Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Afghanistan ... good metrics would help!

Dear Colleagues

Afghanistan is in the news again ... but really for the wrong reasons. The media jumps on "human interest" stories, but ignores important material most of the time, if not all of the time!

Of course media is not metrics ... though media has become more important in communications than the underlying facts and the metrics.

Socio-economic development is complex ... and not easy to get right. In Afghanistan, the process is complicated also by the history of the country, the structure of the society and international interventions over the past four decades. My own involvement with Afghanistan was soon after the Soviet withdrawal and a UN initiative to help with reconstruction and rebuilding war damage. Sadly, the international community were unprepared to make any commitment to funding this initiative and absolutely nothing was done beyond the preliminary planning stage ... a very expensive mistake as it has turned out.

My impression of Afghanistan was not much different from my impression of other places in the world. Most people live their lives struggling with the problems of the day and their immediate surroundings. Most people wish for little things to be a little better ... little things that ought to be pretty easy to do.

But most people do not make the decisions ... a few decision makers make the decisions ... and people are not usually beneficiaries and more often pawns in the process.

It was apparent from the start that an offensive in Afghanistan against Bin Laden in response to the 9/11 World Trade Center bombings had some justification ... but any broader offensive against civilians did not. It is good that in the past year, the international military in Afghanistan has moved from an offensive posture to one where the protection of civilians and society is a priority. With this there are also initiatives to help communities progress ... a very important component for success.

But this is not very much what the media is talking about ... nor the posturing politicians. In part this is because there are few useful metrics to show what is being accomplished in communities ... what progress is being made ... how the various activities are working ... how the various organizations are performing.

When there are metrics at a community level, it becomes very clear what issues need to be addressed ... what works ... and what does not!

When I was working in Afghanistan almost 20 years ago, one of the big questions was related to economic performance in rural communities and the profit potential of poppy versus any other economic activity! Simple value chain analysis ... a very powerful and useful analysis technique ... shows that drug profits are completely fueled by consumers who are mainly in rich and powerful countries, in countries with totally impotent policies to manage and control the demand. This is not easy stuff ... but it is drug addiction rather than poppy in Afghanistan that is the core problem that has to be addressed.

When more money can be made growing food than poppy ... Afghan farmers will grow food. This is the invisible hand ... the market mechanism ... that works very well when it is allowed to!

But there are other problems ... greed is one of them. As a former corporate CFO I am well aware of how people are attracted to money ... and good accounting is needed to make sure that money goes to the right places and gets used for the right purposes. But modern big organizations ... political, corporate, military, governmental, developmental ... all seem incapable of doing the sort of accounting control to make sure that money is used correctly and is accounted for. Recent articles in the press about plane-loads of money being shipped out of Afghanistan suggests that something is terribly wrong ... and with even basic accounting it should be clear who is stealing the money and ripping off the system.

But the problem has another layer ... when it is clear who is ripping off the system ... then it is virtually impossible to get justice. The rule of law is very powerful ... complex ... full of loopholes ... and serves very well to make it possible for totally unethical behavior to go unpunished. This is an aberration ... and ought to have been fixed a very long time ago. The fact it is has not been fixed suggests that a lot more people in positions of power are tainted by these behaviors than the general population would ever imagine!

Which brings us back to meaningful metrics ... metrics that are clear and unambiguous ... ubiquitous. Media and story telling are not enough! Community level metrics for Afghanistan would be very useful ... and probably show how good a job the international military are doing ... and also how well some Afghan communities are doing. Maybe these metrics would also show how some of the participants in the process are ripping off the system ... and with this transparency, maybe behavior will be modified to everyone's benefit!

Peter Burgess

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