Hard Data and Smart Power: the Future of U.S. Assistance to Afghanistan

by Mike Hartnett

With the target date for U.S. military withdrawal approaching quickly, the United States risks a precipitous loss of influence in Afghanistan if we don’t quickly develop a viable plan to transition from our military-heavy strategy towards one more focused on effective development assistance and smart power.

Unfortunately, our track record in regards to managing effective development assistance has not been good. The traditional U.S. preference for massive top-down development programs in Afghanistan has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on unsustainable programs and fueled a pervasive culture of corruption.

In contrast, Afghan development success stories are those programs that are locally conceived, smaller in scale, and, importantly, have proven sustainable because local Afghans are invested in their long-term success. For example, the Afghan National Solidarity Project (ANSP) has successfully devised, implemented, and completed thousands of development assistance programs that are improving the lives of Afghans across the country.

Similar “micro development” approaches have proven successful in other countries. In Bangladesh, the Grameen Bankpioneered micro-financing for small local businesses in the 1970s and 1980s, employing market-based incentives and a strong monitoring and evaluation regime to track and manage their loans. Another Bengali entrepreneur introduced technology to the model by building a network of “Village Phone Ladies” that helped to catalyze mobile adoption in this relatively poor country. The resulting Grameen Phone Company subsequently attracted international investment and has grown to become the country’s largest mobile provider.

These examples are relevant to our efforts to help Afghanistan develop economically for three important reasons. First, they demonstrate the efficacy of a micro approach to development and the ability to scale proven programs to meet national development objectives. Second, Grameen Phone in particular highlights the still relatively untapped potential of mobile phones as a development tool. Finally, they highlight how important data-driven, robust monitoring and evaluation regimes are to objectively assessing and reporting on development programs from conception through completion.

To harness the potential of this kind of approach and use it to achieve a more stable and economically viable Afghanistan, the United States should provide catalyst funding for the creation of an indigenous Afghan Monitoring and Evaluation Consortium (MEC). The MEC would be a public-private enterprise initially focused on providing monitoring and evaluation (M&E) services for all development projects receiving any U.S. funding.

The MEC could leverage software-based assessment forms loaded on mobile phones to conduct program assessments, report on key measures of effectiveness, and quantify programmatic progress across all development programs. By virtue of the mobile technologies used, M&E assessments could include GPS fixes, pictures, and automatic date-time stamps clearly confirming time and location of assessments. This approach would ensure the credibility and transparency of the M&E reporting, thus limiting the potential for data manipulation and corruption by those actually receiving development funds and implementing programs.

The MEC would draw its initial leadership from the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development with a board of directors representing both the Afghan private sector and the international donor community. Staff would be drawn from Afghan academia, NGOs, and the private sector. Staff and field data collectors would leverage proven techniques and standards from existing M&E bodies like the African Evaluation Association to ensure the efficacy of all M&E projects in Afghanistan.

Over time, the Afghan MEC should develop a unique data set that will enable the cross-pollination of ideas and insights and create a more synergistic response to development challenges and opportunities. As these synergies are effectively identified and captured, costs of program implementation will decrease while increasing beneficial impacts.

Furthermore, the development of an Afghan MEC would institutionalize a research and analysis capacity within Afghanistan that could be used to strategically target and attract foreign direct investments (FDI). Multinational companies are keenly interested in developing markets due to their growth potential, but are often reluctant to invest without the means to conduct detailed risk assessments and implement cost-effective M&E programs associated with those investments. The Afghan MEC’s ability to provide reliable M&E services would make the Afghan market more attractive to companies looking to invest and could potentially fuel an engine of economic growth within the country.

In 2014, the United States will shift from a predominantly military approach in Afghanistan to one in which development assistance and smart power become much more important. To succeed in this transition, our smart power strategy must be informed by hard data and the accountability for results and transparency that come with it. The proposed Afghan MEC could provide that data and become a new and important U.S. partner in nurturing the economic development that we all hope will lead to a more viable and peaceful Afghanistan.

About the Author

Mike is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School researching the impact of mobile telecommunications on international security. He has led teams collecting, aggregating, and analyzing field data in support of a variety of organizations in developing markets around the world. He has worked extensively in the international telecoms and technology markets and began his career as a Marine Infantry Officer. Mike welcomes comments and feedback and can be contacted at mike.c.hartnett@gmail.com.

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