Making Reconstruction Work in AfghanistanJohn B. Taylor, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs
Remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations
October 9, 2002
Released by U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Public Affairs
It was one year ago this week that the United States and other coalition forces launched the military campaign to oust the Taliban and liberate the people of Afghanistan. Much has been accomplished in that year. The Taliban have been thrown out. The president of Afghanistan has been democratically elected. Nearly 2 million Afghan refugees have returned to their country. Tons of food and medicine have been delivered. Over 3 million children—both girls and boys—have gone back to school. Provincial governors have begun to send customs revenues to the central government. Shops and markets are free to open and are thriving. And just this week, the govern-ment began the introduction of a new currency—a symbol of national unity and economic stability.
Still, the Afghan people and the international community face an enormous task: rebuilding the basic infrastructure of Afghanistan, strengthening the central government, and laying the foundations for strong private sector growth. In my view there is now a unique window of opportunity to make real progress. President Karzai and his economic team are devoted to developing pro-growth policies—they speak of emulating free market success stories in Dubai and elsewhere. And the international donor community has mobilized to help Afghanistan succeed. Last January in Tokyo, donors pledged $4.5 billion over the next five years for this purpose. Reconstruction and economic development in Afghanistan can be a real success story. But more than a “business-as-usual” effort from the international donor community will be needed to achieve this success.
I have been serving as co-chair of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Steering Group for international assistance since its inception last fall. I recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan, where I met with President Karzai, Finance Minister Ghani, and other senior Afghan officials. I visited schools, businesses, humanitarian projects, and I met with representatives of the private sector and the international donor community.
Today I would like to share with you some thoughts on making reconstruction work in Afghanistan. My comments cover three areas: (1) creating an environment for private sector led economic growth; (2) strengthening the central government, and (3) rebuilding the infrastructure. I would like to take this opportunity to identify the principles that, in my view, should guide us in these efforts.
When listing their goals for foreign assistance in post-conflict situations, it is easy for government agencies and international organizations to forget the private sector. That would be a serious mistake in the case of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a very poor country with average income less than $1 a day. Of course, Afghanistan needs reconstruction; but it also needs economic growth. Without strong economic growth it will stay a poor country for many years. The only way Afghanistan can generate such growth is through the creation of higher productivity jobs by the private sector.
Fortunately there is a long tradition of private entrepreneurship in Afghanistan, especially in the areas of agriculture, light manufacturing, and trading. In 1832 an Englishman’s diary describes Kabul as an agricultural paradise. He wrote “there were peaches, plums, apricots, pears, apples, quinces, cherries, walnuts, mulberries, pomegranates, and vines” growing throughout the city. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan was internationally renowned for its many varieties of grapes and for its skillfully designed and woven carpets.
Today, with the Taliban ousted, that entrepreneurial spirit is again alive and well in Afghanistan. I saw that spirit in the streets of the city of Herat; one entrepreneur I met there made and sold glassware. The entrepreneur’s hands and feet were seriously deformed, crushed by the Taliban as he was driven out of business; but now he is back in business and happy to tell me about his products. He had manufactured for export 30 years ago and was anxious to get back in that export business too.
Driving through the streets of Kabul you can see how the private sector is already doing its part to rebuild the country. You see storefront after storefront selling uncut logs, bricks, mortar, trowels, handsaws, shovels. You see people streaming out of the shops carrying building materials to rebuild their houses or businesses destroyed in the conflicts of recent years. The scene reminded me of a Home Depot in the United States.
I could only imagine the huge improvements in productivity and the better life that precut lumber and cheap saws could bring; perhaps foreign investment by firms like Home Depot could some day be the agents of such change.
Recognizing this entrepreneurial spirit and its great potential, the government of Afghanistan is working quickly to create a business-friendly atmosphere. The government recently approved a new investment law, cut export taxes to zero, and developed a “one-stop shopping” process for investors. The government has invited foreign banks from the United States, from Europe, from the United Arab Emirates to come to Afghanistan under an innovative regulatory and supervisory structure: that the banks operate solely under their home-country laws and regulations. On my return to the United States from Afghanistan, I stopped, along with Finance Minister Ghani, in Dubai, where we met with the UAE central bank governor and finance minister. In order to spread the word about the good things Afghanistan was doing to encourage private sector growth, we discussed a conference on “Investing in Afghanistan” to be hosted by UAE in Dubai later this year.
The new national currency—the Afghani—will also be good for economic development. It will replace the three different currencies now in circulation. The new Afghani will help the central bank control money growth and keep inflation low. Price stability will foster economic growth. Moreover, with its new denominations, this currency will make buying and selling more efficient. Previously, a stack of Afghanis was needed to pay for a simple meal and a cartload was required for any major business transactions.
The government is matching this good monetary policy with fiscal discipline. It is swearing off deficit financing, looking for grants rather than loans to fill the financing gap until the economy is strong enough to generate enough tax revenue to support basic government services.
A goal of international assistance should be to build on these pro-growth economic policies and thereby help Afghanistan realize its great entrepreneurial potential. Helping to provide for a good infrastructure—schools, roads, air transport, and power—is of course essential. Because so much private sector activity is in agriculture, repairing irrigation channels and dams would have huge benefits in private sector development. The country is also endowed with abundant minerals and hydrocarbons, as well as great hydroelectric power potential. I believe there is much more that can be done to encourage private sector growth if the donor community listens carefully to the Afghan people.
I met with many traders and other businessmen in Kabul and Herat; they had good ideas about how international donors could encourage the private sector. They reminded me that factories as well as homes had been damaged or destroyed in the many conflicts. They suggested the building of industrial parks that would have the infrastructure needed for light manufacturing; they talked about export zones; they asked that export credit banks provide financing for the purchases of machinery from abroad. Because capital is in such short supply, there are huge returns to importing machines and rebuilding factories.
To better understand these huge returns consider the following example. I visited a UNDP construction project in Kabul: a renovation of a city park. I saw nearly 100 workers at the project, moving dirt around the park with picks and shovels. But I saw no machinery. No backhoes. No jackhammers. No trucks. Later, on the way back to the United States, I had to change planes in Amsterdam. Looking out the window from the airport waiting room I saw 2 workers; they were moving 50 times more dirt in an hour than all those 100 workers in Kabul. The difference of course was capital. One of those workers in Amsterdam was driving a huge dump truck and the other was operating a mammoth backhoe. I estimate (roughly of course) that productivity—the amount of dirt moved per hour—was 2,500 times greater because of that capital.
Direct Budget Support
If reconstruction is to work in Afghanistan it is essential that the country be unified and this requires that the central government in Kabul be strong and have legitimacy. Providing budget support to the central government is essential for this legitimacy, because the central government’s credibility depends upon its ability to pay salaries and provide basic services including security and education. President Karzai was elected with a huge majority, and he is gaining support from regional leaders, but civil conflict is still a risk to security and, as press reports make clear, certain areas still seem to be on the verge of conflict.
It is critical, therefore, to provide budget support for the central government. This point is simple enough to make, but it has proved to be one of the most difficult tasks of the reconstruction effort. Donors are frequently reluctant to give budget support. Some have expressed reservations about providing funds directly to the government because of concerns about financial controls. Others find their aid agencies much more willing to fund favorite projects or programs than to give unrestricted funds.
This is one reason why the U.S. Treasury has placed a budget expert in Afghanistan: to help implement sound budgeting, financial accountability, and auditing systems. The first budget put together last spring by the Afghanistan government is responsible and transparent. At $460 million in expenditures for the first fiscal year it was much more frugal than the $700 million estimated in the needs assessment exercise in Tokyo last January.
The finance ministry has been successful in setting up a good system with the assistance of reputable international consulting firms and the U.S. government. The government will soon be able to make electronic payments, replacing an antiquated manual system of payments. Using this system, teachers and government workers would receive their salaries directly from the finance ministry, which would prevent middlemen from skimming off the top. Donations to the government can be handled with accountability and transparency. On top of all this an Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which can channel funds for budget support from donors to the central government, has been established at the World Bank.
Rebuilding the Infrastructure
The third component needed to lay the foundation for economic recovery in Afghanistan is to accelerate the rebuilding of its infrastructure. Years of war have devastated Afghanistan’s roads, bridges, schools, irrigation systems, and telecommunications networks.
A visit to Afghanistan makes clear the sheer magnitude of this challenge. Achievements of humanitarian relief operations have been significant, but little visible progress has been made on reconstruction efforts. Of the $900 million in international aid disbursed since the Tokyo conference, only $260 million has gone to reconstruction, according to Afghan government figures. It is not surprising therefore that one of the most common questions from the Afghan people is, “Where is the reconstruction?”
It is imperative that donors accelerate the transition from humanitarian relief to reconstruction assistance. The same sense of urgency that was brought to humanitarian activities must now be brought to reconstruction efforts. While delays in reconstruction may not result in visible tragedies such as starvation or exposure, complacency will have profound consequences. Today the optimism and energy of the Afghan people is palpable. Highly visible progress in rebuilding the country’s basic infrastructure will reinforce this optimism and give the Afghan people the tools they need to forge a more prosperous future. Delays in reconstruction risk disappointment, disillusionment, and prolonged dependence on the charity of international donors.
Speed is not the only thing required for the reconstruction effort to be successful. A huge number of aid agencies, international organizations, and private organizations are involved in the assistance effort. Even a single country’s assistance is often delivered by multiple agencies within that government (such as ministries of development, agriculture, defense, trade & industry), not to mention an even larger number of private contractors. In short, the Afghan reconstruction effort will be implemented by a numerous different actors with numerous different goals, often with too little awareness of what their counterparts elsewhere are doing or of how their efforts fit into the broader strategy.
In order for this massive effort to be successful, improved communication and coordination are crucial. This means communication and coordination among donors on the ground. It means communication between donors on the ground and their home agencies. And it means coordination with the Afghan government. The Afghan government has already taken the lead in developing a National Development Framework for donors to use as a guide when providing assistance. International donors need to ensure that they are providing assistance in accordance with this framework.
I would like to note that while the scale and intensity of donor efforts in Afghanistan are unique, the problems of donor coordination are found throughout the world. Any African finance or development minister can describe the multiplicity of foreign government agencies, international organizations and financial institutions, NGOs and other private donors doing work in their countries. The uncoordinated nature of all these efforts is often a source of frustration for these officials and undermines the effectiveness of the assistance provided. Secretary O’Neill has called for improved collaboration and coordination among the multilateral development banks and other donors to ensure that donors do not duplicate efforts and work toward common objectives. Afghanistan should serve as an example of how this can be done, even under difficult circumstances.
I am happy to report that this week a new Special Representative for Donor Assistance—Ambassador William Taylor—has been sent to Kabul to promote this kind of coordination and communication. He will work with the government of Afghanistan and the donors in the Afghanistan Reconstruction Steering Group. His aim is to make sure that responsibilities for specific reconstruction tasks are clearly allocated among donors, so that there are no overlaps and that nothing falls through the cracks. A good place to begin this coordination is the reconstruction of highways and roads. I will say a bit more about this effort in a moment.
President Bush has emphasized the importance of measurable results in everything government does—from educating children to improving government efficiency. Secretary O’Neill has insisted that development assistance from the multilateral development banks and other donors produce measurable results. We must ensure that this kind of aid improves the lives of those it is intended to help. Thanks to the Administration’s efforts, the World Bank is developing a new system to measure and evaluate the results of its activities in areas such as education, health, and private sector development in the poorest countries. Eventually we want every loan, every grant, every project to have clearly defined and measurable benchmarks.
This same emphasis of measurable results is critical to ensuring progress in reconstruction in Afghanistan. At the moment few timelines are being set for overall progress in the reconstruction effort. Measurable targets and concrete timelines are excellent tools for resisting complacency and making sure that donors are accountable for producing visible results. Let me give you some examples for what such targets and timelines could look like in a few key sectors.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Japan recently announced plans to rebuild the road from Kabul, through Kandahar, to Herat. This initiative is part of a larger plan to build roads connecting other parts of the country, including roads to crossing points on the borders. Different donors—including the European Union, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the government of Iran—have committed to build other parts of this road system. The color map that I have provided illustrates the division of responsibilities for these major roads.
I believe that putting this type of information down in a simple form, in writing, in public will help provide incentives to move the project forward. A tendency to postpone deadlines and lower the bars for success is inevitable. This must be resisted. Pressure from the United States, the government of Afghanistan, and the international community to see these projects through to completion in a timely manner will be needed.
One can imagine concrete timelines and benchmarks for success in every important sector. In the National Development Framework the government of Afghanistan has listed goals in education including important school rebuilding projects. Other possible indicators include the percentage of children in school or better yet improvements in test scores. In the area of irrigation, the reconstitution of which is critical to jump-starting the private sector in this heavily agricultural society, there could be the goal of achieving a certain percentage increase in irrigation facilities or rebuilding a certain number of small- and medium-sized dams over the next year. In the area of air transportation, structural damage to airport facilities and the lack of instrument flight systems drastically reduces the number of flights in and out of Afghanistan. The goal here could be the completion of a set number of instrument flight-ready airports by a certain date.
I have tried to focus today on the key principles that should help make reconstruction work in Afghanistan—principles that promote private sector growth, a strong central government, and an expedited rebuilding of infrastructure. These principles can provide the foundation upon which the Afghan people—with creativity and determination—can build a better future. The Afghan government has demonstrated its commitment to doing its part in laying this foundation. We in the international community must do ours. If we do so, I look forward to the day when the phrase “lessons of Afghanistan” refers to a model for how foreign assistance and economic development can succeed.