- The Washington Times - Monday, October 12, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With Washington talking about U.S. troops surging in Afghanistan and with Kabul coordinating its post-election game plan, now is the time to ensure that an alternative aid approach is front and center (lest it get tabled again). We know what works in reconstructing and stabilizing this fractured country. The model has spread to all 34 Afghan provinces. It is the National Solidarity Program (NSP), operated out of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. What stands in its way, however, is the lack of international political and economic wherewithal to scale up sufficiently.

The NSP has become the darling of many members of Congress. Stories abound of its efficacy: Schools built by the NSP were sheltered from Taliban torching while schools built more expensively by the U.S. Agency for International Development faced attack. Nods to the NSP - including a congressional series on Afghanistan-Pakistan sponsored by the Progressive Caucus that I co-organized - have been circulating Capitol Hill as part of an 80-20 campaign rooted in U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. The 80-20 strategy, stemming from the Department of Defense’s counterinsurgency manual, recommends that 80 percent of efforts be diplomatic, political and economic, with military at 20 percent. The NSP, many members of Congress think, should be an integral part of that 80 percent.

What makes the NSP so special? Not much, in the sense that the archetype is not overly sophisticated. The concept is simple: Communities are empowered to make decisions and manage resources during all stages of their project cycle. Although USAID and other international donors fund NSP through the Afghan government’s core budget, remarkably, two-thirds of foreign aid still circumvents Afghan government institutions. That means the aid is not optimized in Afghanistan, leaving the country with only modest improvements in institutional or individual capacity. No wonder security in Afghanistan remains elusive. Bereft of a viable political and economic infrastructure at the local, provincial and national levels, instability is inevitable.

Second, the costs are minimal. The NSP’s budget is small change in compared with what American contractors are costing taxpayers. The NSP provides direct block-grant transfers to the Community Development Councils at $200 per family, with an average grant of $33,000 up to $60,000 per community. For just $200 million, the NSP could complete 20,000 small projects in the coming five months. Compare this to the $80 billion Congress approved this summer for combat operations and equipment to secure Afghanistan, and the funding disparity is disconcerting.

Third, the cases are encouraging. At the crux of the NSP are the democratically elected, mixed-gender Community Development Councils (CDC), which, together with members of the community, identify, manage and monitor development projects and resources. The CDCs are a triple threat: They improve local governance, making it more accountable and inclusive; they alleviate poverty, particularly high with many living on less than $2 a day; and they provide jobs, which is critical for provinces like Helmand, where unemployment is as high as 80 percent.

The CDCs are rebuilding the country fast and furiously. One water project opened up drinking-water access for four villages, ameliorating a two-hour walk for water and reducing tensions between villagers who had poached supplies. Another water project constructed two dams and 4,900-foot canals to irrigate 1,000 acres of agricultural land. One health care project, designed by female CDC members, built a medical clinic for women and children - providing health services access to 50,000 residents. An energy project established a joint micro-hydropower plant, capable of producing 12 kilowatts of energy and generating 20,351 kilowatt hours of electricity per year and thereby offsetting more than 28,491 pounds of carbon dioxide. This CO2 offset is equivalent to preventing the emissions from the combustion of nearly 1,500 gallons of gasoline.

Concerns about Afghanistan’s absorptive capacity, if the NSP were to be scaled up exponentially, not only are ill-founded, but also underestimate the capacity of the CDCs and the independent Afghan mind-set. NSP builds social capital by promoting good local governance empowering rural communities to take control over their lives and livelihoods. No additional government resources are needed. With nearly 22,000 CDCs already in existence, covering 70 percent of rural Afghanistan, about 9,000 more communities need to be mobilized to complete the national rollout. The only obstacle is insufficient international support.

This is what Afghanistan’s democracy looks like - governance for, with and by the people.As we rethink Afghanistan in the coming months, this is what we must support. If we are to surge anything, let us surge the National Solidarity Program.

Rep. Michael Honda is a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California.

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