A high-profile US aid scheme in Afghanistan, hailed as the largest ever women’s empowerment programme, has come under criticism for lack of transparency and for failing to consult the women it is supposed to benefit. In another reproach of international aid efforts, an Amnesty International report released on Tuesday details how women’s rights defenders, despite achieving significant gains over the past decade, are being abandoned by the international community.
The US aid scheme Promote, launched in October last year, aims to funnel $416m into programmes to strengthen women’s rights groups and boost women’s role in the economy and national decision-making. However, it is uncertain whether the 75,000 women expected to engage in the programme will actually receive any tangible benefit, says a US watchdog.
In a recent inquiry letter, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), which reports to the US Congress, raises concerns that USAid may not be able to “effectively implement, monitor, and assess the impact of Promote”.
The watchdog quotes Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, warning against falling “into a game of contracting and sub-contracting”, generating a lot of paper certificates without real skill behind them.
Her husband, president Ashraf Ghani, has also previously criticised foreign aid delivery to Afghanistan, claiming that the majority of American aid returns to the US through contracting.
Women’s activists have raised concerns similar to Sigar’s. “I emphasised again and again that the programmes should be designed based on the needs of the women of Afghanistan,” said Hasina Safi, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Network.
Safi was appointed to an advisory committee for one of Promote’s three contractors, Tetra Tech, Inc, which is responsible for training 25,000 participants in “women leadership development”. She said Promote’s beneficiaries are selected too narrowly. “Promote was only designed for literate women, while in Afghanistan there is a big majority of non-educated young women,” Safi said. “They need to have more confidence in the women of Afghanistan, that they really can design a programme based on their needs.”
USAid said the criticism is “unfounded”. According to a USAid official, civil society actors were consulted, “to ask about what the project needs to do”, including women’s leaders in and outside the capital, as well as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
The official added that over 300 “implementers” had submitted 175 questions in a “robust discussion”, and that a procurement document had been made available online for comment in early 2013. “I can very confidently say that the outreach has been significant and taken a lot of time,” the official said, stressing that Promote does not replace USAid’s existing investments in rural education and healthcare.
In its inquiry, Sigar also questions the amount of money Promote claims to oversee. At its inception, USAid committed $216m over a five-year period, while seeking another $200m from other donors. So far, no other donor has offered money, and USAid has awarded only $42m to one contractor.
At a time of transition in Afghanistan, rights advocates worry that the attention of western countries on women’s issues will wane along with their military engagement. In the face of a worsening security situation and a stagnant economy, gender equality is a priority only for a small minority of the country’s power brokers.
Six months after his inauguration, President Ghani is struggling to keep electoral promises to include more women in the country’s higher echelons. His pledge to appoint the first woman to the supreme court seems to be floundering, and his goal of naming at least four female ministers has proved difficult. In late March, Ghani introduced a cabinet for parliamentary approval for the second time, after lawmakers rejected half of his nominees in January, including all three of his female choices.
Amnesty International said that efforts to strengthen women’s rights have been “piecemeal and ad hoc, and much of the aid money is drying up”.
In its report, the organisation echoed Sigar’s criticism of international aid, pointing to “hundreds of millions of dollars” spent on women’s rights since 2001, on projects that have “too often focused on short-term gains, and been implemented without consulting women’s activists themselves”.
Amnesty also said that violence against women’s rights proponents such as lawyers, politicians, journalists and teachers is on the rise in Afghanistan.
On 19 March, an Afghan woman, Farkhunda, was killed by a mob in central Kabulfor speaking out against what she saw as un-Islamic practice by a mullah, who retorted by claiming she had burned the Qur’an, enraging the men around her.
Though more than a dozen alleged perpetrators have been arrested, the incident has become emblematic for the impunity with which men in Afghanistan can abuse and attack women. Farkhunda’s public defiance of a male authority has turned her into an icon for women’s rights defenders.
Amnesty said despite the existence of a hard-won legal framework to protect women, “laws are often badly enforced and remain mere paper promises”.