The Special Inspector General for the Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR,) established by Congress in 2008 to evaluate the efficiency of reconstruction programs in Afghanistan, has issued a glowing report on the Afghan-run National Solidarity Program (NSP) which has implemented over 45,000 small-scale infrastructure and employment-creation projects since its inception in 2002. Grants to villages averaged $35,000 for tools, materials, wages of around $5 per day, and technical assistance for water, sanitation, secondary road improvement projects, as well as schools, canal-clearing, and irrigation.
"We found that [the controls instituted by the NSP] provided reasonable assurance that NSP funds were used as intended."
It found that 70% of NSP funding has reached small Afghan communities, with most of the rest going toward the overhead of expanding the reach of the fledgling institution. The National Solidarity Program is managed under the auspices of the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD.) The World Bank has called the MRRD: "a government within a government."
The NSP is funded by international donors, mostly governments, through a special account at the World Bank called the Afghanistan Reconstrucion Trust Fund (ARTF.) The World Bank states "there is no other program which has NSP's reach and scale."
In the one instance in which the SIGAR report found fraud and abuse, the hawalla (traditional banking) dealer who absconded with funds was immediately reported by the NSP, and is now in custody. In another instance, media reports of the Taliban taking a substantial "cut" of NSP funds in Farah province prompted the NSP to halt all funding pending an investigation. The investigative committee, which included international donor oversight including a USAID technical representative, concluded the report was "baseless."
Lt. Colonel Edward Corcoran, USA-retired, Ph.D., and Senior Fellow on national security issues at GlobalSecurity.org, writes that Afghanistan is now at a "tipping point" in which the time is ripe for transition from military to economic strategies. He cites the NSP as an example of a program in which the "narrative" will shift from "government-to-government" programs to ones in which "individual Afghans can and will transform their own country, and the United States will help."
The NSP has spent over $1.5 billion since 2002. This averages a little over $6 per Afghan per year, compared to $400 billion or around $1600 per Afghan per year which the US has spent on combat operations.
Col. Chris Kolenda, a special adviser to ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his director of strategy for reintegration in Afghanistan, said to the Army Times of the NSP:
“The Afghans have this great saying — ‘If you sweat for it, you protect it’ — and so getting highly localized development in the hands of communities is critical...The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has a great program called the National Solidarity Program, where money is given in block grants from an Afghan reconstruction trust fund directly to a village, so the village owns the project, the village operates the project, the people in the village are employed.”
In 2010 the New York Times noted that among the insular Pashtun Shinwari tribe, the NSP has "gained much admiration...for the efficient way it has dispensed development aid."
Schools built by the NSP have been referred to as "the schools the Taliban won't torch," as a result of the unique manner in which NSP projects are decided upon and run at the local village level.
As the American public's impatience with U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan continues to grow, the SIGAR report provides a rare bright spot in news emrging from Afghanistan. Last year a congressional subcommittee chaired by Congressman John Tierney found that a substantial portion of Pentagon funds for the overland transportation of U.S. military supplies goes directly to insurgent groups as "protection payments."
Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S. forces in 2007, told Congress in testimony that year: ""Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families." He praised the NSP in testimony in 2009 as having "proven effective in giving Afghans a greater stake in their government."