Keeping each other honest in Afghanistan – will it work?

By William Byrd

The Tokyo meeting on Afghanistan of July 8 exceeded expectations in terms of both the total civilian aid funding indicated by donors ($16 billion over four years, or $4 billion per year on average) and the commitments agreed to by the Afghan government. This favorable outcome in turn has generated expectations for the future.  “Mutual accountability” is the framework for implementation established at Tokyo to ensure that such expectations aren’t disappointed. Mutual accountability means that the Afghan government and the international community are both responsible for — and are accountable to each other for — achieving mutually agreed objectives in the areas of improving governance, political transition, and development performance (by the government), and delivering aid and improving its effectiveness (by the international community). But will mutual accountability work?  A recent paper sheds light on this question based on international experience and Afghanistan’s recent history.

This is not the first time that sets of commitments and benchmarks have been used to try to move forward progress in Afghanistan. The past decade has seen numerous declarations and agreements, reflecting the multiplicity of donors and the plethora of high-profile international meetings since 2001; some prominent examples are briefly discussed below.

The Bonn Agreement of December 2001 required a number of political and institutional actions on the Afghan side, and the international community undertook to provide support.  Most benchmarks-such as convening of a national assembly (Emergency Loya Jirga), adoption of a new constitution, and presidential and parliamentary elections-were achieved, on-time.  However, the broader objective of state-building was elusive, and progress toward stable political institutions and normal political life was limited.  Moreover, the Bonn process did not set in motion self-sustaining dynamics for continuing progress after it was completed in 2005.  On the contrary, there were reversals in some respects, and the second round of elections in 2009-2010 turned out to be more problematic than the first round in 2004-2005.

The Afghanistan Compact of 2006 is a good example of how not to do mutual accountability.  The wide range of areas covered and the sheer number of benchmarks-well over 100 of them in some 52 different areas-represented a “Christmas tree” approach which included almost everything and thereby ended up prioritizing nothing.  It soon became largely irrelevant.  Moreover, the mechanism for overseeing implementation, the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board (JCMB), became an unwieldy, largely diplomatic forum.

There has been good experience with policy-based budget support (funding provided directly to the Afghan government budget by international financial institutions, in return for implementation of an agreed set of policy measures as part of a coherent reform agenda), and also with the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund’s Incentive Program (ARTF IP).   These initiatives took on board lessons from international experience; supported reform constituencies in the Afghan government; and built constructive dialogue between government and donors.  The ARTF IP, with its agreed benchmarks and financial incentives, is a good example of coordinated financing (pooled funding) by the ARTF donors.  However, these initiatives accounted for only a small proportion of total aid, did not include political conditions, and did not work well where highly connected political and financial interests were involved.  For example, the Kabul Bank crisis was of a magnitude that could not be effectively addressed through the ARTF IP and its benchmarks; indeed the entire ARTF was put at risk as donor contributions dried up during the crisis.

The Tokyo Framework of July 8 clearly reflects learning from experience.  There are 20-plus benchmarks for the government in five main areas, far fewer than in the Afghanistan Compact.  There is a long-term perspective-the “decade of transformation” (2014-2025), and the responsibilities of Afghanistan and the international community are clearly set forth and demarcated.

However, major issues and challenges lie ahead in implementing the Tokyo Framework. On the international side, the multiplicity of donors means there is fragmented accountability, which could adversely affect coherence as well as the ability of the international community to be meaningfully held accountable for total funding, particularly given severe fiscal constraints faced around the world.  Coordinated funding will be essential, but is it realistic to expect most aid to go through the Afghan government budget/trust funds? This would require a wholesale change from past patterns whereby the bulk of aid was fragmented, project-based, and off-budget.

For the Afghan government, uncertain political and security prospects raise doubts about its ability to meet commitments.  The reform constituency may be weakening; there has been an inability to fully address issues where high-level political connections are involved (e.g. Kabul Bank); and more generally, political will for meaningful reforms understandably may decline as the security transition proceeds and the next election cycle approaches.  Preparations for elections-presidential in 2014 and parliamentary in 2015-will be an important early test of political will, including as called for in the Tokyo Declaration developing a comprehensive election timeline by early 2013 and a robust electoral architecture to enable successful and timely elections.  Fighting corruption, including meaningful asset declarations of senior officials in the executive, legislature, and judiciary, will be another good indicator of the extent of political will for reforms.

Moreover, it is doubtful whether major political issues can be adequately handled through an articulated mutual accountability framework with benchmarks and calibrated financial incentives.  Other mechanisms, such as that set up to oversee implementation of the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Afghan and US governments, may be better suited for handling “big-ticket” issues, such as the preparations for and conduct and quality of the next presidential and parliamentary elections.

Inability by the international community to deliver the level of funding committed could provide a justification for the Afghan government failing to achieve its benchmarks.  Mutual accountability could then degenerate into each side accusing the other of not delivering on promises, rather than working as a framework with incentives to achieve positive results and improve behavior on both sides as intended.

How will achievement of benchmarks be monitored and enforced?  Given past experience, there are doubts about how well the JCMB (mandated to oversee implementation), and the series of further high-level meetings agreed at Tokyo, will work.  Declining aid for Afghanistan means the funding lever potentially will be stronger than in the past, when aid was increasing and pressures to spend more money were overwhelming irrespective of performance, but it is not clear how effectively it can be deployed given donor fragmentation and also that some funding (e.g. for Afghan security forces) is seen as an integral part of international drawdown strategy and hence will be difficult to hold back.

In conclusion, while the outcome at Tokyo exceeded expectations and hence was a success, the challenge henceforth will be implementation.  Mutual accountability-the cornerstone of the Tokyo Framework-is intended to put in place a set of responsibilities and incentives for the Afghan government and for the international community that will foster better behavior and performance on the part of both.  There are serious questions about whether and how well mutual accountability will work, most important among them the level of political will in the Afghan government for taking difficult actions and the degree of coherence of donors as well as their ability and willingness to use financial leverage both positively and negatively to encourage fulfillment of government commitments.

William Byrd is a visiting senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.  This note is based on his remarks on mutual accountability at a USIP panel discussion on the subject.  The views expressed here are his own.

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