TCS Daily

The Trouble with NGOs in Afghanistan

By Don D'Cruz - February 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Afghanistan's planning minister, Dr. Ramazan Bashar Dost, was forced to resign recently after a series of disputes with non-government organizations (NGOs. The western educated technocrat has discovered the extent to which NGOs are held beyond criticism. Dr. Bashar Dost spelt out his criticisms in an interview for The Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

First and foremost on Dost's list of complaints was that most NGOs spent money ineffectively and inefficiently. He said "I have yet to see an NGO that has spent 80 per cent of its money for the benefit of the Afghans and 20 per cent for their own benefit." He went on: "International NGOs get big amounts of money from their own nations just by showing them sensitive pictures and videos of Afghan people, ... but [NGOs] spend all the money on themselves, and we are unable to find out how much money they originally received in charitable funds."

The former minister stated that out of $4.5 billion pledged to Afghanistan by international donors at the Tokyo conference in 2003, about a third has been allocated to international NGOs and a further third to the United Nations. But while the NGOs and UN get the bulk of the money, it's the democratically-elected government, which gets only a third itself, that will be held accountable by the Afghan people for the success or failure of the reconstruction effort.

Bashar Dost had proposed a program to monitor NGOs' relations with Afghan government departments and to enhance transparency in their activities, including in their finances.

A second major complaint Bashar Dost expressed about NGOs in the interview was that NGOs attracted many qualified government employees to work for them with higher salaries, depriving the fledgling Karzai administration of the best people at a time when they needed them most. This is a common criticism by developing world governments of Western NGOs. Bashar Dost found there were simply too many NGOs to work effectively in the country. He even imposed a moratorium on registering new NGOs. "We don't have NGOs in Afghanistan, but we have NGO-ism, and we want to get rid of the NGO-ism, not the NGOs," he said.

The problem with so many NGOs and NGOism was compounded by their tax exempt status, of which Bashar Dost was particularly critical. That status came at the expense of commercial companies who would have paid taxes to the cash-strapped Afgani government but lost out in securing lucrative government contracts to the NGOs. Bashar Dost attributed the NGO success in getting contracts to their cozy relationships with senior government officials, including ministers, some of whom were formerly their employees. He complained that there were some so-called NGOs that operated for profit like private companies, did not pay tax and were largely unaccountable to the Afghan government. Yet they still were capable of directing relief efforts influentially, in some cases, more influential than either the government of the private sector.

Many of Basher Dost's concerns about local NGOs were supported by a spokesman from CARE. Its advocacy coordinator conceded in IRIN News that the majority of the more than 1,500 national and over 300 international NGOs registered with the Ministry of Planning were not real NGOs. The CARE spokesman went as far as to suggest that a portion of the NGOs are actually corrupt: "They are either NGOs for tax purposes or they are those opportunists that have set up NGOs to get the resources and steal resources from the Afghan people," the coordinator said.

It was Basher Dost's attack on NGOs that ultimately led to his ousting, proposing 2,000 NGOs -- 80 percent of those claiming to be national or international aid agencies -- be wound up for being ineffective and corrupt. Bashar Dost's claim was bold: for some time now Western Governments have looked to NGOs as impartial and transparent actors in the development process. The United Nations and large international NGOs, such as CARE, World Vision, Oxfam, Save the Children and the like, have stepped in to take much funding developing governments once received.

Since the end of the Cold War, these organizations have grown exponentially as official government aid agencies. Today, some of the big brand-name multinational NGOs are as large agencies in the UN family. The result is large and influential organizations.

Much NGO work is valuable in developing regions. The problem is that the exponential growth of NGOs has occurred without any corresponding development in these organizations' accountability mechanisms. Like all organizations, NGOs must be both responsible for their actions and subject to scrutiny, in order to function efficiently. Where relevant, their goals as profit-making entities must be made explicit. Their status as tax free organisations must be deserved. Where appropriate, their goals as lobbying entities -- particularly if they receive public funds towards the purpose -- should be made clear to government and public alike.

Whether 80 percent of the NGOs in Afghanistan are inefficient and ineffective is not entirely clear. What is clear, from the fate of Dr. Bashar Dost, is that NGOs can be influential in defending their patch. Developing and disaster-stricken countries need efficient and accountable aid: this can only be achieved with proper checks and balances.

Don D'Cruz is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.


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