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Development failures – or best guess in a complex environment?

October 17, 2012

Summary: More revelations – this time from Canada – about failed or failing development efforts in Afghanistan.  This is a concern and more instances may come to light, given the Western nations all suffered the same  challenges of operating in a complex environment.  But we should be cautious of the risks of hindsight before passing judgement.

By Tim Foxley


Complex operating environment…

This caught my eye a couple of days ago, coming so soon after the British admission that their schools building programme in Helmand (blogged by me here) had been so proactive that schools were going to have to close because the Afghan government didn’t have the resources to sustain them.   Canadian development efforts in southern Afghanistan – irrigation, schools, polio vaccination work – have been judged seriously flawed, according to Canadian government reports:

Hampered by an increasingly hostile work environment and a bureaucratic culture that discouraged innovation, Canada’s aid blitz in Afghanistan seemed at times “divorced from reality” in the war-ravaged country, concludes a previously secret review of the $1.5-billion program.

It and other audits of the Canadian International Development Agency’s huge involvement in Kandahar and elsewhere in Afghanistan depict a well-meaning drive for results the government could boast about — a push that faced “intractable” security problems, political pressures and the “vaguely envisaged” challenge of building a new nation.

Nipa Banerjee, who headed the agency’s Afghanistan operation from 2003 to 2006, said some of the comments reflect what she knows about Canadian projects in Kandahar.

“All the projects have failed. None of them have been successful,” said Ms. Banerjee, now a professor in the University of Ottawa’s school of international development. “I think we went into Kandahar to increase our international profile … rather than thinking about the interests of the people of Kandahar. It was too much politicized and militarized and securitized, and as a result we ended up with failure.”

Despite the hard work, courage and sacrifices of civilian and military personnel, Canada’s development efforts in Kandahar province have proven a “total” waste, she argued. She still visits Afghanistan about four times a year to advise government ministries.

I sense that more of these stories will come to light – if only because the press have the scent of one more angle to the “Why has Afghanistan failed?” angle.

It is important to point the finger and highlight these issues, in order to identify lessons for future aid activities, but I don’t think it is as simple as this.  Analytically, I am juggling with the tensions between:

  • Perfect hindsight (actually,perhaps not yet perfect, here in late 2012)
  • Decisions made at the time based on perhaps then plausible/reasonable assessments of the situation then on the ground and the likely prospects for Afghanistan
  • The demand/need for “action” – the idea that there is a window of opportunity and stuff needs to happen before it starts to close
  • Let’s remember, optimism in the international and Afghan communities regarding Afghanistan’s prospects were high from 01 – 05
  • The multiple layers of this Afghan “complex emergency” that still remain difficult to fully understand – fix one problem, create three more…
  • Input vs output as measurement of success
  • More broadly, the way in which international “systems” (governments, NGOs, aid agencies…) prioritise, allocate resources, measure performance and get caught up in a self-justifying narrative: “we’re doing stuff – that’s never wrong, surely?”)
  • Once you have embarked on the reconstruction, it is extremely difficult to stop or change direction.  Criticisms often batted away with a standard defence: “progress made but challenges remain”…
  • Explaining vs defending the actions made at the time

From my own readings and personal experiences, I can certainly buy into the notion of well-intentioned but incoherent efforts on-going in an exceptionally complex environment that was

a) not fully comprehended and

b) became more complex with each passing year.

I don’t entirely exclude myself from this.  But it gives me much more to think about than this.  I have recently finished reading Peter Uvin’ s work “Aiding violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda”, Kumarian Press, 1998, which suggests that major systemic flaws in the way Western aid was applied to Rwanda not only failed to notice the potential for genocide violence developing under it’s nose, but in some ways even unwittingly assisted it…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2012 10:39 am

    Tim, your bringing up Rwanda in your musings reminded me of an article I wrote recently, “What Went Wrong With Africa” ( The journalist/scholar I quote in this article says things about why Sub-Saharan African states have a tradition of governance that disallows “development”. The same set of circumstances may also prevail in Afghanistan. If you read the article, you can skip the beginning and start under the first picture.


  1. Ways of thinking about Afghanistan… « afghanhindsight
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