Exotic Birds in a Cage Criticism Grows of Afghanistan's Bloated NGO Industry

Philip Poupin / DER SPIEGEL

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Part 2: Representing European Taxpayers' Interests in Afghanistan


"Whenever a foreign aid worker is killed nowadays," says Ramazan Bashardost, "many Afghans simply shrug their shoulders and think, 'So what? That's one less thief. They don't do anything for us anyway. They're merely weapons in the Taliban's hands.'"

Bashardost can by no means be described as a preacher of hate. On the contrary, some people call him "Afghanistan's Gandhi." He holds degrees from elite French universities and was his country's planning minister. In the 2009 presidential elections, Bashardost, a member of the Hazara ethnic group, came third out of 32 candidates, beaten only by the incumbent -- Hamid Karzai -- and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

But sitting in his olive-green campaign tent at the edge of Kabul's parliamentary district a few days before Saturday's election, Bashardost rants about the wasteful spending of the various non-governmental organizations, his voice full of righteous contempt. He says Afghanistan can do without NGOs whose staff "can't leave their $15,000-a-month rented houses or get out of their $40,000 armored vehicles because they have forgotten how to serve the people. Wasn't that the original idea?"

'Your Only Advocate'

Bashardost himself drives around Kabul in a small Suzuki. He spends a lot of time with average people. This morning, an old woman with crippled feet, a blind woman, and two widows in nylon burqas are sitting with him in his tent. Bashardost listens to their tales of woe, pulls out a little money, and writes down notes. In Saturday's election, he once again stood for a seat in parliament. If he gets in, he will be representing more than just the interests of the Afghan people.

"I am your only advocate in Afghanistan," he says with a rueful smile. "After all, I represent the interests of American and European taxpayers. Why don't you ask what happened to your money? Why do German workers make do with a sandwich at lunchtime while our President Karzai holds receptions for 150 guests? Criminals are having a ball at the presidential palace at your expense."

US special investigators are now trying to deal with corruption within the Afghan government apparatus, while the Afghan Economics Ministry is dealing with corruption in the NGO community. According to its initial findings, international NGOs are frittering away 60 percent of their available resources on their own expenses.

BINGOs and MANGOs

The international flow of capital divides and subdivides on its way to Afghanistan like a mighty river branching out in a delta. It splits into main tributaries (the military, government-related organizations and major relief organizations), minor tributaries and rivulets. There are currently 1,327 Afghan NGOs. Added to this, Afghanistan has 303 international NGOs, also known as INGOs -- including sub-sets dubbed BINGOs (business-related NGOs) and MANGOs (suspected mafia-related NGOs). The NGOs build hospitals and irrigation channels, set up schools and organize rural administrations, clear mines and help women attain economic independence.

More than 2,000 organizations have already been disbanded for lack of evidence that they were doing anything, says Sayeed Hashim Bassirat, the head of the NGO department of the Economics Ministry in Kabul. To hear him speak, you wouldn't suspect that he does not have a computer in his office or much in the way of power. He also only has fragmentary information about the multibillion-dollar business of the aid workers outside his door.

"The international relief organizations don't speak to the government and pay too little attention to the real needs of the people," Bassirat complains. According to a report published by the Afghan Finance Ministry in November, more than three-quarters of the money donated by foreign countries is distributed not by the relevant ministries but mainly through military channels.

'Businesses Dressed Up like Mother Teresa'

Nearly $40 billion (€30 billion) in development aid has flowed into Afghanistan since the start of the war. It goes into an industry which is also concerned with securing its own posts and functions, with the hard-to-criticize justification that it is doing good. "Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa," writes the Dutch journalist Linda Polman in her no-holds-barred exposé "The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?" which has just been published in the US.

Working for a good cause feeds thousands of aid workers. Buzzwords such as "sustainable development," "empowerment" and "gender-balanced approach" open the gates to donor money. Those within the aid convoy know the catchphrases because many of them were deployed in Rwanda, Bosnia or the Congo on behalf of the World Bank, UN or NGOs before coming to Afghanistan.

Occasionally, even some of the aid workers express their doubts when they get together in small groups or when they talk over a beer in one of the foreigners-only restaurants in the Kabul district of Qala-e-Fatullah. They describe their work as "donor-driven," by which they mean that those who hand out the money don't ask the recipients what they need.

One experienced German aid worker delivers a damning verdict on her fellow relief workers, who are mostly young graduates from around the world. "Of course some of them are really dedicated and have specialist skills," she says. "But most could just as easily work somewhere else. Either that or they came to Afghanistan looking for the noble savage and are now disappointed because the people here also watch Hollywood movies and have cellphones."

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