those seats from being filled and the funds are spent elsewhere. As Noori says, "the NSP is good, but not for women."

Recommendations for Donors: Security and Development

As donor countries step up military investment in Afghanistan in the name of security, we must also remember that civilian-led development efforts are equally critical--and complementary--to that effort. Afghanistan's most immediate needs are not national governance and policy reforms; it is the urgent interventions to help starving and impoverished Afghans, especially in rural areas and vulnerable communities such as women and children: 42% of Afghans are poor and 37% are hungry. This is the crisis of the day, and experts on the ground such as Noori know that the focus needs to be a long-term focus on community-level economic development and security. Investment is critically needed in comprehensive rural development, including market-based vocational skills training for women. Recognition of the interdependence of security and development should not equate a militarization of aid however; civilian humanitarian and development experts should be equally empowered. The military should invest in security and military training activities while civilian aid agencies specialize in development efforts such as building infrastructure, services, and local capacity.

In both of these critical arenas, a gendered approach is paramount to success. As mothers and caretakers, women have their fingers on the pulse of society and reinvest up to 90% of their income in the family. As leaders, they are often the first to cross lines of conflict to come together for common good. Afghan women must be able to access knowledge and leadership opportunities and to inform debate at all levels of the economy and society. Their needs must be met to help future generations and long term stability. Development strategies must empower women from the grassroots to the grass-tops, with equal investment in microfinance, vocational skills training and healthcare, as well as building women leaders and ensuring women are present at the negotiating table across the board. Security strategies must be committed to providing protection to women in public and private life, from schoolgirls, to voters, to members of parliament.

International Assistance

Existing foreign aid to Afghanistan needs urgently to be reformed. In order to combat corruption and ensure that assistance reaches Afghans, further monitoring and decentralization of aidflows is needed. Models like that of the National Solidarity Programme that attempt to decentralize assistance should be scaled, but also should ensure that earmarks exist for local women's programs and that those flows are monitored and evaluated effectively. More money should be directed to women and girls: instead of 10% of the funds, programs like the NSP should allocate a minimum of 25% of their development money to women, who are known to reinvest in families and communities. Furthermore, donors must ensure local leadership like the NSP provincial councils actually do represent women as well as men. Incentives and conditions could be imposed to mandate the inclusion of women in local councils and the national government, ensuring women are safe and quotas are fully implemented.

The Promise of Inclusive Development

Nearly a decade ago, when international focus first shifted to Afghanistan, civil society leaders such as Noori had hope that a new window would be opened for social, political and economic empowerment for women and for all Afghans. For this hope to be realized, we must refine our approaches, ensuring that new strategies are inclusive, transparent, and more effectively promoting the long-term peace and prosperity of Afghanistan.

  1. UNAMA. "UNAMA calls for safety first, as civilian casualties rise in Afghanistan rise by 14% in 2009," January 2010.
  2. "Q+A-Does aid money reach Afghans?" 09 Sep 2009 Source: Reuters
  3. UNDP. Human Development Report 2009; OHCHR, Silence is Violence, July 2009.
  4. Bergen, Peter. U.N. map shows that 40 percent of Afghanistan is vulnerable to Taliban, Foreign Policy, August 2009.
  5. WFP. Afghanistan. 2010,
  6. Leidl, P. Dying to Live: Maternal Mortality in Afghanistan, UNFPA, July 2006.
  7. OHCHR. Silence is Violence, July 2009.
  8. Ibid.
  9. U.S. Commercial Service. Doing Business in Afghanistan, 2007.
  10. Waldman, Matt. Falling Short, Oxfam, March 2008.