Afghanistan: "Foreign Aid Workers? They don't do anything for us anyway. They're merely weapons in the Taliban's hands.'"

Criticism Grows of Afghanistan’s Bloated NGO Industry

By Walter Mayr/Spiegel

Exotic Birds in a Cage

Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, is located in the southern part of the country. In the labyrinthine alleyways of the city’s bazaar, traders huddle in shacks barely wider than a cupboard. The faces of the men in turbans, caps and traditional round-topped pakul hats are as impenetrable as wax masks. Out of the corners of their eyes, they keep a lookout for people who don’t belong in the Taliban’s former and current stronghold. A sticker on a battered Jeep proclaims “Life is short — pray hard.” Foreigners no longer dare to show their faces on these streets.

Ramazan Bashardost is a former presidential candidate who is an outspoken critic of corruption in Afghanistan. “Whenever a foreign aid worker is killed nowadays,” he said, “many Afghans simply shrug their shoulders and think, ‘So what? That’s one less thief. They don’t do anything for us anyway. They’re merely weapons in the Taliban’s hands.'”

Outsiders who want to get anything done in Kandahar need to be very patient and have powerful supporters. Or they have to have unbridled optimism. On Aug. 31, US General David Petraeus, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, said that military progress was now clearly also being made in southern Afghanistan. The day before, an improvised explosive device made of fertilizer and nitric acid had killed five American soldiers in Kandahar as they drove past.

Things don’t look good for the Western peacekeepers and their few remaining friends in Kandahar. Any Afghans suspected of being on the Americans’ payroll risk losing their life. At the end of August, two provincial councilors, colleagues of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president, were killed in bombing attacks. On June 9, a suicide bomber killed himself and 40 other people at the wedding of a member of a US-trained village militia in the Arghandab valley. At police headquarters, they say up to 30 officers a week are being killed — shot, stabbed or poisoned — by the Taliban.

But if the security forces are falling victim to these Muslim radicals in droves, who will protect the last foreigners left in Kandahar?

‘We Don’t Do Fingers’

Beyond the ruins of what were once the offices of two American companies stands the cypress-filled courtyard of Mirwais hospital. This is one of the rare places in Kandahar where Afghan and Western civilians can still freely meet.

It’s 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade as Markus Geisser starts his rounds. The Swiss doctor heads the mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kandahar province. A total of 35 foreigners represent the organization in this war-torn region. Their main focus is Mirwais hospital and its trauma surgery center.

The floors are tiled in green-and-white, the rooms illuminated by neon strip-lights. There are 180 beds in all — eight in each room. It smells of bean soup, stale sweat and unbearable suffering.

“What do you want to see?” a male nurse asks. “Mine or bombing victims? Gunshot wounds?”

The people holding a silent vigil at the bedsides of their grandsons, sons or brothers are all men. Ezatullah, a whimpering 12-year-old, was brought to the hospital from the village of Zangawat by his grandfather. The man looks in mute grief at the boy, whose lower leg and the ends of five fingers were ripped off by a landmine. He watches as the doctors do their work. Ezatullah may get an artificial leg, but it’s not clear what will happen to his finger-tips. “We don’t do fingers, only whole hands,” the male nurse says matter-of-factly.

“The Americans fire from the sky in helicopters, and on the ground we step on Taliban mines,” Ezatullah’s grandfather complains. Pitched battles are being waged around Kandahar. Every second patient in the emergency room is a war victim.

No Taking Sides

In its role as “the grand old lady of humanitarian assistance”, the Red Cross tries hard to remain neutral in the conflict, says Geisser, a friendly 40-year-old with blond hair. “We have to be careful here because we’re being watched by all sides.”

Providing help without taking sides: That’s the motto of the ICRC. But doesn’t an organization that invests money and resources repairing the ravages of war risk becoming an accessory to this very conflict? Aren’t aid organizations automatically partisan if, like the Red Cross staff working near Kandahar, they also set up offices in Taliban-held areas?

“That’s a legitimate question,” says Geisser, who previously spent time between the fronts in Darfur, Burma, Congo and Iraq, and yet insists he is not a mobile “warhorse” in doctors’ scrubs. “I don’t think we’re prolonging the fighting here in Kandahar,” he says.

In early August, 10 members of a team of doctors belonging to a development organization called the International Assistance Mission were murdered in northeastern Afghanistan. It’s still unclear whether they were killed by the Taliban or simple criminals. The fact is that now even fewer foreigners venture out of the capital Kabul and into rural areas than before. Geisser says that no more than a few dozen foreigners have remained in Kandahar. “Some of them are basically hibernating,” he says. “They’ve gone completely into hiding.”

Geisser and his Red Cross colleagues have no intention of leaving in the foreseeable future, he says. Even though they know they are, as he puts it, “exotic birds in a cage.”

Representing European Taxpayers’ Interests in Afghanistan

“Whenever a foreign aid worker is killed nowadays,” says Ramazan Bashardost, “many Afghans simply shrug their shoulders and think, ‘So what? That’s one less thief. They don’t do anything for us anyway. They’re merely weapons in the Taliban’s hands.'”

Bashardost can by no means be described as a preacher of hate. On the contrary, some people call him “Afghanistan’s Gandhi.” He holds degrees from elite French universities and was his country’s planning minister. In the 2009 presidential elections, Bashardost, a member of the Hazara ethnic group, came third out of 32 candidates, beaten only by the incumbent — Hamid Karzai — and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

But sitting in his olive-green campaign tent at the edge of Kabul’s parliamentary district a few days before Saturday’s election, Bashardost rants about the wasteful spending of the various non-governmental organizations, his voice full of righteous contempt. He says Afghanistan can do without NGOs whose staff “can’t leave their $15,000-a-month rented houses or get out of their $40,000 armored vehicles because they have forgotten how to serve the people. Wasn’t that the original idea?”

‘Your Only Advocate’

Bashardost himself drives around Kabul in a small Suzuki. He spends a lot of time with average people. This morning, an old woman with crippled feet, a blind woman, and two widows in nylon burqas are sitting with him in his tent. Bashardost listens to their tales of woe, pulls out a little money, and writes down notes. In Saturday’s election, he once again stood for a seat in parliament. If he gets in, he will be representing more than just the interests of the Afghan people.

“I am your only advocate in Afghanistan,” he says with a rueful smile. “After all, I represent the interests of American and European taxpayers. Why don’t you ask what happened to your money? Why do German workers make do with a sandwich at lunchtime while our President Karzai holds receptions for 150 guests? Criminals are having a ball at the presidential palace at your expense.”

US special investigators are now trying to deal with corruption within the Afghan government apparatus, while the Afghan Economics Ministry is dealing with corruption in the NGO community. According to its initial findings, international NGOs are frittering away 60 percent of their available resources on their own expenses.


The international flow of capital divides and subdivides on its way to Afghanistan like a mighty river branching out in a delta. It splits into main tributaries (the military, government-related organizations and major relief organizations), minor tributaries and rivulets. There are currently 1,327 Afghan NGOs. Added to this, Afghanistan has 303 international NGOs, also known as INGOs — including sub-sets dubbed BINGOs (business-related NGOs) and MANGOs (suspected mafia-related NGOs). The NGOs build hospitals and irrigation channels, set up schools and organize rural administrations, clear mines and help women attain economic independence.

More than 2,000 organizations have already been disbanded for lack of evidence that they were doing anything, says Sayeed Hashim Bassirat, the head of the NGO department of the Economics Ministry in Kabul. To hear him speak, you wouldn’t suspect that he does not have a computer in his office or much in the way of power. He also only has fragmentary information about the multibillion-dollar business of the aid workers outside his door.

“The international relief organizations don’t speak to the government and pay too little attention to the real needs of the people,” Bassirat complains. According to a report published by the Afghan Finance Ministry in November, more than three-quarters of the money donated by foreign countries is distributed not by the relevant ministries but mainly through military channels.

‘Businesses Dressed Up like Mother Teresa’

Nearly $40 billion (€30 billion) in development aid has flowed into Afghanistan since the start of the war. It goes into an industry which is also concerned with securing its own posts and functions, with the hard-to-criticize justification that it is doing good. “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa,” writes the Dutch journalist Linda Polman in her no-holds-barred exposé “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?” which has just been published in the US.

Working for a good cause feeds thousands of aid workers. Buzzwords such as “sustainable development,” “empowerment” and “gender-balanced approach” open the gates to donor money. Those within the aid convoy know the catchphrases because many of them were deployed in Rwanda, Bosnia or the Congo on behalf of the World Bank, UN or NGOs before coming to Afghanistan.

Occasionally, even some of the aid workers express their doubts when they get together in small groups or when they talk over a beer in one of the foreigners-only restaurants in the Kabul district of Qala-e-Fatullah. They describe their work as “donor-driven,” by which they mean that those who hand out the money don’t ask the recipients what they need.

One experienced German aid worker delivers a damning verdict on her fellow relief workers, who are mostly young graduates from around the world. “Of course some of them are really dedicated and have specialist skills,” she says. “But most could just as easily work somewhere else. Either that or they came to Afghanistan looking for the noble savage and are now disappointed because the people here also watch Hollywood movies and have cellphones.”

Using Citizen-Reporters to Fight Corruption

Lorenzo Delesgues is one of those who take their work seriously. He speaks Dari, the lingua franca in Kabul. In fact he’s so fluent that he was stopped and asked for his ID card when his friends dragged him over to the “Zadar” restaurant. The place sells beer for $7 and pizza for $18 — though only to non-Afghans. Selling alcohol is illegal — at least officially — in the Islamic republic.

Delesgues doesn’t employ bodyguards. He doesn’t have a four-wheel-drive Toyota or a well-stocked expenses account. He walks through the city at night, past the beggars, the street urchins and the hawkers. He says the budgets of thousands of foreign aid workers only exacerbate the social inequality.

As the head of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, Delesgues earns a net monthly salary of $3,800. American consultants in Kabul receive the same amount in just four days. But the smart Italian-Frenchman is not there for the money. He is there for Afghanistan. If you ask him why he has been in Afghanistan for the last five years, he boots up his computer and shows you a series of videos. The images show Afghan villagers inspecting development projects. They find brand-new school buildings with doors falling off their hinges, or stand aghast in washrooms in which the toilets themselves have been forgotten.

“Our employees in rural areas get $15 a month plus a camera and a video camera,” says Delesgues. “We have two people in every village. They are elected by the villagers, and the aid project they monitor is one that they — not we — have chosen.”

Digging Its Own Grave

The principle of using citizen-reporters is effective, even in Afghanistan. “Donors are shocked when we tell them what happened to their money,” Delesgues says. “Before construction even gets underway, four or five subcontractors have been involved on average, and each keeps 10-12 percent for himself. So when it’s time to start, there’s hardly anything left.”

The multibillion-dollar grave that the international community is digging for itself in Afghanistan might not have been quite so deep had more people like Delesgues been given a say. Delesgues knows enough of the locals to understand what life is like in the slums on the hillsides overlooking Kabul, where skyrocketing rents have driven the poor. He knows that a state cannot possibly function if its best civil servants quit their jobs because they can bring home 10 times as much working as drivers or interpreters for the international aid machine.

But Delesgues refuses to be disheartened, even if the aid convoy should soon decide to move on and leave Afghanistan. He is far from finished with his plans for the country. “My dream is to expand our system here,” he says. “To build larger networks and enable the people to also keep an eye on their own leaders — every day, in the judiciary, in environmental policy, everywhere.”

Thursday Nights at the Red Cross Bar

Most of the other foreigners in Kabul have very different dreams. These are lived out at the regular get-togethers in the basement bar of the Red Cross, over sundowners in the “L’Atmosphère” restaurant or at brainstorming sessions next to the swimming pool on the premises of the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). Afghanis only play minor roles in these dreams, usually as waiters or guards.

When the sun goes down, the foreigners stream past those Afghans. There are “consultants” in their early 30s employed by the major aid organizations; so-called “experts,” mostly Americans, whose work at the various Afghan ministries earns them a 30 percent hardship bonus; and idealists who simply want a bit of fun in the evening.

On Thursdays, in the three rooms of the Red Cross’s basement bar, the women wear dresses with thigh-high slits and revealing tops — the kind of clothes that women can’t wear anywhere else in Kabul. Martini, Bacardi and Beck’s beer at $2.50 a can are on sale. If you don’t make the guest list, you don’t get in.

The aid organizations in Kabul don’t like outsiders prying into what they are doing, whether it’s their social activities or their finances. And the donors prefer to be the ones who provide the images and figures the world gets to see about the relief work being conducted in Afghanistan.

The Caravan Is Set in Motion Again

New natural disasters and new wars threaten to set the aid caravan in motion again. Aid workers ask themselves whether they should stay or go. “I’ve started making my decisions partly based on the time of year,” says a young Frenchwoman at the bar of the “L’Atmosphère.” “Haiti is OK from the fall onwards, maybe even Yemen. But I won’t go anywhere that gets above 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) or under minus 14 (7 degrees Fahrenheit) anymore.”

One old hand remarks sarcastically that his colleagues who are tired of Afghanistan should go to Haiti. “There’s no shortage of suffering there either,” he says. “And on top of that, the girls — unlike here — are willing.”

Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 of the minor players in the Afghan war may be asked to leave at the end of the year. President Hamid Karzai has announced that all the private security contractors in his country must cease their work by late December. He said they waste “billions of dollars” and denounced private security company employees as “thieves during the day and terrorists during the night.”

Huge Sums Spent on Security

What Karzai envisages is no less than closing down an industry that has become one of the most profitable in Afghanistan — because the basis of its pricing structure is fear.

A security guard who previously worked in Iraq stands in the Hotel Serena in Kabul rolling a San Pellegrino bottle in his huge hand. “If a project has a $100,000 budget, 20 percent of that will be spent on security,” says the man, who wants to be referred to only as Steve. “An armored vehicle costs up to $8,000 a month, a foreign security guard $10,000.”

Often enough, protection for aid workers swallows up more of a budget than the whole of the rest of the project. Steve says that security for an average Kabul compound costs $600,000 a year. Afghan bodyguards earn about $220 a month. The customers are charged three times that amount.

‘It’s Crazy What the EU Is Willing to Fork Out for Us’

In the very near future, security in Afghanistan will be the responsibility of just over 170,000 soldiers and 134,000 police officers. Once the private armies of Western security personnel have disappeared, the job will mainly fall to the Afghan police.

Germany plays a key role in training Afghan policeman under the auspices of the European Union Police Mission (EUPOL) and the German Police Project Team, a bilateral project. In the year 2010 alone, this will cost German taxpayers €77 million.

It’s a great opportunity for policemen to boost their income. One of these is Holger Behrens, which is not his real name. He does not want to be identified by his real name because of his position as a police officer.

“In Germany I earn a monthly take-home pay of €3,000. Working in Afghanistan gives me an extra €5,000 a month, net,” Behrens says. “It’s crazy what the EU is willing to fork out for us.”

Bodyguards to Get to a Card Game

Unless he is out training Afghans, the policeman lives and works in the “Green Village,” also known to the foreigners in Kabul as “Pleasantville”. The site, which is guarded by Nepalese Gurkhas, has fountains and covered walkways, a courier service, a bank and even a souvenir shop.

But Behrens says his life in the luxury prison certainly isn’t enviable. “We can’t go anywhere. If ever I want to go into town or to (ISAF operations center) Camp Warehouse for a game of cards, I have to order security guards.” A policeman who hires bodyguards to get to a card game: That sums up in a nutshell the problem that lies at the heart of this immense operation.

The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) has drawn up figures for the expected total cost of the war. Given a phased withdrawal from 2013 onward, Germany will have spent a total of €36.5 billion on Afghanistan. That’s just over a tenth of what Washington is pumping into the country. Defense expert Amy Belasco estimates total US expenditure by 2011 to be $445 billion. To put that into perspective, that’s more than three times what all the OECD nations together spent on development aid around the globe in 2009. Estimates suggest that up to 80 percent of American money flows right back into the US through consultancy fees, corporate contracts and exported goods.

No Furniture or Toilets

The one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar recently announced that victory over the “infidels” was near, and that billions of tax dollars had been wasted in Afghanistan. Just a stone’s throw from the cleric’s former headquarters in Kandahar, two empty apartment blocks stand behind a bolted iron gate on the university campus. The university’s president, Professor Hazrat Mir Totakhil, calls for the keys, paces across the dusty inner courtyard, and squints through the windows.

“It’s been finished since 2006,” he says. “But it’s still empty: There’s no furniture, no toilets and no air-conditioning.” The buildings were intended as residences for 400 female students to live, sleep and study in — an ambitious project for a city like Kandahar, where many women aren’t even permitted to leave their own homes unless accompanied by a male.

The German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) had the first apartment block erected with money from the German government. Before even a single bed had been delivered, USAID paid for a second dormitory. Since then, nothing has happened, because interior furnishings weren’t included in the grants — and the Afghans pretend not to have any money for that.

In recent weeks, quiet thudding sounds have often been heard coming from inside the nearby former Taliban stronghold. US trainers are conducting live-fire exercises there in preparation for an emergency. They know the Taliban are back at the gates of Kandahar.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

2 thoughts on “Afghanistan: "Foreign Aid Workers? They don't do anything for us anyway. They're merely weapons in the Taliban's hands.'"”

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