Of Interest: SIGAR’s New Lessons Learnt Report on Afghanistan

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released at the end of May 2018 its latest “lessons learnt” report covering the period 2002-2017.  It is chock full of information for anyone who is interested in “development” work.

For those who follow “rule of law” issues, and especially for those who actually are working in Afghan-related projects, the following excerpts strike, at least to me, a very familiar chord.

Even within dispute resolution, the U.S. government chose to focus on formal rule of law, rather than informal rule of law, also called traditional dispute resolution (TDR). TDR in Afghanistan employs a varying mixture of traditional, community-specific norms, and Islamic legal principles, or sharia. 1015 As early as 2007, international legal experts highlighted the coalition’s inattention to informal justice, even though an estimated 80–90 percent of Afghan disputes are handled through TDR, and many Afghans have more faith in it than in formal dispute resolution. 1016

The U.S. government spent more than $1 billion on rule of law programming in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2015, of which less than $100 million (approximately 10 percent) was spent on enhancing informal rule of law. 1022 State’s 2009 rule of law strategy—the only one it drafted—recognized the importance of TDR to Afghans, even calling it a “pillar” of the coalition’s effort; however, the balance between funding for formal and informal rule of law programming did not seem to reflect this recognition. 1023  Worse, the kind of dispute resolution promoted by formal rule of law programming was not only considered corrupt, but also foreign to most rural Afghans.

In my many years of working in international settings doing “development” work, I have found that one of the biggest problems is overcoming individual egos and the posturing that comes with those egos.  “Development” work is not just altruistic:  there is a lot of money to be made and prestige to be gained.  There is a door that is always “revolving” between the implementer, the donor, the supervising entity, the inspecting authority, the academicians, and other intellectuals.  It is human nature.

However, once in a while, it is good to read that some of the lonely and knowledgeable individuals who pointed out some of the flaws in design were vindicated.   Note that I don’t use the term “expert”, because, in my work, most experts are really “Rupertos the “expertos””.  (My own label for the last few years has been “subject matter expert”!).

SIGAR’s Lessons Learned from Public Sector Development Support in Afghanistan.

SIGAR* has released its 3rd lessons learned report on Afghanistan’s public sector development.  It makes interesting reading if you follow Afghanistan, care about international development, and pay attention to how international aid funds are managed.

The lessons learned, which are summarized below, are U.S. Government- and Afghan-specific, but they can apply to any “development” policy and program implementation considerations.  There is nothing new under the sun:  (i) we always fail to take into consideration the magnitude of the projects involved, (ii) we are arrogant in our determination that we know better -even if we have never lived abroad and have zero sense of what other cultures are like (and, mind you, you can never quite know about this unless you live among them and learn from them)-,  (iii) donor countries’ government official “experts” come and go way too quickly to make much of a difference, (iv) we always underestimate the extent that corruption -as we define it- might be someone else’s way of life, and, (v) “change”, if there is going to be any, is a painful process that threatens many, making them feel extremely vulnerable and reticent to engage in it.

From my limited experience, any “development” process needs to ensure that the rule of law is the foundation.  You cannot develop a justice sector dealing with just the “criminal” side of justice.  Commercial, economic, private sector, education, infrastructure, land rights, health, etc., development programs have to have the proper legal foundation first.  You cannot create the program first and then develop the regulatory framework later.  Further, you cannot ignore the children and their schooling.  Whatever “development” programs are accepted by the host country (whether they involve building a dam, helping women obtain micro loans, or drafting a new penal code), the underlying premises that will make the programs sustainable need to be introduced at an early age.


This report identifies 12 lessons drawn from the U.S. experience with private sector development and economic growth in Afghanistan.
1.  It is not realistic to expect robust and sustainable economic growth in an insecure and uncertain environment.
2.  Establishing the foundational elements of an economic system at the beginning of a reconstruction effort sets the stage for future success.
3.  Any new economic system which represents a break with a host nation’s past knowledge and practice must be introduced carefully and with sufficient time to ensure adequate buy-in and the development of the robust institutions required to maintain it.
4.  Spending too much money too quickly can lead to corruption and undermine both the host nation and the goals of the United States, while too abruptly reducing funding can hurt the economy.
5.  Inadequate understanding and vetting of the webs of personal, sometimes criminally related, networks can allow elites to control economic activity at the expense of open and competitive markets.
6.  Successful private sector development efforts must be nested within the development of the rule of law and overall good governance.
7.  The choice of a model for economic growth must realistically acknowledge a country’s institutional and political environment and its physical endowments.
8.  The provision of grants and below market rate loans can undermine commercial banks and other market-oriented institutions and create unsustainable businesses.
9.  Support to businesses and government institutions needs to be tailored to the environment.
10.  Clear agreements on institutional roles, responsibilities, and lines of authority, reinforced by human resource policies that fit a post-conflict environment, are necessary for an effective private sector development strategy and for overall development.
11.  Rigorous monitoring, evaluation, and analysis, which transcend individual projects and programs, are necessary to understand the effectiveness of private sector development interventions.
12.  Investments in human capital have significant returns, although it may be years before they are realized.


*Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Is Foreign Assistance to Justice Sector Reform Projects Worthwhile?

Late on Sunday afternoon, doing some research on whether recipient countries might pay lip service on Rule of Law/justice sector reform donor programs, I came across this article in the Mexican Law Review on Rule of Law, titled, “International Support for Justice Reform: Is It Worthwhile? written by Luis Pásara, a Peruvian lawyer, sociologist and professor.

I have just skimmed through it, although I already know I want to study it in full  because certain premises of his coincide with some of my thoughts.  While it addresses justice reform in Latin America, the author touches on universal problems.  Mr. Pásara’s conclusion is worth quoting:

On the one hand, it is important to keep in mind that establishing the Rule of Law is a broader and more difficult task than reforming the justice system. Therefore, building a better justice system is not enough to establish the Rule of Law; the former is just a component of the latter. The quality of the laws, the legal culture, the actual social and economic inequalities, and the role played by the government —among other elements— are important and complex components of the process of building the Rule of Law.

On the other hand, internationally-funded programs of justice system reform are not able to produce deep changes, which are badly needed for both a better justice system and the establishment of the Rule of Law, in the receiving countries. Clearly, such programs are not able to “fundamentally reshape the balances of power, interests, historical legacies, and political traditions of the major political forces in recipient countries. They do not neutralize dug-in antidemocratic forces. They do not alter the political habits, mind-sets, and desires of entire populations” and “[o]ften aid cannot substantially modify an unfavorable configuration of interests or counteract a powerful contrary actor.”175 That is why international aid in the area of justice has not delivered a new justice system in receiving countries. It simply could not do it.

But there is some room for improvement. Taking into account the analysis made in this article, some concrete suggestions can be proposed for the many people, acting in good faith in the international agencies and who are willing to find ways to do a better job of improving justice systems in the region:

Knowledge is a must. No decision about the area, content, size, timing or amount of a project should be made without detailed knowledge of the subject in the country where the work is to be done.

Learn what others produced. To gain knowledge of the prevailing conditions mainly requires: collecting the information that already exists, paying attention to national actors’ perceptions and analysis, taking advantage of the knowledge of international experts who have gained experience in that particular country, and evaluating other agencies’ experience in the field.

National actors and a clear strategy are needed. The conditions required to develop a project include: a core of national actors who are truly committed to the reform goals, and a strategy —to be designed jointly with national actors— with well-defined short, medium, and long-term goals within the project.

National actors have a crucial say. The implementation phase of any project needs to have a partnership of national and international actors, but the last word should be said by national actors who know better and ultimately are responsible for the reform process in their country.

Monitoring and evaluation are indispensable. Project implementation needs continuous monitoring and project evaluation presents opportunities to learn about both achievements and failures. External reviews of the projects —including work done by academic researchers— are powerful tools for a critical analysis on what works and what does not. Reticence to share information with capable peers is, in the long term, a way of wasting resources.

If these remedies —and other possible changes— are introduced to alter the performance of international actors and agencies, they may dramatically increase the level of quality of the outcomes of justice reform projects.