Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Helmland follies: a case study in how aid (and indigenous policy) fails

Helmland is a province in Afghanistan where expensive and grandiose American ambitions go to die. It is a focus of the current war against the Taliban, but US involvement in the region goes back to the Truman Administration and continued until the Communist coup of 1978.

Fighting the Cold War with dams
Nick Cullather’s revealing (pdf) (and depressing) history of modern Afghanistan, focusing on the Cold War era Helmand Valley dam project, notes of the Kingdom of Afghanistan:
Modern states are able to govern through manipulation of abstractions—unemployment, public opinion, literacy rates, etc.—but in Afghanistan interventions of any kind, and the reactions to them, were brutally concrete.
… the regime persisted in slowly, firmly, laying the barren politics of abstraction and principle over the warm, cruel politics of the heart.
Afghanistan is a complex society. Partly tribal, so partly following the structures that Phillip Carl Salzman so revealingly delineates, and partly not. This complexity does not respond well to abstract plans developed elsewhere.

Such as dam projects (for example, the HAVA—Helmland and Arghandab Valley Authority) based on the “just add capital” notion of development-through aid. As Cullather points out, dam projects:
had the additional function of redefining political conflict as a technical problem. Britain’s solution to Afghanistan’s tribal wars had been to script feuds of blood, honor, and faith within the linear logic of boundary commissions, containing conflict within two dimensional space. The United States set aside the maps and replotted tribal enmities on hydrologic charts. Resolution became a matter of apportioning cubic yards of water and kilowatt hours of energy. Assurances of inevitable progress further displaced conflict into the future; if all sides could be convinced that resource flows would increase, problems would vanish, in bureaucratic parlance, downstream.
There was no history, no local social ecology, just the bright promise of technology.

As so often was the case, this was aid as driven by external ambitions, not local realities:
From 1946 on, the salaries of [contractor]Morrison Knudsen’s advisers and technicians absorbed an amount equivalent to Afghanistan’s total exports. Without adequate mechanisms for tax collection, the royal treasury passed costs on to agricultural producers through inflation and the diversion of export revenue, offsetting any gains irrigation produced. Although it pulled in millions in international funding, HAVA soaked up the small reserves of individual farmers and may well have reduced the total national investment in agriculture.
With a crude, by-the-numbers, approach to “modernization”:
The US ambassador in 1962 noted that if successful, HAVA would boost Kabul’s “earnings of foreign exchange and, if properly devised, could foster the growth of a strata of small holders which would give the country more stability.” This billiard-ball alignment of capital accumulation, class formation, and political evolution was a core proposition of the social science approach to modernization that was just making the leap from university think tanks to centers of policymaking.
No one seems to have noticed that that was precisely not how modernization had been built in their own countries. Ironically, other dimensions could be spotted if they had a Cold War element:
[Afghan Prime Minister] Daoud’s receptiveness to Soviet and Chinese aid was particularly troubling. As [anthropologist Louis] Dupree put it: “A nation does not accept technology without ideology. A machine or a dam is a product of a culture.”
Afghanistan was marked by weak central authority and periodic rebellion:
But despite their favored status, Pashtuns revolted against the Mohammedzai eight times between 1930 and 1960. Open violence between minorities was less common than conflict that pitted clan autonomy against central authority.
As had been true for millennia, settled agrarian existence was regarded as inferior to pastoralism:
But even with the closing of the border and the attraction of subsidies and well-watered homesteads, it proved difficult to entice Ghilzai Pashtun to become ordinary farmers. Freer and wealthier than the peasants whose lands they crossed, the nomads regarded their new Tajik and Hazara neighbors with contempt.
Phillip Carl Salzman’s work brilliantly explains why.

One needs to be careful about one’s assumptions, again and again:
Agricultural experts found the mullahs to be a progressive force, “constantly look[ing] for things to improve their communities, better seed, new plants, improved livestock.”
Afghanistan has a much longer history of American involvement and engagement than folk may realise:
By the 1960s, Afghanistan had Soviet, Chinese, and West German dam projects underway. It was receiving one of the highest levels of development aid per capita of any nation in the world. U.S. News described it as a “strange kind of cold war,” fought with money and technicians, instead of spies and bombs. The Atlantic called it a “show window for competitive coexistence.” Publicly, U.S. officials said this was the kind of cold war they wanted, just a chance to show what the different systems could do in a neutral contest. Afghanistan had become a new kind of buffer, a neutral arena for a tournament of modernization.
Alas, even more than most aid projects, the project, not the consequences, became the key thing:
For reasons of prestige alone the United States kept pouring money in, even though by 1965 it was clear the project was failing. Diplomats complained about having the US reputation and credibility hang on “a strip of concrete,” but there was no going back. Afghanistan was an economic Korea, but Helmand was an economic Vietnam, a quagmire that consumed money and resources without the possibility of success, all to avoid making failure obvious.
Examples of failing to attend to what happened in actually modern societies continued:
Legal titles were still clouded by HAVA’s inattention to land surveys, but the settlers had nonetheless sculpted wide tracts of empty land into irregular 15-acre parcels divided by meandering juis, tree-lined canals that served as boundary, water source, and orchard for each farm.
Hernando de Soto had not yet published his The Mystery of Capital. But, fear not, they had a plan:
Unfortunately, the juis system proved incompatible with the new plans. The small, hilly, picturesquely misshapen fields contributed to runoff and drainage problems and prevented the regular, measured applications of water, chemicals, and machine cultivation necessary for modern agriculture. A green revolution would require, in effect, a land reform in reverse: merging small holdings into large, level fields divided at regular intervals by laterals running from control gates on the main canals. As the wheat improvement program got underway, a team of U.S. Department of Agriculture advisers proposed that HAVA remove all of the resettled families, “level the whole area with bulldozers” an then redistribute property “in large, uniform, smooth land plots.” HAVA adopted the land preparation scheme but implementation proved difficult. Farmers objected to the removal of trees, which had economic value and prevented wind erosion, but they objected chiefly to vagueness of HAVA’s assurances. HAVA itself acknowledged, as bulldozing proceeded, that questions of what to do with the population while the land was being prepared, how to redistribute the land after completion, and whether to charge landowners for improvements were “yet to be worked out.” When farmers “met the bulldozers with rifles,” according to a USAID report, it presented a “very real constraint” that “consumed most of the time of the American and Afghan staffs in the Valley throughout the 1960s.”
The project folk had apparently never read (or if they had, understood) Hayek’s point about The Uses of Knowledge in Society:
But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation. We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances. To know of and put to use a machine not fully employed, or somebody's skill which could be better utilized, or to be aware of a surplus stock which can be drawn upon during an interruption of supplies, is socially quite as useful as the knowledge of better alternative techniques. And the shipper who earns his living from using otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local differences of commodity prices, are all performing eminently useful functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting moment not known to others.
All this failure was a product of bad theory, as Cullather outlines, citing a range of critiques. But it was bad theory persisted with because theorists and decision-makers were not constrained or burdened by the consequences of what they did—that fell upon others, who had no say in the decisions but were central to the outcomes.

Fighting the war on terror with …
And it is happening all over again, as Holly Barnes Higgins sets out in describing her experience as an aid worker in Helmland. The Coalition forces are offering modernization, which is precisely what the Taliban is a revolt against. The Taliban have a great advantage in that modernization is much easier to disrupt than to build:
Making the roads unsafe was and remains a Taliban objective. The more they could disrupt our work, the more they could intimidate through violence and murder, the more likely—they seemed to reason—we infidels would flee for safety, leaving the province ripe for their accelerated exploitation.
Another great advantage the Taliban have is that they are connected to local patterns in a way that the Coalition modernizers are not.

The third great advantage the Taliban have is that the local patterns the Coalition interlopers ended up having to work through inhibit modernization and aid the Taliban:
When the Taliban dissolved and left Lashkar Gah in the autumn of 2001, the position of provincial governor was filled by a man from the north whose arrival into town was accompanied by 200 armed men. Though barely literate, this relative-by-marriage of President Karzai was confident enough in his status to proclaim himself governor. A rival of the governor soon seized the position of regional police chief in similar fashion. In spite of the fact that both had a private militia in tow, neither man was strong enough to wipe out the other, so an uneasy truce prevailed.
This is a struggle over structures of governance. One the locally embedded and connected Taliban are winning and the Coalition interlopers are not:
… an informal alliance between farmers, officials and the Taliban. In the end, it would be hard for me to swallow the simple truth that the benefits of these symbiotic relationships far outweighed anything we could offer as an economic development project.
The Taliban used coercion applied to the local population in ways that make sense to the local population and were embedded in the local population. The Coalition soldiers are just visiting. Which makes them like Western aid workers everywhere, except with guns added.

The soldiers and aid works bring their own policy contradictions with them. For example, the “war against drugs” continues to frustrate “the war against terror” with neither being permitted to force assessment of the other (or, indeed, itself):
As a result of poppy production, the Taliban was able to recruit more, pay more attractive bonuses for successful attacks, and supply themselves more abundantly with weapons. But despite active insurgency/counterinsurgency warfare all around us, we were to persist. And so we did.
Those abstract notions modern government is based on can have their own blindness to, or discounting of, consequences.

The traditions that gravely inhibit harnessing the talents of women operated whether or not the woman was local or a visiting foreigner:
It was a bit harder to get used to the fact that, as a woman, I was not supposed to be seen outside my quarters without being fully covered from head to toe. While my male colleagues could sit out in the sun and read and had their clothes cleaned by male staff then hung dry outdoors, I needed to exercise and clean my clothes myself, then drape them around my room to dry indoors, lest they offend.
But the struggle to allow people to fully participate in Western society itself has been a long one, and continues still.

Higgins came to see how much it is about people: their beliefs, preferences and expectations, formed under very different bases than any Westerner is used to:
As time passed and my experiences accumulated, I began to understand the local saying that “Afghanistan is where God comes to cry.” Just as the country itself combines remarkable beauty with unrelieved bleakness, so the people are stuck between the rock of the opium economy and the hard place of no viable alternative, between the anchors of tradition and the desperate need for progress and change.
Aid and “nation-building” are not matters of applying Cobb-Douglas functions, whose mathematical and geometric forms operate over the top of institutional presumptions taken utterly for granted. The "just add capital" notion is not only not justified by history, it is flatly contradicted by history: specifically by the way the curse of silver turned Spain from the technological, institutional, organisational and intellectual cutting edge of Latin Christendom into an obscurantist backwater.

The problem of knowledge
Hayek wrote in his classic 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society:
One reason why economists are increasingly apt to forget about the constant small changes which make up the whole economic picture is probably their growing preoccupation with statistical aggregates, which show a very much greater stability than the movements of the detail.
The saying “the devil is in the details” points in the same direction. But Hayek was making a larger point, as he goes on to say:
The comparative stability of the aggregates cannot, however, be accounted for—as the statisticians occasionally seem to be inclined to do—by the "law of large numbers" or the mutual compensation of random changes. The number of elements with which we have to deal is not large enough for such accidental forces to produce stability. The continuous flow of goods and services is maintained by constant deliberate adjustments, by new dispositions made every day in the light of circumstances not known the day before, by B stepping in at once when A fails to deliver. Even the large and highly mechanized plant keeps going largely because of an environment upon which it can draw for all sorts of unexpected needs; tiles for its roof, stationery for its forms, and all the thousand and one kinds of equipment in which it cannot be self-contained and which the plans for the operation of the plant require to be readily available in the market.
This is a point that applies beyond markets. Whenever one is looking at social arrangements, either directly (at people’s behaviour) or indirectly (the things they build) one is looking at a mass of judgments, local knowledge, trade-offs, incentives … Farms and buildings are not lumps of “things”, they are always and everywhere the products of human action. Sustained improvement means changes (for the better) in those patterns of human action and nothing less than that. Those patterns of action are not incidental, they are not simple conveyor belts by which adding inputs “make things better”, they are the heart of the story. They are the story.

Hayek quotes philosopher Alfred North Whithead:
It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.
Precisely so, which is why aid programs that operate on taking things for granted—that something translated into a new social environment will have the same significance as it did in the social environment that the designers of aid are used to—are so disastrous.

Institutions matter, because they structure how people act. A 2001 paper on the effects of different forms of colonisation on (pdf) (via) long term economic prospects presents clear evidence on this.

Starting with why some regions do worse than others:
These results suggest that Africa is poorer than the rest of the world not because of pure geographic or cultural factors, but because of worse institutions.
What matters was whether rule was about establishing authoritarian rule so resources could be extracted or whether there was a sufficiently large group of locals able and willing to agitate for—and then make work—the transfer of similar institutional arrangements as operated domestically in the colonizing state:
When the establishment of European-like institutions did not arise naturally, the settlers were ready to fight for them against the wishes of the home country. Australia is an interesting example here. Most of the early settlers in Australia were ex-convicts, but the land was owned largely by ex-jailors, and there was no legal protection against the arbitrary power of land-owners. The settlers wanted institutions and political rights like those prevailing in England at the time. They demanded jury trials, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and electoral representation. Although the British government resisted at first, the settlers argued that they were British and deserved the same rights as in the home country.
With appropriate institutions, and people who understood how to make them work and what you could get out of them, things happened. As a history the authors quote notes:
“the enormous boom in public investment after 1870 [in New Zealand] ... was an attempt to build up an infrastructure ... to maintain high living standards in a country where voters expected politicians actively to promote their economic welfare.”
As the authors point out, non-settler colonies were typically ruled by authoritarian, extractive structures based on a narrow elite; patterns that have continued after independence.

Or, in the case of Afghanistan, were never formally colonised so missed out on institutional transfer and basic capital investment (such as roads and electrification). People act on the basis of what they know, and what they know about. European settlers not only knew about, but knew how to operate, certain types of institutional structures and acted accordingly.

With limited knowledge of what was possible—and still less knowledge of how to make such institutions work—of course people in non-Western societies act according to what they know and are used to, what actually operates in their societies. Which is why institutions cannot simply be transferred—there is a lack of the knowledge and normative base to operate them. But even sillier is the notion that if one “just adds capital” either the institutions will magically arise, or that development “will just happen” without the institutional structure—the fundamental patterns of social life—to go with them.

Modernisation is hard, but can only be expected to “take” if grows out of, and transforms from within, the actions and presumptions of the inhabitants of a society. The power of modernization is precisely the way it grabs peoples choices but it remains something from the outside impacting on unless those internal transformations can take place.

Indigenous policy as exemplar of the failure of aid
In the settler countries of the Anglosphere, indigenous policy provides telling—and tellingly drear—examples of these problems.

When people write of indigenous Australia as “Australia’s Third (or even Fourth) World” they say more than they typically know. Not only are the social outcomes among indigenous Australians “third world”, the policies applied fail in the standard way aid policies fail: due to perennial failures to seriously consider the cultural-institutional (i.e. human social ecology) dimension. (As I have previously posted, even the same grim jokes are applicable.)

That indigenous Australians are Australian residents and citizens leads even more easily than normal to glib, unexamined presumptions about how things will work. That, for example, indigenous Australians will treat housing in the same way as people from cultures which have been agrarian for thousands of years. But houses do not have the same significance for people whose cultural inheritance (however battered) has Paleolithic presumptions. Westerners are the product of centuries, of millennia, of cultural evolution. Perhaps we should take our experience seriously so that we can take other people’s experience seriously?

If anything, the projection of “noble savage” collectivist fantasies on indigenous Australians is even worse: it operates as a double fail. It fails to grasp how mainstream Australia (or mainstream US or Canada) achieve the social outcomes that indigenous Australia’s failure to achieve is regarded as so shameful while foisting on indigenous Australians collectivist social forms that are themselves the product of agrarian and industrial societies and have a relentless history of failure.

Read Why Warriors Lie Down and Die by Richard Trudgen for the full horror. In Trudgen's Why Warriors Lie Down and Die—there is the illustrative tale of the Galiwin ’ku fishing industry.
The Galiwin ’ku fishing industry consisted of several small fishing boats made from local timbers at Galiwin ’ku by the Yolηnu and mission staff. The Yolηu named these boats with holy names from their clain or riηgitj nation alliance. The boats were owned by the mission but were skippered and crewed by different clans. Some small clans would come together in a riηgitj alliance to make up a crew. …
These clan groups would use the boats and sell their catch to the mission for processing and re-sale to other places. The people clearly understood that what they caught was theirs until they sold it to the mission and they benefited directly from their catch. From the point of sale on, it belonged to the mission. This arrangement satisfied the legal requirements of both the Yolηnu and Balanda systems of law.
When the mission at Galiwin ’ku handed the fishing industry over to the Yolηnu council in 1974, everything proceeded well for a while because the mission staff also transferred to the council. For most Yolηu nothing really changed. Then in 1975 it was decided to get a loan from the government to develop the industry. The Aboriginal Development Comission ‘decided’ to bring in a consultant to look at the viability of the loan and how it could increase the efficiency of the industry. Following the consultant’s recommendation, one big, modern fishing trawler replaced the small boats. In the dead of night, the small boats were burned on the beach and one was cut adrift, to ‘convince Yolηu of the need to move up to the big boat’. Within six months the whole fishing enterprise at Galiwin ’ku had collapsed and Galiwin ’ku became an importer rather than exporter of fish products.
… from a Yolηu perspective the collapse happened because the separate clans and nation alliances found it impossible to work under one Balanda boss on the trawler, as the trawler captain now had to be licensed. Moreover, Yolηu were insulted and grieving over the destroyed boats. With no clear lines of ownership the people could not see that any authority had passed to them. …
To expect all the clans at Galiwin ’ku to believe they collectively owned the fishing company was like telling twenty-six Balanda companies that they collectively owned an industry incorporated as an association. … But this is not how community structures were set up. … The Yolηu fisherman did not see themselves as working for their own gain anymore; in fact, many now thought that the captain of the new trawler would reap the dividends. They had just become wage earners, and the incentive to work and build the industry for their own benefit was gone.
On top of all this, people had become confused about where these wages came from. In the past they saw a clear trade with the mission—so much fish for so much money. This trade was what the Yolηu were used to. Now they got wages no matter how many fish were caught. The steps in the development of a cash economy, with its system of wages-for-labour, are many. The Yolηnu were catapulted into the cash economy with little preparation.
With all this confusion, only conflict could occur, and economic development through industries like fishing was lost. (pp47-8)
Sound anything like what went on with the Helmland dam project’s attitude to the locals’ agricultural efforts?

If you want to understand the failure of indigenous policy, examine the failure of aid policy. And vice versa. It is the same problems with the same interlocking dynamics:
Failure to grasp how modernization happened, and what it is.
Failure to understand the centrality of human action: in particular, that technology operates according to how people understand and operate it.
Pervasive failures of communication.
Application of policies by people who do not suffer the consequences of what they do.
The failure of indigenous policy in Australia tells us what one needs to know about the failures of the Coalition’s “nation-building” efforts in Afghanistan because they are all manifestations of the failure of aid. The failure to understand that development is what happens (or not) in the minds of people. That technology (including capital as the produced means of production) is the product and benefits of that, it is not the thing itself. You have to understand where people really are—their presumptions, beliefs, incentives, expectations—and work from there in ways that look like a good thing to them from within their (evolving) worldview and will continue to do so after you are gone for development to “take”.

Otherwise it is just an expensive and wasteful game with other people’s lives. Adding guns to the mix does not change that.

ADDENDA There is a great irony in the Iraq v Afghanistan comparison. The Coalition intervention in Iraq has been generally much less popular with Iraqis, but was operating with potentially functional forms of modern government. The NATO intervention in Afghanistan is much more popular with Afghans (especially the non-Pashtun) but is operating with less modern forms of governance. The intervention in Iraq is broadly a success (Iraq is at least as functional as Pakistan, and much less disruptive to its neighbours), the intervention in Afghanistan appears to be failing: lack of useful government structures trumping what the locals think about the intervention--or, to put it another way, institutions matter more than attitudes.

UPDATE Michael Yon notes that the Coalition spends very little time or effort in the areas of Afghanistan where it is welcome.


  1. Interesting post, Lorenzo. You have to be so careful with "aid" - it's so easy for it to be wasted.

    I'm sure I'll be back later with more comments once this has percolated.

  2. Very interesting. I had never thought of the foreign aid analogy as relevant to the Aborigines.

    But the analogy falls down a bit as there is no such thing as a geographic site for Australia's Aborigines. They are widespread and distributed as everybody else, with the exception of the fifth world humpies in the desert, which should be defunded starting at 8 pm tonight.

    The other thing, they are not living far away in poor backward societies. They are living here in 21st century Australia!

  3. Actually, I would argue the lack of geographic distinction actually makes the point work better. It really is about what goes on in human heads and the structures they carry with them and create between them. Even when embedded in a society with highly successful mainstream institutions.