If you’re interested in international development and have not been living under a rock, you’ve probably stumbled across summaries and reviews of Nina Munk’s The Idealist (link to Mike Miesen’s excellent overview as I haven’t yet read it myself). In short, the book highlights the shortcomings of the Millennium Villages Project, conceived of and ceaselessly touted by activist and economist Jefferey Sachs. The project consists of comprehensive funding to the villages over ten (up from an original five) years, with the goal of ultimately providing a system by which holistic aid can eradicate extreme poverty.
As you might suspect, this approach has been flawed. Presidents scoff at the project while purchasing fighter jets; parts arrive, but are not installed; wells are built and run dry. Criticisms of the MVP point to the immense difficulty of building something different in a vacuum of physical and political infrastructure, in an environment that is simply not yet capable of sustaining isolated pockets of prosperity.
This book was published in November, prompting lots of interesting discussion on sustainability and wise investment. But since then, a few articles have highlighted similar struggles in implementation of development projects thousands of miles from sub-Saharan Africa.
“After Billions in U.S. Investment, Afghan Roads are Falling Apart,” heralds the Washington Post. And of course they are; this follows an article in the same vein on hospitals by the same author, and the challenges are very similar. Step one: donors invest in basic infrastructure with the hope of promoting a cure-all. Step two: funders are surprised when projects that require maintenance and outside support falter after not receiving those things. Step three: we complain about poor spending and wasted tax dollars, shaking our heads at it all.
For some perspective, Texas and Afghanistan are roughly the same size at just over 250k square miles. The Texas Department of Transportation spent $3,767,263,875 on highway construction and repairs in 2013. To be fair, those repairs would have been allocated to a more extensive road network (79,645 miles of highway in Texas versus 7,673 miles of paved road in Afghanistan), so let’s cut the amount by a factor of ten. The article notes that international donors have allocated $4 billion since 2001, so we’ll also multiply the Texas amount by 14 for a grand total of $5,274,169,432 – nearly 33% more.
This ignores the fact that many of Afghanistan’s roads are newly constructed, which is more expensive than maintenance, and that they’ve gone without repair all together. Lest you forget, Texas roads are also not targeted by roadside bombs, and we don’t hire security for our construction workers – a substantial portion of costs abroad.
I don’t mean to provide a judgment on the worth of this spending, and this analogy is not intended to be perfect. It is obviously a Colossal Problem that so many of the roads we’ve built over the past decade and a half years are worn away and pockmarked and shredded. But given the challenges of undertaking an infrastructure project of this scope, it seems like $4 billion might be quite the deal. There’s no way these roads were originally planned without the expectation that the Taliban would target them for destruction, and there’s no way anyone reasonably expected one of the least developed countries to manage maintenance on that scale. But I’m a little disheartened by the number of people who seemed to somehow expect the roads and hospitals we plop in Afghanistan to work while simultaneously deriding the MVP and similar short-lived development initiatives in SSA.
My point is that we should not have separate standards for development projects managed by traditional humanitarian donors and those run though defense agencies. If we expect development projects from NGOs to fail or falter when operating in a vacuum, we should expect the same – if not less – of those being implemented in conflict zones and by people who many not necessarily have strong training in development-specific challenges. As we watch the millennium villages backslide when Sachs & co. retreat to other projects, we should not be surprised when IED-induced highway craters go unrepaired as their former stewards withdraw. And if development practitioners have not yet figured out how to maintain infrastructure projects in impoverished places, I don’t see how it’s reasonable to hold the U.S. Army, with its very different mission, to a higher standard on those specific tasks.
Poor development planning and a short-sighted focus on one-off costs is bad behavior for both parties, but it offers much more dangerous consequences when backed with the full faith and credit of the U.S. military. It’s something many professionals in the home field haven’t figured out yet, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that nobody in the Army Corp of Engineers has either. Moving forward, these places need to hire out the very best sustainable development practitioners for consultation on the dirty work.