Dutch businesswoman: foreign aid bad for Afghanistan

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Photographer Mary Munnik went to Afghanistan in 2005, intending to stay a few months. She wanted to capture the spirit of hope that seemed to be emerging after the US invasion. Seven years later, she was still there. In the meantime, she had traded her camera for a consultancy agency. But growing cynicism and corruption left her with the feeling that she was “flogging a dead horse”.

The final straw came in February when hostility towards foreigners took a serious turn for the worse after US soldiers burned copies of the Qur’an. “Security had never been my main concern. Even after an attack I’d think, tomorrow I’ll just get back to work. But this time I didn’t want to be caught up in a security situation where the balance had tipped towards an anti-foreign mood. Not just for my own safety but also for that of my staff. What would it mean for them to be associated with foreigners?”

Five Afghans work at her consultancy. They are trying to keep the agency going in her absence. She hopes they will succeed but she doesn’t have much faith in the outcome. “When I arrived in Afghanistan there was optimism and hope: we are all going to work hard and make things happen here. Not anymore. I’ve grown cynical and I think the same is true of the Afghans. All that effort has not brought us what we’d hoped.”

Mary Munnik is troubled by the millions in foreign donor funds that have been pumped into the country for years in order to help the economy and boost democracy. “The entire business sector is shaped by foreign donors. They issue loans or subsidies, determine who they are given to and for what purpose. But there is a lack of coordination between them and they can be inconsistent to say the least. One year they want to invest in companies that export agricultural products. The next they say: now we’re going to focus on farming. Those export companies are doing fine without our help.”

The Dutch businesswoman does not believe that this is how you help build a healthy economy. As she sees it, you have to keep on investing in a company until you are sure it can stand on its own two feet. She also reckons that the current aid climate fosters a culture of dependency among the Afghans. They come to rely on the subsidies from the Western organisations and the millions they spend each year.

Oil slick
Mary Munnik’s company also had to deal with foreign donors. Many Afghan businesspeople would only use her consultancy services if it was a way to obtain aid money. “I think it’s better if people pay for services. Once they get used to doing that, they come to appreciate what they have and work harder to achieve it. It’s a business-like approach that takes people seriously.”

She believes that aid payments have achieved the opposite, encouraging corruption that is spreading like an oil slick through all levels of society. Mary Munnik reveals that many Afghans have literally told her: “There’s so much money for the taking. Why on earth wouldn’t I make use of it?”

Rich elite
She has become increasingly angered by the egotism of the Afghans. She sees it primarily in the rich elite who are channelling their money out of the country. “The people I know who have a lot of money and who could easily make long-term investments refuse to do so. They are real opportunists. They opt for the easy money and build an apartment block that they can sell off quickly. I was looking for people who were prepared to invest in the future of their country. But they were few and far between and it led me to ask ‘why are we still here flogging a dead horse?’”

In 2014, the international forces will withdraw from the country and with them will go much of the donor money. “That’s when many Afghans will realise that they have shot themselves in the foot. They’ve been far too concerned with their own interests or those of their own family or clan. They failed to make the most of what was offered them for the future of their country. They’d rather fight among themselves.”

Mary Munnik believes that the Afghans need to sit down at the negotiating table with one another and sort out their conflicts. And this time without interference or aid from abroad.