Interview with rural development minister

Most of rural Afghanistan continues to suffer from food insecurity and a lack of government input. In an exclusive interview with IRIN, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Afghan Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, said that despite billions of dollars worth of reconstruction over three years, rural areas continue to face huge challenges.

QUESTION: What are the challenges people are being faced with in the rural areas?

ANSWER: The first challenge is the issue of survival in an environment that has been affected by years of conflict and years of drought and displacement of the population.

The survival first is about food: whether they have food security. Second whether they have access to safe drinking water, [third] access to social services such as health and education and fourth is the basic infrastructure that will enable them to benefit from a legitimate livelihood, which includes funding irrigation systems and the roads to have access to markets.

Finally is the issue of livelihood; the vulnerability of our nation is in terms of livelihood - people are insecure. On top of that, now that country is moving towards a stable democracy. The people in rural Afghanistan would like to play their role in building and benefiting that democracy.

They are entitled and at the same time aspire to have institutions that represent their voice and enable them to have a voice in the way the country is managed and governed. So, critical to the development of the country is that voice of the people.

On top of that, an additional factor that affects rural people is the drug economy, which provides short-term relief to some that are extremely poor. But just as the drugs have an effect on addicts' health, so the drug economy destroys security and the rule of law. The state is building projects in rural areas, so the rural people understand that the enemy of the nation and of peace and stability is the drug economy but poverty does not allow them to choose something else.

Second is the return of the refugees. They are an asset, all those who have come back but at the same time, they put additional strain on the economy and the ability of the rural areas to manage life with them. Over three million people are a significant number of people.

Third is the ex-combatants in rural areas. Most of the ex-soldiers are people from rural areas.
Now out of the DDR [disarmament demobilisation and reintegration of former Afghan militias] they do respond - sometimes reluctantly, sometimes more willingly - to be part of the DDR. The question is, whether or not they now have the ability to benefit from a legitimate legal livelihood, rather than the previous livelihood they had, which was to serve a commander.

The question for our ministry, primarily, is how to work with state institutions and none state actors to help our rural people face these challenges in a manner that not only the immediate priorities are addressed but the longer term priorities are addresses in a developmental manner.

Q: So, with the all donor money and intensive reconstruction programme, what are the significant achievements in rural areas so far?

A: On developments and achievements, the success story at this point with that vision in mind, the government has adopted a policy to get the rural people on their feet through institutional investment and investment in infrastructure and livelihood and social services.

To implement that policy we have designed six programmes. Some of them are [already] successful others are in their infancy and making their way forward.

The most noticeable is the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) which is operational in a quarter of the villages in Afghanistan. That enables people the power to make their own decisions, the power to decide their priorities and the power to allocate the money that government provides them and the power to implement their own projects.

The second success story is our emergency employment programme, which is reconstructing productive infrastructure in rural areas and at the same time provides employment for people in the short-term.

The third success story, which is about to expand, is the national micro finance programme. It has already reached 140,000 rural families and by the end of this year the figure will rise up to 350,000 families. That provides poor men and women in Afghanistan with credit to develop sustainable livelihoods.

Then our national water supply and sanitation programme, which has been in operation for the past year, is now becoming a critical programme in rural areas. The biggest killer in Afghanistan at the moment is water-born disease because people do not have access to safe drinking water.
We are hoping that in five years time, all rural people in Afghanistan will have access to safe drinking water and the estimate now is that around 15 million people do not have access to safe drinking water.

Q: One of the concerns is that despite last three years development, poverty still remains a big challenge? How would you measure poverty in Afghanistan?

A: Poverty is a multi-faceted problem here and any measurement of it has to look at all aspects. Food security, access to safe drinking water, access to social services, health and education, access to rule of law, security and political representation.

In terms of food security, the latest assessment that we have undertaken for the fist time in the history of Afghanistan is the national vulnerability programme. And our understanding is that around 25 percent of our rural people are extremely food insecure i.e. they cannot be sure of the intake of 2100 kilo calories a day a human being needs. If you also look at the number of people who are periodically food insecure, that is 40 percent of the rural people living below the level of food security.

Is this changing in Afghanistan? Is it staying the same or worsening? From what we know of rural areas, it is changing positively and systematically.

For example, in most rural areas of Afghanistan wage rates are going up. What does that mean? It means there is more demand for employment and that the economy is doing well. This means that more and more people in rural areas are in employment, even though it may be temporary. This is critical for food security as food security is more [an issue of] the purchasing power, not lack of food.

The second indicator is, that last year was the longest and deepest and worst year of drought in Afghanistan but three years ago under the Taliban we had also drought in Afghanistan and then we had over 1.2 million people displaced as a result of drought.

And now we have this year, which was even more, severe than the year under the Taliban but we did not have any displacement which means the local economies the household incomes and the ability of rural people have significantly increased to cope with the drought. That indicates that Afghanistan is improving in rural areas.

And finally another indicator I will look at is that over the past three years over three million people came to Afghanistan and over 60 percent went to rural areas. That’s a significant percentage of the up to 25 million population of Afghanistan.

So the return of a big number of people has positive affects on the economy of rural people.

Q: The MRRD is considered the key consumer of international funds. Can you update us on how much you have received and spent?

A: These figures are quite public and I have to account for what we have received and spent.

Over the past three years contributions to our programmes have come to something around 450 million US dollars. Of this, roughly around 50 percent has been committed to programmes and has been spent. The rest has yet to be spent.

In this year’s budget, the donor commitment to our programme comes to around 300 million dollars and we had some from the past year and all together it is around 305 million dollars.
The money MRRD has this year is more than the money it had over the past 47 years.
But given what is required in the rural areas this is still a drop in the ocean.

Q: There are controversial issues of NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and the claims that they are squandering Afghan money? When will this dilemma be solved?

A: I think it is a legitimate debate to have in this country but it is a terribly poorly informed debate. Most of it is based on rumours, not facts.

I can tell you from the government side that last year out of 4.8 billion dollars committed to reconstruction programmes in Afghanistan, excluding security, around 700 million dollars came through the government. But that does not mean the rest of the money was entirely outside the government control. A significant percentage of that is based on government priorities. For example, the road rebuilding in the country takes more than fifty percent of the resources coming to Afghanistan. These roads are built directly through contractors and the donors and some of them are international but the contractors and donors do not choose the roads. The government of Afghanistan chooses the projects.

What I can say for sure is that the figures such as 70 or 80 percent of the resources are going through NGOs is wrong. But NGOs are significant implementing partners to the government, to the donors and the United Nations.

But when we talk about NGOs our definition may be wrong. There are over 2400 NGOs according to the ministry of economy, up to 400 of them are International NGOs and the rest are Afghan NGOs. Of the Afghan NGOs 99 percent or even more are not NGOs. Rather they are private contractors for profit-making organisations and owned by their founders or their directors and the income [from the work] will be theirs as well.

The challenge now is to move over 99 [percent] of these Afghan NGOs to the private sector. They should be registered in the private sector, pay taxes and make their profits legitimately.

When people say more than 70 percent of the NGO money is spent on administrative costs it is also a lie. There is no single donor on earth that would accept an expenditure of 70 percent on their administration and there is no donor on earth that would not send a monitoring mission [to see] what the NGO is doing as all the donors account to their taxpayers.

A number of measures will have to be taken. First, the new legislation if implemented properly, will solve most of these problems [and make sure] that the private sector will leave the NGO sector.

And second, the not-for-profit NGOs will remain and by law, they will have to report on their project to all relevant ministries and ministry of economy. The ministries are required by law to monitor their projects.

The second measure is required by donors, including the government of Afghanistan, which will have to report through a mechanism on what happens with the money spent on contracts with NGOs and this will promote another [form of] accountability.

Also the NGOs themselves need to take steps to promote a better understanding of their activities through their reports and public communication. And also through some public initiatives we should involve people and the give them an opportunity to visit projects and counter all these rumours.

Of course our people may have a legitimate concern when they see that a so-called NGO director that had nothing yesterday but a year later he buys property in a posh area of Kabul and two years later he buys property in Europe. The public should ask a question.

Q: Which sector is the largest consumer of international donor funds in Afghanistan?

A: The security sector consumes most of the resources through the police, the national army and through national security development.

The second biggest cost is running the civil service and the government budget; every year just to pay the salaries and operational costs of public administration is about 600 million dollars of which 50 percent comes from the domestic revenues.

Third is roads [reconstruction], fourth is education, fifth so far, has been rural development and sixth has been public health but they will change once the major public infrastructure projects are designed and financed.

Q: What about poppy cultivation and eradication and the challenges these pose to rural development?

A: There are a number of issues, the main one being that there is not any alternative that can compete economically with the poppy because it is the most financially advantageous crop.

The government does not aim to provide an alternative livelihood but the policy is more about mainstream rural development. The objective is to first say to people that growing the poppy is a crime on the basis of our constitution whether you’re poor or rich.

Second, we understand that some people are doing this because of poverty and that the government will never be able to provide you with something that is as economically profitable as the poppy. But all the government can do is to accelerate rural development and you will be able to benefit from a legitimate livelihood or crop.

Only 2.2 million people are living on poppy cultivation out of 18 or 19 million people so that means the issue is not only poverty. The government plan is to accelerate investment in rural economic growth whether in agriculture or in other livelihoods.

But still on top of our mainstream economic growth programmes we came up with a plan to provide additional resources to poppy growing areas to help farmers exercise self restraint for the poppy to be eradicated.

This year the budget that we requested was US $600 million and we have only received 30 to 40 percent of that amount so that is a concern.