Lessons from Afghanistan for the Sustainable Development Goals: Interview with Naheed Sarabi

John McArthur (JM): Many people describe the SDGs as having stalled since the onset of COVID-19. Were the SDGs gaining much traction in Afghanistan before 2020? How would you describe your local implementation?

Naheed Sarabi (NS): Afghanistan’s progress on the SDGs was mixed before the outbreak of the pandemic. Good progress was made at the strategic level despite political uncertainty and insecurity. Afghanistan had developed a set of national goals and a single institution, the Ministry of Economy, was designated as the lead agency to champion SDG work in the country. An Executive Committee on the SDGs was established under the Council of Ministers to coordinate efforts and implementation. In 2016, Afghanistan developed its second national development strategy, the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF). The framework was conceived to introduce reforms and strengthen institutions to achieve economic self-sufficiency and the SDGs through service delivery. Efforts were underway to align national processes such as the national budget, development programming and local planning with the SDGs.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s SDG Index ranking showed recent improvement for Afghanistan. For example, in 2019, Afghanistan’s SDG ranking was 153/162, and in the 2022 report it rose to 147/163. However, in terms of macro development, the situation was quite alarming. In 2016, Afghanistan saw the return of hundreds of thousands of documented and undocumented refugees from Pakistan and Iran, joining more than a million people displaced in the country due to conflict and natural disasters. Afghanistan was hit by drought in 2017 and 2018, causing more people to become food insecure. When Afghanistan introduced its first Voluntary National Review (VNR) in 2017, the poverty rate had increased from 39% in 2014 to 54%. These figures demonstrated a setback in the achievement of SDGs 1 and 2. Prior to August 2021, 75% of Afghanistan’s public spending was financed by aid, one of the high-profile cases of high-level aid dependency. In 2018, data from the Ministry of Finance showed a 46 percent decline in aid from its peak level in 2011. This downward trend in aid was a problem for development planning. Therefore, the government had to make trade-offs between investing in basic services and long-term plans that could generate financial self-sufficiency.

Although efforts to nationalize the SDGs had gained some ground, local implementation needed to gain momentum. The government’s provincial development plans were not fully absorbed into the national budget. The plans also did not reflect the realities of government resources. Therefore, more work was needed to align those plans with the SDG targets and available resources.

JM: What do we know about Afghanistan’s SDG trajectories since the fall of the previous government in August 2021? What are the best sources of objective data to monitor the situation?

NS: Unfortunately, Afghanistan has not only been unable to sustain the development gains of the past twenty years, but has also lost a lot. The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in August 2021 had an economic impact on the country. The World Bank estimated a 34 percent decline in GDP per capita by the end of 2022 under the current scenario. This shock has been exacerbated by the financial crisis; Some $9.2 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves were frozen, amounting to a shortage of foreign and Afghan currency and causing a liquidity crisis. International banks have stopped their operations due to the risks of combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. AML/CFT functions, and correspondent banking for international payments have been severely disrupted. This has put enormous pressure not only on the private sector, but has also limited the channeling of aid into and within the country. Staggering levels of poverty and food insecurity have made Afghanistan the worst humanitarian crisis of its time.

While the international community only focuses on providing humanitarian aid, development has taken a backseat and progress towards the SDGs appears to have stalled. The absence of a legitimate government has not only stalled strategic-level discussions on development, but access to credible data has also been a challenge. We are talking about achieving the SDGs in an environment where potentially 97% of the population could soon fall into poverty, nearly half the population is acutely food insecure, the Taliban have banned secondary education for girls and interruption of salary and employee payments layoffs in the public and private sectors are affecting purchasing power. The Taliban released their first annual budget in May 2022, however details on investments in basic services are not available. The global rise in energy and food prices has not only put pressure on basic needs, but has also increased the cost of delivering humanitarian aid to people who urgently need it. These are a looming danger to the individual SDGs, but also challenge interactive outcomes on all other goals.

As I said before, the absence of credible national sources and legitimate institutions has made data access challenging. The Taliban need to publish data on income and expenses and how services are provided to people. They must adhere to the principles of human rights and women’s rights and bring professionals back into the machinery of administration so that some of the development and economic hurdles can be overcome. In the meantime, however, there are still currents of hope. Afghanistan has a history of strong community-level institutions and civil society organizations. Investing in and strengthening communities in Afghanistan in the form of Community Development Councils (CDCs) has been one of the success stories of the last few decades. It is important that these institutions are sustained not only by the means of service delivery to achieve the SDGs, but also by data collection at the grassroots level. At the national level, the United Nations is the sole interlocutor for humanitarian and development activities in Afghanistan at this time. UN agencies must maintain the systems that house the data at the country level and engage with civil society organizations and private institutions in this effort. We do not want to lose the history of development and start from scratch once a legitimate government takes over, based on elected democracy, inclusion, fundamental rights and the human rights of women and minorities.

JM: You have lived through many complexities at the interface of global development systems and a low-income country with fragile institutional structures. Is there anything you would like multilateral actors to do more of? And one thing you’d like to see them do less of?

NS: I think one should reflect on why institutions and systems become fragile in the first place, and how some interventions inadvertently create fragility. I was honored to be part of the g7+ discussion when I served as deputy finance minister in Afghanistan. My experience in coordinating aid at the national level, as well as the voices of many countries represented in the g7+, converged that low-income countries have ownership of aid-related processes and activities. Once this principle is improved, other actions such as reforms, capacity building and institutional development follow. I am often asked how that principle could be followed in Afghanistan in the absence of a legitimate government. In such circumstances, the role of multilateral actors is strengthened and can protect systems, institutional memory, and human capital that can be forceful agents in normal times. In the midst of a time of global economic stress, actors must strive to maximize the value of assistance to low-income countries. Therefore, I strongly emphasize the principle of non-duplication for development interventions. Multilateral actors should try to avoid any form of parallel institution building and financing of duplicate development interventions.

JM: There is widespread concern that international actors are not doing enough to support low-income countries that have been dealing with intense overlapping crises in recent months: food prices, fuel prices, debt problems and plus. Do you see clear options about what could be done differently? Do you see any silver lining in the way the world is responding?

NS: Alarming, it’s an understatement to describe the prospects in low-income countries. The recent natural disaster in South Asia has exacerbated the situation and will push more people into poverty and food insecurity. The World Bank Group will make emergency aid available to countries at risk, and the G7 nations have made some promises that have yet to be kept. However, countries need a quick response. The World Food Program warns that 50 million people in 45 countries are on the brink of famine. And hunger can’t wait. The countries most affected by climate change are those that did not participate in its creation, and there is still time to act:

First, international actors must coordinate efforts in support of comprehensive social safety net programs that are rapid and reach the majority. Second, countries with a debt burden need more incentives to apply for relief, and the process appears to have been rather slow and burdensome. Third, there is room open for more regional engagement and diplomacy. For example, more countries in Asia need to step up regionally to avoid the looming crisis that may affect other countries in the future as well. High-income countries can establish a bridging fund with sufficient resources to offset energy and food costs for poor countries that would prevent a drop in achievement of the SDGs. The cost to the countries that are the largest contributors to climate change is not significant; the cost to low-income countries will be generational. Last but not least, multilateral actors need to rethink the focus of their interventions: more investment in environmental protection and early warning systems, more emphasis on the right reforms and sound public investment management systems.

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