I first traveled to Afghanistan in the spring of 1993, when the civil war following the Soviet withdrawal was in full bloom. Over the next four years, as a humanitarian aid worker, I witnessed the systematic destruction of Afghanistan’s institutions, infrastructure, and social cohesion.
Since the Taliban were driven from power and al Qaeda were driven from Afghanistan, much of the country has undergone a dramatic transformation. In 2002, Afghanistan’s literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality statistics, as well as access to communications, electricity, and paved roads, were dismal. Ten years later Afghanistan has shown incredible gains in healthcare, education, and economic growth.
In 2002 there were only 50 kilometers of paved road in the entire country. Since then, USAID has built or rehabilitated over 1,800 kilometers of road connecting citizens to markets and to each other. Few Afghans had access to a working telephone in 2002, today 85 percent of the population are within a competitive and highly profitable mobile phone network that in the coming decade will revolutionize financial access in the way communications has the last decade. Economic growth of eight to ten percent on average per year has lifted millions of Afghans out of extreme poverty and bolstered the Afghan government’s gradual progress towards greater self-sufficiency. With USAID assistance in setting up a centralized collection system, Afghan government revenues have grown eight-fold from $200 million in 2002 to $1.65 billion. USAID’s work in the power sector has helped bring 24 hour electricity to Kabul and tripled access to electricity nationwide. Our work with DABS, the Afghan utility, has helped them increas their revenues from $39 million to $159 million in the last three years, substantially reducing the need for government subsidies.
Eight million children enrolled in school today, more than a third of whom are girls, compared with 900,000 boys and almost zero girls in 2001. USAID built or rehabilitated 680 schools contributing to these gains and helped train thousands of teachers. These investments in Afghanistan’s future will be paying dividends in the coming decades in Afghanistan by nurturing a trained workforce.
A decade ago, Afghanistan’s health system was shattered, leading to widespread malnutrition, infectious disease, and shockingly high infant and maternal mortality rates. Since 2002, USAID and other donors have invested in the Afghan Ministry of Public Health to build a low-cost, high-impact healthcare system. According to the Afghanistan Mortality Survey released last December, the radical expansion in health care access from six to sixty percent of the population has increased life expectancies 15 to 20 years in the last decade.
The gains for Afghanistan’s women have also been remarkable. From a form of draconian segregation that denied women access to even the most basic services or employment under the Taliban, women make up 27 percent of parliament and the national civil services.
Our new report, USAID in Afghanistan: Partnership, Progress, Perseverance, outlines these impacts and in a transparent and frank accounting of the roughly $12 billion in civilian assistance that USAID has implemented in Afghanistan to date.
But these gains are fragile. As our report also details, not all projects have been success stories, and many parts of Afghanistan remain insecure. The uncertainty among Afghans due to the ongoing insurgency, regional interference, the drawdown of ISAF forces, and poor governance is palpable.
We must cement the gains from this incredible investment, and make them sustainable. Over the last 18 months, USAID has been adjusting both our programming and our business model to ensure that our portfolio reflects the most cost‐effective priorities. Launched in fall 2010, the Accountable Assistance for Afghanistan (A3) initiative ensures there are proper procedures to protect assistance dollars from being diverted from their development purpose through extortion or corruption.
While we can’t be sure that the historic gains made since 2001 will overcome the myriad of challenges facing Afghans today, we can be certain that without sustained effort to bring economic and political stability to Afghanistan, their darkest days may not be behind them.
Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.