Analysis of Corruption and Incompetence of the United Nations in Afghanistan According to Acemoglu and Robinson

By: Merzayee

The book “Why Nations Fail (Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty)” is one of the most admired books in the field of economic theory. It seeks an answer to the question of why there is a sharp and irreparable difference between incomes and living standards in the rich countries of the world, such as the United States of America, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan, and between poor countries such as South Asian countries, Latin America, and African countries.

The authors of this book, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, are of the view that factors such as geography, climate, natural resources, and culture are not so important, and consider economic progress the outcome of complementary institutions. The solution they consider to accelerate the economic progress of poor countries is that the leaders of these countries should take basic steps to consolidate the relationship between the government and the nation and establish institutions that are made by the people themselves. Discussions about this theory have gone on unabated since the publication of the book, and along with the numerous praises that this book has received, there have also been criticisms of the ideas presented in it, which is completely natural.

We will discuss particularly a part of the 15th chapter of it, which presents some ideas about Afghanistan. The authors of the book “Why Nations Fail” in the 15th chapter opened a discussion about the failure of foreign aid for poor countries, mainly focusing on the failure of external aid to build infrastructure and state in Afghanistan. In this article, we will present a report on this part of the book and argue that the United Nations did not have a good role and function in this regard.

Among the people of poor countries, there is usually a positive view of the role of the United Nations as a global institution. The people of these countries observe that the United Nations tries to prevent the spread of the war crisis in different regions of the world in times of crisis, establish reconciliation between the internal warring groups, and also help the people displaced by war and famine. However, when we take a closer look at the role of this organization in countries like Afghanistan, which are heavily dependent on the assistance of foreigners, it can be found that the United Nations sometimes failed to act independently and followed the major world powers and the main donors of this organization, leading the body to adopt biased policies rather than act as an impartial organization.

Over the last 20 years, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has publicly intervened in Afghanistan’s internal political disputes for the support of one of the sides of the conflict, questioning its impartiality. Everyone witnessed that in the electoral crises of 2014 and 2019, UNAMA acted as a powerful arm of fraudsters and played a decisive role in weakening the government institutions in the country.

UNAMA is one of the institutions that has always expressed concerns about the existence and spread of corruption in the Afghan government and considered it a destabilizing factor. However, the bitter reality is that this institution itself has never been immune from corruption, having been completely involved in the misappropriation of billions of foreign aid to Afghanistan. According to the authors of the book, after the fall of the Taliban and the signing of the Bonn Agreement between the Mujahedin and Western-backed forces in 2001, it was believed that a new era had been opened in the history of the country and the people of Afghanistan longed to leave the Taliban behind and forget them. Foreign countries that supported the newly built government concluded that all Afghanistan needed then was an unlimited infusion of foreign aid. According to the authors of the book, what was achieved was not a surprising thing because the experiences of the last few decades have proven that foreign aid to bankrupt countries devoid of strong institutions always goes through a constant process and faces a shameful failure. “Billions of dollars were now coming to Afghanistan. But little of it was used for building infrastructure, schools, or other public services essential for the development of inclusive institutions or even for restoring law and order. While much of the infrastructure remained in tatters, the first tranche of the money was used to commission an airline to shuttle around the UN and other international officials. The next thing they needed were drivers and interpreters. So, they hired the few English-speaking bureaucrats and the remaining teachers in Afghan schools to chauffeur and chaperone them around, paying them multiples of current Afghan salaries. As the few skilled bureaucrats were shunted into jobs servicing the foreign aid community, the aid flows, rather than building infrastructure in Afghanistan, started by undermining the Afghan state they were supposed to build upon and strengthen.” (p. 593)

The Story of Multi-million Dollars of Aid that Did Not Reach Its Destination
The authors go on to narrate a story that well depicts the pervasiveness of corruption in aid administered by the United Nations for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The book speaks of Villagers in a remote district in the central valley of Afghanistan who heard a radio announcement about a new multimillion-dollar program to restore shelter to their area. After a long while, a few wooden beams, carried by the trucking cartel of Ismail Khan, a famous former warlord, and member of the Afghan government, were delivered. But they were too big to be used for anything in the district, and the villagers put them to the only possible use: firewood. “So, what had happened to the millions of dollars promised to the villagers? Of the promised money, 20 percent of it was taken as UN head office costs in Geneva. The remainder was subcontracted to an NGO, which took another 20 percent of its head office costs in Brussels, and so on, for another three layers, with each party taking approximately another 20 percent of what was remaining. The little money that reached Afghanistan was used to buy wood from western Iran, and much of it was paid to Ismail Khan’s trucking cartel to cover the inflated transport prices. It was a bit of a miracle that those oversize wooden beams even arrived in the village.” (p. 593-594)

Acemoglu and Robinson have concluded that what happened in the aforesaid village was not a unique event. “Many studies estimate that only about 10 or at most 20 percent of aid ever reaches its target. There are dozens of ongoing fraud investigations into charges of UN and local officials siphoning off aid money. But most of the waste resulting from foreign aid is not fraud, just incompetence or even worse: simply business as usual for aid organizations.” (the same page)

Foreign Aid and the Survival of Unfavorable Regimes
To convey the central idea of the book, the authors of the book insist on this point: Despite this unflattering track record of “development” aid, foreign aid is one of the most popular policies that Western governments, international organizations such as the United Nations, and NGOs of
different ilk recommend as a way of combating poverty around the world. And of course, the cycle of the failure of foreign aid repeats itself over and over again. According to them, the idea that rich Western countries should provide large amounts of “developmental aid” to solve the problem of poverty in countries including Afghanistan is based on an incorrect understanding of what causes poverty. “Countries such as Afghanistan are poor because of their extractive institutions—which result in lack of property rights, law and order, or well-functioning legal systems and the stifling dominance of national and, more often, local elites over political and economic life. The same institutional problems mean that foreign aid will ineffective, as it will be plundered and is unlikely to be delivered where it is supposed to go. In the worst-case scenario, it will prop up the regimes that are at the very root of the problems of these societies.” (p.595)

Amina J Mohammed, the Taliban, and Public Protests
Recently, the statements of UN Deputy Secretary-Generals Amina J Mohammed became controversial, when she asked the countries of the world to consider recognizing the Taliban. A meeting is also being held in Doha, a part of its agenda is dedicated to how to engage with the Taliban. It is speculated that some officials in the United Nations want the Taliban regime to be recognized and in return, concessions will be taken from the Taliban.

So far, the Taliban have not deviated from any of the decisions made by the leadership of the group, having ignored the demands and pressures of the world. With this explanation, it seems unlikely that concessions to the Taliban could persuade this group to grant women the right to education and work. Even worse, the recognition of the Taliban regime may embolden the leaders of this group, concluding that ignoring international principles not only does not cost the group anything but also makes the international institutions more lenient towards the group.

UNAMA has not left a brilliant track record in the last two decades. Therefore, it is necessary to speak more openly about this record and highlight its weaknesses. The effort of some UN officials to recognize the Taliban not only does not help to improve the situation in the country but also complicates the human rights and humanitarian situation in the country.

The fact that people in the leadership of the United Nations dare to take a compromising and empathetic position regarding a regime that is not aligned with any human and global values, shows that for a part of the leadership of the United Nations, poverty alleviation and the defense of human rights and women’s rights is not a priority in Afghanistan. Rather, probably the goals and priorities of the donor countries of this organization and their monthly salaries of tens of thousands of dollars are more important than the fate of millions of people who are taken hostages by the Taliban. The protests of various sections of the Afghan people against Mohammed’s statements are expected to have made the UN officials realize that the path they have taken is not leading toward the good and therefore they should refrain from compromising engagement with the Taliban.