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Rebuilding a Country From the Bare Minimum

This week Devnews focuses on the World Bank’s development work in conflict areas. Eighty percent of the world's 20 poorest countries today have suffered from a major conflict in the recent years. Devnews has talked to Bank staff on the ground, to get a clearer sense as to what this work entails on a daily basis, what progress is being made, what challenges are faced and what lessons they have learnt. "Conflict and Development: a View from the Ground" is a series of five stories, that will run from May 12-16. May 14th will also see the launch of a new World Bank report, "Breaking the Conflict Trap" by Paul Collier et al, on the causes of civil war.

May 12, 2003After 23 years of conflict, Afghanistan was in a shambles when the international community stepped in last year to aid the country’s reconstruction. War and political repression had left an empty shell of state institutions. A three-year drought was threatening to plunge the country into mass starvation and famine. The vast majority of girls did not attend school.

"The economy had pretty much collapsed, and there was widespread poverty and destitution … compared to now, Kabul was almost a ghost town," World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan Alastair McKechnie recalls. "A lot of the very elementary things that we take for granted just didn’t exist." Payments were made in cash as there was no banking system and the Central Bank barely functioned. Security considerations constrained operations. The only place for foreign aid and relief workers to stay initially was an overcrowded UN guest house. The Bank began operations out of a dining room in a private house, a satellite phone the only connection to the outside world.

Since then, Afghans have achieved progress in many areas, though challenges still mark the road ahead. A new government has been installed following a Loya Jirga, a traditional forum for establishing country leadership. Three million children have enrolled in school, 30 percent of them girls. Under the Taliban, an estimated 3 percent of girls attended school, and those were mostly in illegal classrooms in homes. The government has also made strides in vaccinating against measles, TB and polio, and the economy is sputtering back to life in myriad small-scale initiatives by entrepreneurial Afghans.

"The recovery of the local economy, particularly small-scale business, has been quite remarkable," McKechnie said. "And this is not something that has been confined to Kabul. It has happened throughout the whole country." Village irrigation systems are being repaired around the country. Agricultural production—grains, vegetables and fruit—has rebounded by more than 80 percent as a result of fortuitous weather and the efforts of countless Afghan households. "Although by themselves these are small reconstructions—they’re not the flashy, big projects—these are the kinds of things that really do have an impact on people’s lives," McKechnie said.

There are, however, daunting challenges for Solar Year 1382 and beyond (Afghanistan uses a calendar based on the Persian or Islamic Solar Year). Most Afghans still live in dire poverty. A mere 6 percent have electricity; 23 percent have access to safe water. Agricultural production has increased, but 7 million people remain at risk of famine. Most of the country’s schools and roads need repair. Security is precarious—the lack of security due to armed groups, ethnic tensions, and factional divides constitutes the biggest threat to reconstruction. A resurgence in poppy cultivation and drug trafficking is another threat.

Amid those pitfalls, McKechnie credits the Afghan government with strong leadership and a clear vision in its reconstruction effort. "The government sees reconstruction as going way beyond rebuilding damaged infrastructure. They see reconstruction as the rebuilding of a modern state," he said. The Afghans have also put a heavy emphasis on poverty reduction. Half of the government’s development budget is going to activities that directly benefit the poor, McKechnie said.

The World Bank is focusing its assistance on four broad areas, based on the institution’s advantages compared to other donors and partners. Those are improving livelihoods, through job generation and community development; strengthening fiscal strategy and management through budgetary and other advice; public administration reform to improve governance and financial transparency; and enabling a climate for the private sector to grow. The Bank also administers the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which is channeling the US$370 million in assistance pledged by 22 donors so far.

The Bank officially re-opened its office in Kabul in May 2002, after an absence of nearly 23 years. William Byrd is now the Country Manager. National operational staff number 12, plus another 30 support staff, and three permanent international staff who are supplemented by more than three Washington staff on extended missions. The Bank’s Post-Conflict Unit has also been active in Kabul, chipping in US$3.3 million in grants to the Bank’s assistance program since November 2001. National staff have made a tremendous difference to the huge effort it took to get the office up and running, said McKechnie. "I had not before at the Bank seen such enthusiasm and commitment. Everyone pitched in and still the team works long hours. There is a real sense that Afghans really want more than anything to rebuild their country and when one is in Afghanistan alongside them, this spirit is infectious. Everyone on the team has gone much, much more than just the extra mile."

World Bank grants totaling US$100 million are financing some of the nuts and bolts of emergency reconstruction: waste management in Kabul, restoring turbines at power stations, a labor-intensive public works program that has already created several million job days for low-income people. Other grant money is going toward, among other things, the rehabilitation of schools, training for female teachers, establishing a Kabul Distance Learning Center, creating email connectivity between government ministries and developing a payroll system for civil servants.

"Our whole strategy has shifted very much as our knowledge of the country improved and also as the government’s own strategy became clearer and the comparative advantages of the donors also started to crystallize," McKechnie concludes. "We initially started off doing fairly quick, high-impact reconstruction activities, and over time we have evolved to a much more strategic approach that focuses around the four themes [outlined above]."

Useful links: Click here for more information on the Bank’s assistance in Afghanistan.

Also see the Development Gateway for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

For more information on the World Bank’s work on Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction, please click here.

To hear the radio news release on Paul Collier et al's "Breaking the Conflict Trap" report, please click here.





Afghan boys in Kabul.




Construction work at the Salang Tunnel, a critical section of the highway that connects Kabul to eight provinces and Afghanistan to neighboring countries to the north.




Christophe Bosch, a World Bank water and sanitation economist, talks with Afghan men.




Afghan women attend an architecture class at Kabul University.




A man bikes past a gutted building.




Primary school class in Kabul. The Back-to-School Campaign has far exceeded expectations, with 3 million children enrolled and another 1.5 million looking for schooling opportunities.




A boy in Kabul.