February 10, 2009

Too Hot for GV

During a trip to Ottawa in November, I interviewed Dr. Nipa Banerjee for Governance Village. The India-born professor was, until recently, a long-time employee of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and held down foreign postings all over Asia, most notably in Afghanistan soon after the fall of the Taliban and at the beginning of Canada's development efforts there.

What transpired was easily the longest (close to three hours) and possibly most controversial interview I've ever conducted. Transcribing it took close to three days. I knew most of it wouldn't be published on GV - being a CIDA-funded project and all - but it was so scintillating (to me, at least) that I couldn't help myself.

What follows is an re-edited transcript of the interview. As a Canadian taxpayer and someone who cares about the mission in Afghanistan, I found Banerjee's comments deeply troubling.

Why is a ‘development approach’ important in fragile states?
Because poverty is one the root causes of conflict in all fragile states, particularly in Afghanistan. And delivery of development services is one responsibility that would bring legitimacy to the [Afghan] central government. My central thesis on fragile states is that government’s legitimacy and acceptance by the people is the most critical factor in bringing stability to a fragile state.

So what can a country like Canada do to help the Afghan government seem more legitimate in the eyes of its own people?

Well, first of all, security measures. I’m very much in favour of the presence of international armed forces because the government isn’t ready to provide the security that‘s needed for its own people. And that’s one of the ingredients that will bring legitimacy to the central government because people are looking for human security. And not just for their social security, but their physical security as well… the reform of the [Afghan] military and police force has been a complete failure. I don’t know how effective Canada’s training of the police has been in Kandahar – it’s Canadians who are saying it’s been very effective but I need to find out what’s going. It doesn’t look very effective.

But what about those who say our aid dollars go to waste if we work too closely with an increasingly corrupt Afghan government?
With the corruption issue – corruption wasn’t bad in the beginning but as it’s gotten worse the international community has kept quiet. Even now they are quiet – you won’t find the Canadian government talking about it. Seriously speaking, if you think the government is so corrupt that you cannot work there, then just provide military support and withdraw from development.

With your long career in our government’s foreign services, in your opinion does Canada have the capacity to do long-term state-building in places like Afghanistan?

No. I think that development work can be done. I don’t know if you can write that or should write that, but seriously, I am extremely frustrated with the [Canadian] civil service competence. In the beginning the excuse might have been that we were trying to put things in fast, but it’s not in the beginning stage anymore. Out of CIDA’s programs, maybe 25 percent are successful projects.

Because we are going through Canadian firms and Canadian companies, monitoring is not good and I’m not so sure our [development] officers are trained well enough. In Afghanistan it is chaos. They are sending so many young people without and previous experience in aid or living in a Third World country, never mind a fragile state. The people with experience don’t want to go. Capacity, though minimal, is there. You can’t do [the Afghans] work for them. What you need to do is to constantly be on their side and say ‘This is the way it should be done. Now you do it.’

But I don’t think this is the way Canada works. Is part of the problem that Canada has never tried anything like this before? I’m not a military expert… but it does concern me that since 2005, when we took over Kandahar, things have declined. Absolutely almost to the date. I hate to criticize the army because, seriously, of the 'Three Ds' it is the most committed, but whether or not they can do it is a different issue. But at the same time, I think we are looking the other way as to what is wrong with our operation in Kandahar. CIDA will tell you they do state-building, but they don’t really in a fragile situation like in Afghanistan, which is starting from almost zero capacity. And all donors can be heavy-handed, which is not suitable for a fragile country, or anywhere really. [Canada’s] entire approach and philosophy has been wrong.

Does this speak to an inability, on the part of our Government, to admit when they’re wrong?
One of the main problems I’ve had with the government is that I’m outspoken. But I’m also committed to development and maybe I’m brighter than others because I find problems. When there are problems you identify them… what’s the point of looking the other way all the time? Evaluations are so you can identify problems and issues and deal with them. There is extreme resistance to any change in CIDA. I think they’re insecure, because anything they have done is 100 percent correct, I guess that’s the public image they want to give.

To some extent Canadians are like that. There’s no search for excellence. If there was you would look at these issues and problems, and address them, if you really want to achieve something… mediocrity is the way to go. Somehow the project gets completed. That’s all they want. Then they would say ‘We’ve disbursed so much money for the project and everything is dandy.’

We often talk about what we don’t or can’t do well in assisting developing countries. After 30 years in Canadian development, what does Canada have the capacity to do well?
In my experience, you can do development. But I don’t think we should design our own programs and implement them through our own private sector. It should be, as much as possible, through national government programs. But you need to be vigilant because the corruption issue will constantly come up. At the time of the design of the program and when you are approving funds, there has to be tight, results-driven accountability.

I used to tell my staff: "Establish your credibility, be humble when you don’t know and when you say something base it in strong knowledge." I don’t think it’s that difficult.

We talk about accountability in the Third World?! [CIDA] has no accountability to anybody. Nobody asks anything of you, nobody supervises you properly, nobody monitors, and nobody trains you. Nobody asks for any accountability. People stay in a job for one or two years and go away leaving a mess behind… I think I’ve put my finger on it. There’s a total lack of accountability within our government.

No accountability in general or in the way we do development?
I’ve never worked in any other government department; I’ve only worked in CIDA. But 33 years of experience and I would say that is it: a total lack of monitoring, supervision and asking for accountability from officers and project managers. They are solely driven by their career motivation and keeping the boss pleased, I guess. Can you believe this? They’re spending public funds. Think: would you risk your own money in that kind of a project? But what we’re trying to do with re-building failed states seems to be unprecedented.

Shouldn’t failure be an understandable part of the process of involvement in Afghanistan?
But we’re not doing it for the first time. There’s Bosnia, Kosovo, Timor-Leste… When [the Canadian] embassy started in Afghanistan, I was told over email that it was going to be a ‘Three Ds’ policy, god only knew what that was… There was no strategy for the integration of the ‘Three Ds’, nobody knew what it was. There were four people placed in the embassy. I was thrown in, a single person with 150 million dollars to program. I didn’t have any experience with fragile states. None whatsoever. There was no strategy, no support from headquarters. None.

We were in Kabul initially but when the army moved to Kandahar there was a deliberate effort to cut off the Kabul embassy and development program from Kandahar. This was CIDA. The guy they sent [to Kandahar] as a director: first time posting, never been abroad before. Not a very confident person either. He deliberately would not report to me, but to CIDA directly. He didn’t know what fragile states were, he didn’t know development. He was in CIDA for two years, and environmental specialist or something. It’s just disgusting, I’m sorry. There is a cap on the Afghanistan program, definitely, in what you can say.

Is that an official policy?
I think it’s official. (Goes on describe how CIDA management censored her in presenting a paper on Afghanistan at a conference). But that’s why I say it’s the managers, not the higher-ups. These guys are not trained, not supervised. It is so bad. And I feel bad for [the managers] too. They are not learning anything. I’m older and more experienced; I can take risks and chances.

All this time I’ve been controversial I knew one thing: they will never fire me. They don’t have the guts.

There was a Sri Lankan guy fired for incompetence. Well, okay, I don’t think he was incompetent exactly but pretty ineffective I would say. So I wouldn’t have problems with his firing. But the thing is, if he is fired, there should be another 20 mainstream, white, Anglo-Saxons who should be fired too. He took it up to Human Rights Commission and eventually won. But the thing is this accountability issue. I think you should put that down. ‘A retired CIDA officer said there is no accountability. CIDA staff bears no accountability to anyone.’ And we talk about the accountability of recipient governments?!

What about our own government’s accountability to us, the taxpayers?
That’s another thing. Are we being ethically accountable? I don’t think so. I don’t think we tell the truth to the public. The public is stupid, they don’t understand anything – that is the assumption. That’s the assumption in the entire government I think.

After I got back from Afghanistan… those guys who run the CIDA website asked me to write something. I thought I wrote an extremely nice piece and it was not negative at all. But I was talking about capacity-building and leadership and ownership… Well, they came back and said ‘This is not what we want. We want personal stories of how CIDA funding has affected individual lives.’

I don’t look at development as that kind of a thing. To me, development is nation-wide and interviewing one girl who has better health because of clean drinking water doesn’t do anything for me… so they never published [my piece].

Have you ever seen anything from the Government of Canada saying that establishing legitimacy in the [Afghan] government, and hence visibility and ownership of programs, is most important? They never say that. If you tell the public, they won’t understand. We tell them ‘We’re establishing democracy there.’ Well you can’t establish democracy without improving their institutions… there is no democracy if there are no institutions to protect democratic rights. Elections aren’t the only thing that makes democracy work. The entire purpose is to stabilize the country. And a stabilized country will address women’s causes. And help establish democracy. None of those things will happen unless you stabilize the country. If you want to do the women’s development, why have you sent the army in? Are we fighting the Taliban for the sake of Afghan women?


Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

"Somehow the project gets completed. That’s all they want. Then they would say ‘We’ve disbursed so much money for the project and everything is dandy.’"

In my supremely limited experience, this is an apt criticism and an annoying reality.

And just to destroy any mystique, the above deleted comment was me. I just found a way to say it better.

Anyway, extremely interesting read. Thanks for sharing, bud.

April said...

yes, very interesting! Always fun to read criticisms of the government. You should write a story and freelance it!