If our aid efforts in Afghanistan have largely gotten us nowhere, we would do well to consider that most of them are implemented in a way that amounts to Marxism: the central authority distributes goods according to people’s needs, with the expectation that those people will produce according to their abilities. Humanity spent the twentieth century proving that such a model does not work, so it is incongruous that we would attempt it in Afghanistan. At one point during the last three years, I was given control of an aid program operating in rural Dand District, south of Kandahar City, and I was free to employ my own market-based implementation strategy. I may report that we not only sparked booming economic growth in all our target villages, but we also wrested two villages from Taliban control and formally aligned them with the Afghan government. Think about that: an aid program seized ground from the enemy without a shot fired or a life lost. If we want to win in Afghanistan, I offer this program as a blueprint.
We must begin with a sound philosophical basis, and to that end, the first thing to understand is the nature of justice. Justice is the act of giving to someone that which is due him. We know a thing is due a person if, by taking it from him, we do more harm to ourselves than we do to him. That is how Thomas Aquinas defined justice, and perhaps it is for that very reason that no one in the aid community seems to know anything about it. Foreign policy is based on the cynical calculations of realpolitik, and to a realist, any appeal to Christian virtues would be embarrassing. The realists prefer to think of justice as something man-made, and hence arbitrary; we get to decide what justice is. That is their definition, but it doesn’t work; I will be sticking with Aquinas.
A typical foreign aid program is flatly unjust. Goods are given to recipients who did nothing to earn them, which is essentially the same as saying that goods are taken from donors who did nothing to deserve losing them. If what Aquinas says is true, then that means that the recipients will suffer worse in the exchange. And in fact, that is exactly what happens. Take for example a program in which the poor of some village are given livestock. Afghanistan has seen several such programs. The donor takes the loss of the price of the livestock, but nothing more. The recipient gains livestock, but also loses quite a bit. For one thing, local livestock prices are depressed, potentially wiping out the established livestock traders who were operating prior to the aid program; the recipient now lives in a poorer environment than he lived in before. Furthermore, initiative and pride are obviously eroded. The recipient is pushed toward beggary, and many Afghans have now spent years living from one aid handout to the next. Aquinas was right, and justice is an immutable law of the universe.
Sometimes in these typical programs caveats are added, such as prohibitions on the recipients selling their livestock for a year, or a requirement that they give away the animal’s firstborn to another poor family. This brings us to the next thing to understand, the definition of ownership. To own something is to enjoy a monopoly on its use and disposition. A restriction as all-encompassing as a prohibition on selling means that the recipient cannot be said to own the livestock. The donor still owns it, the recipient is merely tasked with caring for it. A requirement to give away the firstborn is almost equally problematical. Who owns the offspring until such time as it is weaned? What incentive does the first recipient have to care for the newborns until such time as they can be given to their new owners? Who is liable if the offspring should die early? Without answers to such questions, the livestock is limited in the degree to which it can be an economic asset.
From such considerations, we can begin to see the underpinnings of human freedom. If it is a matter of justice that someone owns some livestock, then it is a matter of justice that he is free to do with that livestock as he sees fit. Freedom, justice, and property rights are three faces of a unified thing, and we cannot remove any one without destroying the other two. This is why Marxism and all its derivatives could never work. Abolishing private property is utterly unjust, and necessarily does even more harm to the state than to the disenfranchised individuals who, theoretically, lose everything. The suspension of freedom needed to carry out such an abolition can never be undone, because there is no longer just ground on which to establish freedom. Marxism was a moral absurdity from its very beginning.
With ownership and justice properly understood, it should be easy to see that any aid program will have to be just if it is to do its recipients any good. Perhaps livestock are, in fact, the solution to rural Afghanistan’s problems, but how we go about putting that livestock into their hands will make all the difference. A program distributing vocational training, or wheat seed & fertilizer, or solar-powered water pumps, or whatever other panacea comes into vogue in Washington, faces the same constraints. Giveaways do not help, they only hurt. Careful selection of recipients (programs usually target the poor, or women, or the ethnically disadvantaged, or some other demographic) makes no difference; justice is immutable. Our implementation methods must be just, or our efforts will be counter-productive.
So how to do it? In the case of my program, I was tasked with livestock distribution, vocational training, and construction of light infrastructure items (culverts, flood protection walls, irrigation control gates, etc.) in selected villages in rural Afghanistan. This program was funded by an international aid agency (the donor) that shall go unnamed, under a contract awarded to a private company that shall also go unnamed. (I was hired on a contract basis for the term of the program, and while I won’t say what the name of the program was, those of you involved all know who you are. If anyone out there legitimately needs to know which program this was, leave a comment and I will be able to contact you directly.) The donor probably had it in mind that we would give livestock for free to any villager whose income was below some arbitrary threshold; that is what all the other programs do. As I have just shown, that would have been unjust. Instead, we established a work program, and offered villagers a deal: anyone who comes to work on our project will be paid in sheep. The more work one does, the more sheep one can earn. No consideration was given to rich or poor, married or widowed, whole or crippled; it was open to all. We called this the aid-for-labor implementation strategy.
Doing it this way accomplished many things at one stroke. First, only people who were interested in sheep showed up to work for sheep. A conventional distribution program could not make such a separation. For more reasons than man can imagine, there will always be some impoverished Afghan or other who, as it happens, cannot make use of a sheep. There will also be somewhat better-off Afghans who, again for more reasons than we could imagine, will be desperate for some sheep. To give sheep freely to the first and not at all to the second is dumb, but that is exactly what a demographic-based giveaway will do. By opening it to everyone and demanding something in return, the recipients become a self-selected population, and we can gauge from the amount of work we get out of them how important to them our aid package actually is. If no one turns up to work, then sheep are not so valuable as we thought. Thus, market forces provide a feedback mechanism that can help us to better shape our aid efforts.
Selection of the work program must also be on a negotiated, rather than command, basis. All too often, aid agencies and military forces have assumed that any work, so long as it employs people, is to Afghanistan’s economic advantage, and works to our favor. The most derided example of this approach has been the hiring of villagers to clean their own irrigation canals. Afghans used to do this work on their own, without being paid. In paying them to do it, resources that otherwise might be used constructively instead contribute to a culture in which locals now refuse to improve themselves without an outsider paying them to do so. (Also, it turns out that there is no correlation between employment and levels of violence. This runs counter to prevailing assumptions, but empirical analysis has shown it to be the case. See Berman, et al. 2011.) Canal cleaning, thankfully, has now been largely discredited, but the deeper lesson to recognize is that make-work gets us nowhere. If we seek to hire locals, we must hire them to do work for which there is a bona fide demand.
Identifying such demand is not hard, if we are humble enough to recognize our own self-serving objectives. We do not seek the economic prosperity of Afghanistan because of our unconditional love for Afghanistan; we seek it because we believe that Afghan economic prosperity works to our political advantage. We need not be ashamed to admit this. Therefore, we should seek out work that advances our political interests. My first step in community engagement was to sit down with the maleks of each village, away from the other members of their community. I told them that my purpose was not to build infrastructure, or to distribute sheep, or to deliver vocational training, but rather what I sought was to make them strong within their villages. A strong malek, I believed, would better be able to resist the Taliban, and that was what I wanted in exchange for my aid. (For a good discussion on the relationship between a community’s political coherence and its resistance to insurgency, see Kilcullen, 2009) If I were to use my aid package to create a labor pool within their villages, I asked the maleks, then to what end would they personally like to see that labor employed?
As it happened, all of the maleks wanted to see new irrigation structures built. This was something our program had planned to do anyway, and I tried to get them to see that they could maximize their utility if they chose something else. But after so many years of receiving free aid and of having only a nominal role in shaping that aid, all of them had a well-practiced smile-and-nod response to people like me; they were never asked for substantive input, and they did not realize that I was off the script. As work progressed, they became more aware of their power to guide our program, and their requests became more thoughtful and imaginative. But for the first round, irrigation structures it was.
The maleks were allowed to choose freely which structures they wanted, and where, within the funding limits of the program. This is another deviation from the way things are normally done. Normally on projects of this sort, an engineer surveys the village and identifies the work needed to create the optimal irrigation system. The decision is normally not left to locals because too often they make choices that can leave them “worse off in the long run,” in the words of one critic. But this again smacks of central planning and is unjust. It also suffers from a simplistic understanding of irrigation’s purpose and what “worse off” entails. Will some maleks make poor choices? Certainly. Others will make good choices. Many will make choices which are technically competent, if not ideal, but which simultaneously balance political needs as well. Maleks can judge, better than can outside engineers, whether a technically perfect irrigation system is preferable to one which, while perhaps not perfect, is able to secure the support of powerful interests in the community. To win an influential family over to the malek’s side may be worth a little inefficiency in the village irrigation system. Only a malek can be trusted to make such judgements.
Some maleks will make better judgements than others, and time will reveal all. By allowing maleks to own the planning process, we allow them to own the credit or blame that will eventually follow, and everyone will know who the capable maleks are. Later, when it comes time to select district-level leadership, the community will have a good basis for selection, because they will know which malek did a good job of managing things like his village’s irrigation system. When we have our outside engineers make “better” decisions for them, we rob maleks of this basis of political legitimacy, and we leave the community in the dark as to who their most talented people are.
So, the maleks were given a free hand in choosing what they wanted built. They were also tasked with recruiting and organizing their local residents into labor pools. There was enough technical skill pre-existing within these communities that no subcontractors were needed. Had that not been the case, had it been necessary to bring in, say, some professional masons, then we would have left it up to the maleks to choose the contractor that they liked. There was only a finite amount of money available for each village, and so the maleks would have had an incentive to choose carefully. To guard against undue favoritism in the selection of the labor pool, our field workers went amongst the villages, spreading the word as broadly as possible that there was a program coming, residents would be able to earn sheep, and that they should see their malek for details. This transparency measure made it impossible for any unscrupulous malek to funnel all the work to his own family.
Our side supplied the construction materials, and work progressed quickly. Often, pairs of local laborers would team up, each working alternate weeks on construction while the other tended to the pair’s farms. They would then share in the sheep that they jointly earned, typically selling the animals to some other village resident who was too wealthy to be a laborer, but who desired sheep. These arrangements came about spontaneously, at the bottom level, and had not been anticipated or directed by those of us positioned higher up. It was a beautiful example of a market economy’s ability to self-organize, and of its ability to push resources out to those who can make the best use of them.
And this gets at another idea that is important to understand. An economy is not sheep and irrigation structures and cars and houses and things. Those are merely the material goods that move through an economy. An economy is a complex set of relationships between people. The better the organization of those relationships, the better the people will be able to exploit the material resources that are around them. The material stuff is not what’s important; material stuff is all around us, and is free for the taking. It is the networks of people that are important, and some networks– some economies– are much stronger than others. By delivering our aid in a manner that was negotiated and market-driven, we spurred the creation of relationships– such as the pairs of laborers and their customers– that an ordinary giveaway would be unable to motivate. Give a man a free sheep and he has no incentive to connect with his fellow man. Offer to sell men sheep, and they have an incentive to organize in a way that will get them the maximum amount of sheep for the minimum cost.
The vocational training deserves brief mention. Many vocational training programs in Afghanistan pay a stipend to students for their attendance, ostensibly to offset lost wages. We did away with this. Ideally, I wanted to charge a nominal tuition to students, but there was too much precedence and inertia working against me. I succeeded only in eliminating the stipend. But thanks to that, only students who were interested in the course content had a reason to come to class, and attendance ended up being very good. We also implemented one simple control measure that other aid workers may want to incorporate. A subcontractor provided the training, and we required of this subcontractor course syllabi, plus test questions and answers for each week of the course as part of their proposal package to us. Our field staff, using the contractor’s test questions, then gave pop quizzes over the course of the training. This turned out to be a very easy way to ensure quality of education.
Kandahar Province is the first or second most dangerous part of Afghanistan, depending on how one chooses to compile the statistics. To ensure the safety of our field staff, we extracted promises from each of the maleks that so long as we were within their villages, we would be safe. I made clear to them that if anything should happen to anyone on our team, then all work would be halted immediately: no irrigation structures, no livestock, no vocational training. If somebody wanted to attack an aid program, they would have to go find somebody else: the deal is, we get left alone. The maleks agreed to this, and our entire project never suffered a single attack.
Part of this was due to the influence of the maleks, part of it was due to the fact that everyone in the community had an interest in seeing our program succeed; everyone stood to gain by it, in one way or another, and because it was open to all, no one had cause to feel alienated. As the economy self-organized and livestock started moving through it, new businesses and jobs started appearing. Village shops started stocking discretionary items like children’s toys, because people suddenly had the wealth to buy such things. A girl in one village started making colorful rag dolls, which her grandmother sold in the family store. The maleks were thrilled, and we took the opportunity to ask a favor of them: we asked for them to introduce us to the maleks of the next five villages that we wanted to enter. This they were happy to do, and the entire process started over.
We were originally tasked with working in eleven villages, with the understanding that security concerns might prevent us from reaching all of them. Towards the end, we had successfully worked in all but two of them. These last two turned out to be hard Taliban villages, opposed to the government of Afghanistan, and a source of violence. Most aid programs would have nothing to do with such a place. I sent in our best field worker to quietly seek out and meet with the most influential families of these two villages and to speak with them. Our message to them was straightforward: The prosperity we had been delivering to the surrounding villages, we wanted to bring to them. But they had no maleks, and so we had no one with whom we could negotiate. If they could but appoint some maleks– anyone they wanted– have these men get approved in writing by the District Governor as the official maleks, and have these men sit in on the weekly District Center meetings with the other maleks, then we would recognize them and would bring all this aid into their villages.
It turned out that one family effectively ruled the larger of these two villages, and that they were taking orders from a family patriarch in Quetta, Pakistan. He refused our offer, but his own family argued with him. They saw all the new wealth around them. In some villages, people had pooled their money to hire one resident as a shepherd, and this person took all their flocks deep into the desert for graze. This was a job that had not even existed before, and it was just one of many. They wanted this, and they debated with Quetta for a long time.
In the end, the family broke. Defying Quetta and shattering relations, the two villages appointed a pair of nominal maleks, they met with the governor and secured his written approval, and the maleks became regular attendees of the weekly district shura council meetings. Our aid flooded in, followed close behind by some other aid programs; these villages wasted no time in securing as much aid as they could. I received confirmation last month that those two villages remain on the government side to this day.
We can win in Afghanistan, and this program proved that it is possible for aid and development projects to significantly impair the insurgency at the local level. I know of no other aid program that has operated in this way, but it can be done. It hinges on a conscious avoidance of command-economy practices, and on a proper understanding of justice, freedom, and property rights.
Berman, Eli, et al. “Do Working Men Rebel? Insurgency and Unemployment in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Philippines.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 55 (4) 2011: 496-529.
Kilcullen, David, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)