Andrew Wilder: Winning Hearts and Minds?

Andrew Wilder, Research Director at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University in Boston, spoke March 30 at Yale. Wilder has been a leading critic of development aid deployed as a tool of counterinsurgency.

Andrew Wilder was born in Pakistan and has spent more than 35 years living, studying and working in Pakistan and Afghanistan.From January 2002 through April 2005, Wilder established and served as the first Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Afghanistan’s leading independent policy research institution. Between 1986 and 2001 he worked for several different international NGOs managing humanitarian and development programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including as the Pakistan/Afghanistan Director of Save the Children (US) from 1996 to 2001. His recent publications include an analysis of police reform efforts in Afghanistan and a study on perceptions of the Pakistan earthquake response. He has an interesting Boston Globe op-ed here: “A Weapons System Based on Wishful Thinking” For the past year he has been leading a two-year study on the assumed relationship between foreign aid and stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa.


Wilder began by explaining the assumption that increased development aid leads to stabilization. This has become a centerpiece of American counter-insurgency strategy. “Where the road ends, the Taliban begins,” said General Eikenberry in 2005, and Vice President Biden declared in 2008: “How do you spell hope in Pashto and Dari? A-S-P-H-A-L-T.” Development actors have also embraced the idea that poverty breeds radicalism. Since 9/11 the money for development has grown dramatically, and much of those funds has been directed to peace building activities. At the same time, the role of the military and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) has become dominant in aid work.The logic for these developments is that poverty causes conflict, therefore reconstruction assistance will lead to economic development, and then stability. Also assumed is “aid wins hearts and minds” and that more government presence means more stability.

However, this reasoning ignores much that has been learned about the potential for negative outcomes of aid. Projects frequently generate grievances, losers as well as winners. Modernization in Afghanistan has often had destabilizing effects, in the 20s under King Amanullah, and during the American/Soviet competition over infrastructure projects in the 70s. The Army Counter-Insurgency Manual calls aid a weapons system. Doesn’t it make sense, Wilder argued, for a weapons system to be tested before we assume it works?

Wilder stressed that development is certainly worthwhile for its own sake, and has had some success for health, education, infrastructure etc. The point he wished to make was that development does not correlate with security, and is not a useful tool in counter-insurgency.

What Afghans Think

Wilder presented research to back up this claim. In interviews with Afghans in five provinces (Helmand, Paktia, Orozgan, Farah, and Balkh) he asked three questions: What are the drivers of instability, what do you think about development actors, and does development help with insecurity?

The government’s role in insecurity was by far the biggest concern.

The most common causes were:
1. bad government, corruption, predatory police
2. disrespect for culture/religion among the foreign forces
3. neighboring counties
4. unemployment
5. ethnic/tribal disputes

Perceptions of aid actors were mostly negative, with little distinction between NGOs, the military, and government ministries. The common complaints were unmet expectations and broken promises, unfair distributions, corruption, inappropriate or shoddy projects, and lack of consultation. For example, building a road angered those who it bypassed, while the haste and lack of oversight in the construction might mean that it is already crumbling, while the PRT that built it has already transfered out of the country.

The only development project with a positive reputation was the National Solidarity Program (NSP), which gave 70% of villages a choice of the small project that they wanted. People liked the equality and local involvement. This shows that the process of development is at least as important as the outcome.

Aid not only doesn’t lead to stability, it actually can be destabilizing. It can create conflicts between perceived winners and losers. Above all, the corruption involved in aid projects destroys much of their benefit. There has been a mafiazation of the construction business. In order to do a project in a violent area, the contractor must pay the Taliban or a local militia to provide security. Wilder cited a recent article in The Nation which estimated that Western money is the number 2 source of funding for the Taliban, and as much as 10% of development money ends up in Taliban coffers.

Wilder also pointed out that part of the reason development is seen as so important is that it is good for our hearts and minds. It is good for troop morale, and is the major justification for European involvement in Afghanistan. This pressure to be doing something leads to measuring projects by dollars spent, rather than by the effects of that money. The securitization of development has other long term risks, including a possible backlash against development work when it is realized that it didn’t bring peace. We should have a ten or fifteen year commitment to gradual development, not the current frantic push.

What to Do

Wilder’s recommendation was to spend as much money on development objectives as can be accounted for, and no more; to value quality over quantity. We have to look at our capacity in an area, as well as its need, or else get further into a vicious cycle of funding insecurity by throwing money at the places with the least ability to spend it well. This requires a return to the “First, do no harm” principles of development.

We have to recognize that political legitimacy in Afghanistan hasn’t historically been based on providing services, but on protection and justice. One way to help improve the government is to focus on the appointments mechanisms. Good individuals can change the face of a ministry. In fact, in the cases when a development project was viewed favorably, the credit was usually given to the individual in charge.

It is also important to realize that the Afghan government has become as much the problem as the solution, and that their interests do not always match ours. There are segments of the government who benefit from the status quo. The current efforts to bring a “government in a box” to districts like Marja are setting ourselves up to fail. It is unrealistic to think that good government will be easy in the provinces when it has failed in Kabul, and people fear the coming of the police more than the coming of the Taliban. The biggest problem we face in Afghanistan, in the end, isn’t military or development strategy, but our lack of a political strategy for Kabul.

The Yale Afghan Forum thanks Professor Wilder, the Gattis Smith Lecture Series, The Council on South Asian Studies, and everyone who attended the talk.


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