Two new articles published: on Kabul’s political economy after the 2001 invasion; poverty/inequality discourses in development agencies’ annual reports

The year ends on a decidedly positive note: Urban Studies recently published my paper on post-2001 Kabul as a laboratory and launch pad for the liberal pipe dream of mutually reinforcing synergies between security, economic growth and democracy. In reality, post-invasion liberal “peace-building” and “state-building” orchestrated by international agencies have fundamentally altered the city’s political economy and widened the gap between politically connected economic elites and the urban masses, resulting in greater urban inequality of access, security, and other critical indicators of  human development. Another paper, co-authored with my former student Ben Williams (now a Presidential Management Fellow at the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs), is part of the Journal of Social Policy‘s first issue in 2014. In it, we leverage NVivo’s arithmetic and visual capabilities to compare frequencies of two alternative conceptualizations of poverty and inequality in three different document categories over time: the World Bank’s World Development Reports, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Reports and a set of white papers by bilateral donor agencies. In a second step, we visualize each document’s degree of contextual similarity in using the two conceptualizations of poverty and inequality with all documents in the same source category. Our findings suggest that the dividing line between ‘development’ and ‘clos[ing] the gap between the rich and the poor’ drawn by technocrats such as Jeffrey Sachs has been losing influence among policy-makers and that, as a result, there is reason for hope that debates on inequalities’ negative effects on human development globally are finally regaining traction among policy elites. Courtesy of Cambridge Journals, the complete article can be downloaded from my faculty website.

New article on context-sensitive peacebuilding indicators as a basis for cross-country and cross-regional comparisons

Emily E. VanderKamp and I just published a new article in the Journal of Peacebuilding & Development in which we argue that the current stalemate in peacebuilding evaluation is due to persistent disagreements between donor agencies, practitioners and researchers about the necessity, appropriate level and purpose of such evaluations. Our article synthesizes these three axes of disagreement in a theoretical framework, which we then apply to the case of evaluating reconciliation processes in violently divided societies. This application provides a strong methodological rationale for pursuing a metrics-driven, locally anchored approach to evaluating reconciliation instead of relying solely on interpretive methods or employing globally standardized checklists. We close by reminding readers that realizing the potential of this approach requires that donors, practitioners and researchers recast mutual expectations based on methodological rather than normative considerations. However, if development agencies and the peacebuilding community are serious about their commitments to supporting the spread of peace, both camps will need to embrace such scientific logic as a common ground.

Down south: from DC to New Mexico

From the nation’s bustling capital across some of the poorest and most unequal parts of the country, a journey into radical politics and deep religiosity (and good food)… Am I finally returning to Afghanistan? No, this time I have set out to explore heretofore unseen territories in the United States of A., the fatherland of contradictions: its Down South. Starting out in contested DC–according to the U.S. Census Bureau the most unequal place in the entire nation–across Virginia into Tennessee and then Arkansas, two of the poorest States; crossing Texas east-to-west, and then into New Mexico. Arrival in Las Cruces: August 8, 2012.

New OECD Report: “Do No Harm: International Support for Statebuilding”

Despite the best of intentions, donors can inadvertently undermine statebuilding processes. When the resources they deliver or the reforms they advocate weaken rather than strengthen the state’s decision- and policy-making functions, their efforts can do more harm than good. Donors can also do harm by creating a brain drain away from state organizations. When aid is delivered in a way that actually acts as a disincentive to states to consolidate their own revenue base, this can retard the development of the state’s own capacity.

How can donors ensure they do no harm? How can they be sure they intervene constructively in fragile situations? Co-authored by Professors James Putzel, Daniel Esser and a team at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Do No Harm is a new OECD report that provides practical guidance based on the results of research undertaken on behalf of the OECD DAC International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF). It is based on comparative case studies of six countries (Afghanistan, Bolivia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Rwanda and Sierra Leone) and a comprehensive literature review. It addresses how the interventions of OECD countries may risk undermining positive statebuilding processes, and makes recommendations as to how this may be avoided in the future.

Politicophobia: How the UN Fails Afghanistan

In a parliamentary democracy with a president at the executive helm, it is one of the former’s most critical prerogatives to review, approve or potentially reject the latter’s cabinet. This is the procedure followed in the U.S. and many other countries in the world. Even the otherwise weak European Parliament in Strasbourg retains the right to vote on cabinet positions. So when the same mechanism was written into the new constitution for Afghanistan, it was conceptually justifiable and indeed, international best practice.

But not if one asks the United Nations. Because the core of democracy, the peaceful settlement of conflicting interests, is way too messy a process for the well-meaning world body. “I think most of us were surprised at how many ministers were not approved by the parliament,” UN head of mission Kai Eide told journalists in Kabul after 70 percent of President Karzai’s nominees had been rejected by the 200 or so delegates. Eide considered this outcome a “setback and it’s a distraction [as it] prolongs the situation without a functioning government, which has lasted since summer. […] It’s particularly worrying in a country in conflict, where you have so many challenges and need to focus attention on urgent reform programmes.”

The UN’s preference for shallow political reforms could not be put more succinctly. “Democracy” (or whatever local politics is officially labeled in a given setting) must not interfere with the real work of “urgent reform programmes.” Development in Afghanistan is thus reinvented as an apolitical enterprise which needs to be protected from political interests expressed by elected representatives of the people. Maybe the UN is embracing a quirky kind of realism: if we cannot even organize free and fair elections, then why worry about the people who get elected? But quite possibly, its position is indicative of something else: that the organization has now completely lost its compass in the country.

In the heyday of Afghanistan’s short-lived recovery, Brynen (2005: 246) warned that it would “be ludicrous, however, if Afghanistan were held to a level of apolitical economic planning that would be alien to most donor countries or UN member states.” But already then, Heffron (2004: 65) could point to the irony of coalitions between “local recidivist forces […] with apolitical, neoliberal” outsiders creating a Central Asian outpost of Home Depots and halal McDonald’s and conveniently forgetting about centuries of tribal conflicts. It seems that the United Nations under Kai Eide’s troubled leadership is still buying into this logic.

The UN’s naive notion of a secular Afghan civil society that balances and checks the power of an internationally propped-up narco-state has completed yet another spin. Not only does politics in Afghanistan have to be free from religious influences; it also needs to be free from politicians. Politicophobia is coming full circle. Once again, we need to rely on Afghans themselves to offer sensible interpretations of the political dynamics. “This outcome was a wake-up call,” said Shukria Barakzai, a parliament member from Kabul. “It means the [parliament members] are thinking differently, and they want real change in the governance of the country.”

The challenge will be to achieve this change despite the UN’s presence.

Brynen, Rex (2005), Donor Assistance: Lessons from Palestine for Afghanistan, in: Junne, Gerd and Willemijn Verkoren (eds.), Postconflict development: meeting new challenges, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, pp. 223-248.

Heffron, John M. (2004), Between reconstruction and restoration: three historical case studies, in: Montgomery, John D. and Dennis A. Rondinelli (eds.), Beyond reconstruction in Afghanistan: lessons from development experience, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 53-74.

Gary Gaile Development Geographies Pre-Conference in DC

The Development Geographies Specialty Group of the AAG is delighted to present the “Gary Gaile Development Geographies Pre-Conference” in Washington, DC, a one-day event in April 2010 which is themed around innovative policies and approaches emerging at the interface of research and practice.

Merging debate around cutting edge research and acute practical challenges, the format and scope facilitate lively discussion and cross currents between academia and the policy world. Our keynote speaker is Dr. Robin Mearns, Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank.

The conference, co-chaired by Prof. Brent McCusker (West Virginia University) and Prof. Daniel Esser (American University, DC), is dedicated to the late Gary Gaile who was very active in translating academic practice into real world action and who co-founded the specialty group.

Please access the Call for Papers here. The deadline for all abstracts is February 15, 2010.

The pre-conference will be held on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center’s suburban campus, just one mile from Washington, DC in Chevy Chase, Maryland (www.4hcenter.org; 7100 Connecticut Avenue, phone: (301) 961-2801). The Center is conveniently located near bus lines for quick transportation between the pre-conference and other AAG conference venues. Free on-site parking is available as well.

Comparing Afghan Apples With Vietnamese Oranges, or Why There Is No Solution For Afghanistan

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there would have been a solution for Afghanistan, one that had a realistic chance of success. “Success” would have meant a stabilization of the modest gains made during the first three of the post-war years (2002-2004), and the “solution” would have looked roughly as follows: a highly focused international agenda for development that takes local preferences seriously and prioritizes micro-level economic recovery and public health interventions over laudable but utterly unrealistic “all-in-one” notions of human development, ignorant of inherent tensions between traditional and modern constituencies; basic democratization from below (Roland Paris was right yet even more emphasis needs to be put on the local dimension); and a pragmatic regional strategy of political accommodation of all radical stakeholders, not just those in the Northern Alliance, both within the country and around its borders.

But in a tragic parallel to the botched interventions in Iraq and East Timor, a tiny piece of newly independent soil misunderstood and misgoverned by the United Nations following the aftermath of its secession from Indonesia, it came otherwise. Under pressure to show results of hurried efforts, the development industry kept complicitly silent when Afghanistan, too, was declared a success story early on. “Afghan women shed their burqas” was one among thousands of captions epitomizing the hope of international observers for the country. The acute crisis in Iraq overshadowed a looming crisis in Afghanistan and zapped away critical resources, glossing over “increasing frustration and anger from a population which once saw the international intervention in Afghanistan as a source of hope.” Today, even those few female members of the Afghan Lower House who had been declared role models and examples of a new Afghanistan advocate for a complete and immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces.

Too late did international strongmen stationed in Kabul realize that the discussion of whether or not the Taliban should be brought into the realm of a political settlement was a smokescreen behind which the sitting Afghan president was crafting his very own patronage politics. Today, “there is no solution for Afghanistan without a solution for Pakistan,” writes Robert Kaplan (hardly the reincarnation of a dove) in The Atlantic. “There is no solution for Afghanistan without Iran,” adds an EU think tank. All the while, Afghans keep dying, and with them an increasing number of foreign soldiers.

In the wake of President Obama’s much-awaited decision to further increase the presence of U.S. troops in the country, we are being assured that Afghanistan is not the new Vietnam [one is tempted to add that in the long run, this would almost amount to a positive scenario]. “Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action,” the President points out. “Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.” Clearly no one envies Obama’s position, inherited from an incompetent and unwilling previous administration. But his audacity of hope for Afghanistan is tragically misguided.

What matters much more than similarities or differences between the old and new Vietnam scenarios is the West’s overconfidence in the power of policies, which in turn is conditioned on the creation and maintenance of a military ‘safe zone’ for development. This approach of militarily enforced human progress already failed once, just that the United States in that case happened to support stasis against change. Indeed, to suggest that Afghanistan has followed a historical path distinct from Vietnam’s ignores that not even thirty years ago, modernism and socialism in Afghan politics were one and the same. City-based leftist progressive parties were pitted against rural conservative interests which received heavy backing by the Reagan administration, carving out faultlines of conflict that underpin today’s radicalized landscape. The failure of the Afghan communist experiment did not mean the triumph of pseudo-democratic capitalism but the victory of revisionism.

The international mission in Afghanistan will not fail because of a lack of a broad coalition. It will fail, and in the course of its failure many more will fall, because external forces and the international development industry’s policy machinery are too far removed from the history and reality of Afghan lives.  To Afghans in Khost, Kunduz and Kandahar, the fact that “the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan” must sound cynical at best. In the short run, it may well serve to justify sending even more troops. But Afghanistan’s domestic problems, created and exacerbated by the international “community” prior, during and after the reign of the Taliban, will outlast any officially declared deadline for peace.