Perhaps the biggest challenge we face in areas of conflict or instability like Afghanistan and Pakistan is how we adjust the development endeavor—one that occurs on a generational timeline—to the political reality and military imperative that demand quick time horizons.
The type of funding situation presented by zones of conflict forces us into some pretty difficult circumstances—situations in which we have to spend large amounts of money in
a very short amount of time, because we know the dollars simply won't be there tomorrow.
But spending this amount of money in a conflict zone is akin to carpet-bombing—it may hit its target but not without significant collateral damage.
Massive upfront investments can distort markets, incentivize power brokers or warlords to rise, and beget corruption; all of which can ultimately diminish the legitimacy of the state in a counterinsurgency environment.
So we are looking into budget mechanisms that allow us to distribute these funds out over time. Perhaps we create a trust fund, perhaps we work with Congress to devise a new mechanism, but it is something we are giving thought to.
But more importantly, we need to adjust our tactics to the input reality. We need to be honest about the political nature of conflict and how that dictates our fiscal trajectory. And we need to work to make ourselves more relevant and helpful to that reality.
First, we must emphasize a long-term development perspective into the short-term stabilization and project-finance work that must occur.
In our short-term activities and pro-grammatic planning, we must adopt a "do no harm" mentality, ensuring the work we do builds an enabling environment for long-term development, rather than leading to dependency, market distortion, or corruption.
We must use those funds to increasingly build local capacity, empowering Afghans or Pakistanis or whomever else to take responsibility for governance and social services.
To do this, USAID is rewriting and streamlining its contracting rules, changing the status quo of writing big checks to big contractors and calling it development.
We will increasingly fund smaller, local agents of change, who have the cultural context and in-country expertise to ensure our assistance leads to sustainable growth.
And, in a realm dominated by red tape, we're making the application for these grants far simpler, breaking down the barriers that stop smaller organizations from working with us.
We must also fight hard against a Western long-term view that interprets every visible need as a driver of conflict. It's very easy for a commander or USAID staff member to arrive in Afghanistan, spot a dilapidated school, and demand it be retrofitted and rebuilt.
But what if there are no teachers to staff it? What if the Taliban are threatening the parents of those children who attend? What if you paid a local tribal chief for the work and he in turn used the money to weaken the status of rivals? Your good intentions would have now weakened the state and heightened tensions.
Therefore, we must strive to uncover the true drivers of instability in a region, based, again, on local perspectives. We must respond to the real needs of those we serve, not the needs we imagine.
What we've found is that it is generally not the case that a lack of schools or roads drives conflict. Often the situation is far subtler, having to do with local power dynamics or long-held grudges.
With this idea in mind, USAID worked closely with the Pentagon to create the District Stabilization Framework, a decision-making tool designed to get at the real sources of conflict in a given area.
And, we must remember that how projects are chosen and executed are ultimately as important as what is produced—again, how we do things is as important as what we do.
Last updated: March 27, 2015