Giving up the “Statebuilding” Ghost: Lessons from Afghanistan for Foreign Assistance in Fragile States

The end of America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan will change many paradigms that have dominated US foreign policy for decades. President Biden’s recent assertion that military interventions are not the solution to humanitarian crises is a good place to start.  Just as urgent is the need to revisit the notion that foreign assistance can build a state.  Statebuilding was a core feature of the US enterprise in Afghanistan. But at the heart of this mission lies a central paradox: using foreign assistance to establish core government institutions—such as judicial systems, security and police, and executive agencies—while purposefully ignoring the political dynamics undermining the very institutions it seeks to establish.  This paradox extends far beyond Afghanistan and risks becoming a white whale of global development with significant increases in global foreign assistance flows to fragile states over the past decade. The current consensus goes something like this: to make a dent in global poverty levels, the international community must make a major financing push in fragile states, where over 80 percent of the world’s extremely poor will reside by 2030. But for this money to build something durable we must take stock of the hard lessons of Afghanistan and recalibrate expectations around what assistance can achieve in fragile states. 

The US entered Afghanistan in 2001, with the goal of defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. By December 2001, it had forced the unconditional surrender of the Taliban, and in 2003, announced the end of major combat operations. The mission then turned to “reconstruction” and nationbuilding, but the focus on security never ended. Brown University’s Cost of War project estimates that from FY2001 to FY2022, the US devoted $2.3 trillion to military expenditures alone. Of the $143 billion in reconstruction funding since 2002, $93 billion was directed to Afghan police and armed forces, and around $50 billion for government and civil society programs—a huge amount compared to development spending in the rest of the world.

There were some remarkable development successes under difficult conditions, especially safety net programs that improved many lives.  Life expectancy increased by 20 years between 2004 and 2010, in large part attributable to the Basic Package of Health Services coordinated by the Afghan Ministry of Health, USAID, the World Bank, the European Union and nongovernmental organizations. The country also saw rapid gains in school enrollments for both boys and girls. But an enormous volume of US reconstruction funding passed through the hands of corrupt powerbrokers (and often expensive contractors with no longer-term accountability) and never reached individual Afghans. This in turn fueled deep distrust of the US-backed Afghan government, to the point that over half of Afghan citizens believed corruption levels to be lower in Taliban-controlled areas. As a 2011 congressional report described, “despite the considerable work that [was] done…negative perceptions persist that little has been done, the wrong things have been done, what was done is poor quality, the benefits of aid are spreading inequitably, and that much money is lost through corruption and waste.”

Neglecting the flaws in the political economy on display in Afghanistan might have been dismissed as an operational failure, if not for multiple explicit warnings from within the US government throughout its engagement in the country. One of the loudest came in 2016, when the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a report detailing how “corruption substantially undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan from the very beginning,” even while acknowledging that US agencies were aware of the problem as early as 2005. The report went on to highlight that throughout engagement in Afghanistan, the US failed to use the more aggressive anti-corruption tools at its disposal. In sum, the dearth of US anti-corruption efforts was not just a series of operational shortcomings, but a policy choice.

Development assistance for the 57 most fragile states has grown from $24 billion in 2000 to over $60 billion in 2018, with the US, the World Bank, and European Union institutions leading the charge. But there is a dearth of evidence around how much this assistance is moving the needle and, more critically, reaching the people it ostensibly aims to help. Researchers at Brookings and elsewhere have found that aid to fragile states is generally less effective than aid to poor but more stable states because governance is weaker. The World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group found that the World Bank—one of the single largest providers of funds to fragile states—tends to shy away from addressing serious governance or complex political economy issues around elite capture or access to justice.

There are some encouraging signs that the US and others want to do things differently. In response to the many shortcomings of US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US undertook at stabilization assistance review, passed the Global Fragility Act (GFA) in 2019, and issued an implementation plan. The World Bank has also put out a new strategy for countries affected by fragility, conflict, and violence. But the GFA’s implementation plan rests on compact-style partnerships with “key stakeholders,” and much of the World Bank’s strategy operates based on its Country Partnership Framework.  So while these strategies rightly emphasize the need for flexible, country-specific approaches, they often take a cooperative national government as a given.

The challenge for the US government (and the global community) is this: how do you stay engaged with the people of nations where the political landscape is fundamentally broken?  Afghanistan has dominated attention over the last two decades, but as the administration shifts its focus to addressing “the root causes of migration” in Central America and elsewhere, the central dichotomy remains:  durable development requires strong institutions to steer economic, social, and political progress over the long haul; but no amount of foreign assistance can build those institutions without a willing government in the driver's seat.  There are no ready answers for this seemingly intractable challenge, but a more cleared-eyed understanding of the political economy dynamics and willingness to tackle corruption should surely be part of the equation.

Correction: Development assistance for the 57 most fragile states was $24 billion in 2000, not 2010 as we initially wrote.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.