Photo Jonathan Blair

Monday, September 28, 2009

Afghanistan: Giving Too Much, Asking Too Much

With the huge amount of ink and conference time devoted by specialists to Afghanistan in this country, it is striking that the discussion is so weakly influenced by social sciences per se. What we have instead are -sometimes- well-informed guessing, well-meaning and deeply-felt moral arguments, and free-floating advice based on the "lessons" of history or the previous experience of the writer.

Yet, believe it or not, political scientists, economists, and sociologists have done theoretical and empirical work that is extremely relevant to what is happening in Afghanistan, and that has been quite systematically tested and confronted to evidence. Not that this means they speak the truth or that their conclusions should be given some kind of privileged status in the debate. But what they tell us should at least be part of the discussion: good science says little about what "ought" to be, but it tells us something about what "is," and this should matter.

I have three big contributions in mind: the first has to do with the side effects of aid dependence (Djankov et al., 2007; Easterly, 2007); the second with the side effects of democracy in unstable environments (Bates et al., 2008a; Bates, 2008b); and the third with the limits of state-building in poor states with "difficult geographies" (Herbst, 2000; Rubin, 2002). Their implications for the case of Afghanistan are clear: 1) far too much aid is being given to Afghanistan, twisting the incentives of government officials and local leaders; 2) elections like the one Afghans just went through make their current or potential rulers focus on short term gains, which is bad for long-term peace and economic development; and 3) no centralized rule is possible in Afghanistan, which means that stability cannot come from an hypothetical "victory" of the central government over regional challengers, but from deals with them. 

If these insights are valid, and I think they are, much is wrong about the West's current efforts in that country.  See below for the references.

Bates, Robert H. (2008a), When Things Fell Apart. State Failure in Late-Century Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Bates, Robert H.(2008b) "The Logic of State Failure: Learning from Late-Century Africa," Conflict Management and Peace Science,25:4: 297-314.

Djankov, Simeon, José García Montalvo, and Marta Reynal-Querol (2007), “The Curse of Aid,” Working Paper 45254 (Washington DC: The World Bank).

Easterly, William (2007), “Was Development Assistance a Mistake?” American Economic Review, 97(2): 328-332.

Rubin, Barnett (2002), The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and the Collapse of the International System (New Haven, London: Yale University Press).