Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development

Establishing Afghan ownership to development projects is pivotal

Published: 09:16 AM 23-10-2018 Updated: 03:16 PM 10-06-2019

Barbara J. Stapleton

I flew into Kabul in early September 2002, on the same flight as Muhammad Ali no less, and started a direct engagement in Afghanistan that was to last until I finally left Kabul in 2011. 

I had come out to conduct field research for the (then) British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) on rumoured extensions by international forces in civil military activities there.  During my stay I was approached by the new director of ACBAR, Rafael Robillard, on a position just funded by OSI for an international coordinator of advocacy and policy.  The funding for this position - I learnt later - had been won by ACBAR’s current director, Fiona Gall.

 I returned to London in October and my husband - who had worked extensively on training programmes for Afghan female refugees in Peshawar from the mid-1980s - encouraged me to go ahead.  My paper, the first extensive research into what became known as PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams), was published in January 2003 and shortly afterwards I returned to Kabul and ACBAR. See attached link for PRT article:

It was an exciting time to be representing and shaping the policy of the 90+ international and national non-profit NGOs that made up ACBAR.  There were immediate and significant challenges including developing an NGO code of practice and assisting the Afghan government on the development of a legal framework for NGOs.  In these endeavours the guidance and experience of ACBAR’s deputy director, Mr Mayar, was invaluable, as was the input of Afghan and international NGO staff. 

Many NGOs represented by ACBAR had decades of experience  working throughout Afghanistan  yet their hard-won perspectives on sustainable development there,  garnered through trial and error over time,  had little impact on international development approaches during the crucial early years of the US-led intervention.  Central messages on the time involved, that establishing Afghan ownership to development projects is pivotal and that effective monitoring and evaluation is mandatory, were in practice largely ignored or marginalised as the deteriorating security situation militated against such niceties, combined with an intensifying international demand for immediate results on the ground. 

The development side of the intervention was significantly under-funded during the period I worked for ACBAR (2003-2005). Afghanistan received one-fifth of the equivalent funding per capita for post-conflict reconstruction than had been the case for post-conflict reconstruction in Bosnia. A fact that ACBAR and its member agencies amplified at the time.  We also questioned from the outset the validity of the international community’s assertion that Afghanistan was in a post-conflict phase. 

By 2003 international NGO staff was already being pulled out of the south-west of the country.  Early  hopes that ‘needs based’ development approaches could be enabled  by the regional expansion of UN- mandated international peace-keeping forces while professional Afghan security forces were built up, (as envisaged in the Bonn Agreement),  withered.  Instead, a gradual roll out of Provincial Reconstruction Teams became the channel for internationally funded development beyond Kabul controversially bypassing the Afghan government and setting up a parallel development process.  This was much criticised at the time by the current President, Ashraf Ghani.   

The PRT plan was promoted both in the capitals of NATO member states and in Afghanistan as critical to facilitating tangible results in reconstruction and development and in so doing, stabilising the country. Unsurprisingly, given the steadily worsening security situation inside Afghanistan and pressure for results from leading donors, international aid (with some notable exceptions) became increasingly tied to the political and military objectives of the US-led intervention.  The assumed linkage between development and security would only be rigorously challenged years later.

The roll out of the PRT plan placed Afghanistan at the forefront of an increasing securitisation of aid that flew in the face of the core humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence.  As the PRT plan was going to go ahead with or without them, some NGOs decided to engage in policy discussions in an attempt to influence PRT approaches.  This process was led in Kabul by ACBAR with the objectives of limiting effects viewed as harmful to NGO security and to the future operational capacity of NGOs, given the uncertainty of Afghanistan’s political future.   

I left ACBAR in December 2005, returning to Afghanistan the following May to join the small political office of the EU Special Representative, Francesc Vendrell. My three years with ACBAR stand out for the issues covered, the challenges faced and being the beneficiary of informed perspectives from Afghan and international colleagues,  but most of all for the sense of hope we all shared for a brighter future.

Barbara J. Stapleton, Advocacy Manager 2003-2005