In his Jan 2010 case study on Somaliland, Nicholas Eubank theorizes that the relationship that the government of Somaliland forged with the population is stronger as a result of the absence of foreign aid. Connecting the government to the population is a central theme of our campaign in Afghanistan and a core tenet of PRT Nangarhar’s work. As an agent for international aid and a professed adherent to the “First, do no harm” principle, the implications of Eubank’s study are concerning. A poor country like Somaliland, without the benefit of international aid, had to find a way to live within its means. A poor country like Afghanistan is not learning that same lesson.Many definitions of governance involve the allocation of scarce resources. When international aid renders resources unnaturally available, the expectation for resources is beyond what the state can provide, creating a disconnect between the state and the population. The population’s expectations are unrealistic, and the government does not learn how to manage. I’ve seen both of those effects here.
I suspect there is another subtle force at work beyond Eubank’s argument. When a state is primarily dependent upon revenue raised from the population, it is inherently more accountable to the population. When my money is paying for a service, I hold the provider to a different standard than when it is a free service. When the population doesn’t hold the government accountable, corruption and waste are inevitable. Those factors may be inevitable anyway, but when the population consents, the first check on power is absent. The government can do stupid things when it’s other people’s money and get away with it. Every time it does so, it reinforces the emerging relationship between itself and the population. Soon, the population won’t know how to stop this spending.
Once a dysfunctional relationship emerges, it is extremely difficult to reset the pieces. The government itself becomes an addicted consumer of an unsustainable level of resources. Instead of a supplier of services and a consumer, to some extent, there are two consumers. When the international aid diminishes, the government never learned how to prioritize and allocate resources, and the population is left without resources or a connection to their government.
The PRT and other donors have introduced large amounts of money into Afghanistan to the extent that we are simultaneously building and undermining governance. This isn’t the political science theory of surrogate governance institutions that Karzai and others have pinned on PRTs. That is a real concern, but one that we manage through extensive cooperation and coordination with the government. This perverting influence derives from ’free” money, even when that money flows through the government to provide services. It doesn’t matter if it is from the government or the international community. Too much money flowing in an emerging democracy denies the need of a cooperative and accountable relationship between the governed and the governing. It undermines a natural balance of power during the formative stages of the government’s contract with the governed.
There’s some Maslow here, I suppose; this argument suggests that the poor are more likely than the rich to fight for their fair share. I don’t believe that; I think people from all economic sectors will fight for their fair share when any pot of money is divided up. The more fundamental problem here is that, in an emerging government that never had resources, the population had not learned yet how to mobilize to have its voice heard or hold the government accountable. This was the pre-labor union sweatshop. Looking at the violence that surrounded the formation of labor unions is a concern in a country that already faces an insurgency. The government has the power and the freedom to abuse power. The population has no mechanism to hold the government accountable. When one side has too much power, it is difficult to rebalance the scale.
Rentier states all face this natural flaw. When governments do not derive their budgets and power from the population, they lack an incentive to listen to the population. This isn’t the only reason for corruption, but it certainly correlates with corruption.
My team has struggled mightily trying to figure out what to do about the corruption. When the people have no power and we don’t control the justice system, the corruption grows and adapts and infiltrates everything. We are attacking corruption through whatever means we can, which isn’t much. However, if the corruption actually derives from an inexperienced government’s rentier status, there is hope to attack corruption through a different mechanism: a decrease in donor funding.
We often react to corruption by increasing funding in the short term to ensure enough gets to the population that needs it while we look for strategic ways to enforce transparency and the rule of law. However, there may be an opportunity to address this problem and make the population’s resources more relevant. By decreasing international aid, the population may not get as much in the way of services, but they gain power and influence over their government. I’m not sure if I believe this or can figure out where such a tradeoff should be.
When I first considered the implications of this theory, I thought it was just another form of bottom up argument. If we incentivize the government to get resources from the population, then we achieve accountability and a connection. However, this argument also warns us about the reverse effect. If we put too much power in the bottom, the value of the top is marginalized. The population has not seen value in the government, perhaps because of this rentier status. As a result, every few generations, the population here has risen up and overthrown their government. However, the new government did not render services, because that model had never been demonstrated. A cycle developed where governments did not serve, and the population saw no benefit in having a government.
For this reason, placing too much power in either side is unsustainable. The government must learn how to allocate resources to keep the population content. If they provide too many services based on revenues that are too high, they lose legitimacy because the service they provide is not balanced with the revenue they collect. Americans have this debate regularly. On the other hand, if they provide too few services, even if it is based on limited taxes, the population will not perceive benefit from the government. This is the crux of the problem.
To be sustainable, a natural balance must develop based on the resources that will ultimately be available when the state exists as a non-rentier. We have to get the “free” money out of the equation.
As the corruption continues to plague our efforts and we lack rules that allow us to hold the corrupt accountable, perhaps we need to look at the problem differently. We keep saying we want the people to hold the government accountable because we can’t. Perhaps we need to look at this problem differently as well. At the point that governance and corruption, not development, are the barrier to stability and transition, empowering the population by forcing the government to rely on the population may be our best strategy. Forcing the government to build a budget based on its own economy may be a way to execute that strategy. It’s just an idea for now, and one that I may never have an opportunity to try. Can we help the population get essential services by reducing international aid? Perhaps.
Source: Nangarhar University.