A plan for grass-roots aid using small sums of money and village councils has nurtured modest but important changes in this corner of Afghanistan, raising hopes that it could become a model in a country where official corruption and a Taliban insurgency have frustrated many large-scale development efforts.
Since arriving in Afghanistan 2001, the United States and its Western allies have spent billions of dollars on development projects, but to less effect and popular support than many had hoped for.
Much of that money was funneled through the central government, which has been increasingly criticized as incompetent and corrupt. Even more has gone to expensive private contractors hired by the United States who siphon off almost half of every dollar to pay the salaries of expatriate workers and other overhead costs.
Not so here in Jurm, a valley in the windswept mountainous province of Badakhshan, in the northwest. People here have taken charge for themselves — using village councils and direct grants as part of an initiative called the National Solidarity Program, introduced by an Afghan ministry in 2003.
Before then, this valley had no electricity or clean water, its main crop was poppy and nearly one in 10 women died in childbirth, one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Today, many people have water taps, fields grow wheat and it is no longer considered shameful for a woman to go to a doctor.
If there are lessons to be drawn from the still tentative successes here, they are that small projects often work best, that the consent and participation of local people are essential and that even baby steps take years.
The issues are not academic. Bringing development to Afghans is an important part of a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at drawing people away from the Taliban and building popular support for the Western-backed government by showing that it can make a difference in people’s lives.
“We ignored the people in districts and villages,” said Jelani Popal, who runs a state agency that appoints governors. “This caused a lot of indifference. ‘Why should I side with the government if it doesn’t even exist in my life?’ ”
In places like Jurm, the presence of the central government is barely felt. The idea to change that was simple: People elected the most trusted villagers, and the government in Kabul, helped by foreign donors, gave them direct grants — money to build things like water systems and girls’ schools for themselves.
Local residents contend that the councils work because they take development down to its most basic level, with villagers directing the spending to improve their own lives, cutting out middle men, local and foreign, as well as much of the overhead costs and corruption. “You don’t steal from yourself,” was how Ataullah, a farmer in Jurm who uses one name, described it.
The grants were small, often less than $100,000. The plan’s overall effectiveness is still being assessed by academics and U.S. and Afghan officials, but the idea has already been replicated in thousands of villages across the country.