Saturday, April 10, 2010

NSP's the real thing, but a silver bullet it's not

Over at Aid Watch, they're getting a bit frantic about maintaining a balanced image on their often-times pesky critiques of everything aid. In their search they've seized on the momentum of Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart's Institute for State Effectiveness. Much excellent work is going on by the tremendous intellectual force of Ghani's mind alone, much less the two paired up.

But to prick a pin in the Aid Watch bubble, one of the key pillars they recently highlighted out of a Lockhart talk on Afghanistan is that of the National Solidarity Program (NSP). It's a great initiative, but not the all-answer to development in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The brain-child of Ghani, Hanif Atmar and others, NSP in effect supports local communities to pick and choose where they want aid monies to be funneled. This stands in stark contrast, of course, to the oft-equally pesky Money Resolves All Evil logic Jeffrey Sachs espouses. A brilliantly random visit to one of Sachs's Millennium Villages in Ethiopia turned up that decisions on aid were made by some big shot "very famous professor in New York."

NSP also reminds me of the fabled Mexico 'tres por uno' remittance program. Here the government would thrice multiply cash sent-in from abroad and allow communities to decide where they wanted to spend the sudden influx. Did that extra health facility, school, road spring up? Nope: they chose to invest in churches and cemeteries.

Beware the false consciousness of the poor. At least as much as our nearing-sacred notion that the poor know all there is to know about being poor. Slippery slopes these issues. But back to NSP.

So what's really going on?

NSP funnels government block grants between $20,000 and $60,000 to every village able to: elect by secret ballot a village leadership council; hold inclusive meetings to design its own plans; and publicly post its accounts. According to Fixing Failed States, p. 206 -- the 2008 Ghani and Lockhart tome, more on which later: NSP aims to show how democratization can be done from the ground up. Villager quotes on the next page support this, NSP, they say, is "the national tablecloth" and "the national learning school." Good stuff.

The website of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD in local-speak) also updates us on the following:

"As of 19th February, 2010 NSP has covered 361 districts across all 34 provinces.

22,488 Communities which have been mobilized by the FPs
22,216 Community Development Councils (CDCs) elected
22,091 Community Development Plans (CDPs) completed
50,978 Community sub-project proposals submitted to the NSP
50,901 Community sub-project proposals approved by the NSP
38,126 Community sub-projects completed"

The scale of what has been done is immense, as is the scale of what's in the pipeline.

Most people’s experiences with NSP have been very positive. This, we're told by an external review, is largely because communities feel that they are benefiting equally through a genuine consultation process.

So lots to commend on NSP. But there is a catch or two.

For one, despite apparent success there is no clear evidence to suggest that this programme has direct security benefits. In fact, to correlate (not causate) the broad trends: the more NSP projects implemented, the worse the security situation in the country gets. This poses a bit of a challenge to arguments that sustainable development is the real answer. One of the constant complaints, gaining attention now in the media, is about how much of aid in Afghanistan goes to Southern provinces, the really insecure Talibani ones. This then leaves calmer regions, in which there are still no livelihoods, a bit pissed off. That they're still saying they're not all-in with the government despite NSP projects is troubling. Hearts and minds ain't such an easy thang to get won.

Another catch is, to harp on my theme: water. The bottom-up approach NSP takes to community's deciding to install x number of water projects is great -- for those communities. But not so great for those further down a water system. Tapping water supply off from a river in one village transmits the opportunity costs of another village -- not only not being able to do the same, but perhaps suffering extreme forms of water scarcity as a result. Here is a where a more top-down approach -- focusing on river basins as the main unit of concern for water projects -- needs to be met with the bottom-up that NSP represents.

A really good development success story in such a difficult context NSP is. But let's not get too gung-ho on it as a silver bullet.

I saw Ghani speak a few weeks ago at the LSE. A brilliant talk that made many an interesting point. One was about how statecraft as an art isn't for everybody. In his years back to Afghanistan, where he first returned as finance minister in 2003, he says he's not once been out to a restaurant, highlighting his sacrifice (and there are some nice ones about, so what a pity).

Passionate as ever about his country, one point especially moved me. During the Q&A session he was asked by the moderator, one global governance expert, to break it down for us the mystery of stolen votes and just what in any god's name happened in the August oh-nine elections.

Ghani responded by saying he didn't really want to get into it. And why? Because it's time to move forward, a la Al Gore, with political reconciliation in Afghanistan.

He then parenthetically proceeded to mention that he was likely robbed of at least 1,000,000 votes. But let's massage that away and focus on his message: He was willing to forget a crassly fraudulent election and put his support to Hamid Karzai for the better good of his country.

Silver bullet or not, this is reason enough to take this man's ideas seriously.

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