Journal Archive > 2002 > June

Targeted relief

Rebuilding Afghanistan will be a complicated journey

Andrew S. Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), began his talk on April 29 with a joke before getting down to the serious business of explaining reconstruction in Afghanistan. "I have been in a civil war and shot at, but [it was in Massachusetts where] I was physically threatened two times. It is much safer in Kabul than in Boston."

Indeed, Natsios experienced that unique breed of politics that accompanies service in the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1975 to 1987). Likewise, his leadership of the Big Dig, Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow commented, was excellent preparation for leading USAID. Bacow also noted that "both the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy have benefited from USAID and Andy's support."

Andrew S. Natsios, head of the USAID © Mark Morelli

Natsios' appearance at Tufts was part of the university's Distinguished Guest Lecturer series.

Upon beginning his term in May 2001 at USAID—the agency that provides economic and humanitarian assistance to developing countries—Natsios sent a team to Afghanistan to determine if pre-famine conditions existed. Last June, his agency began a famine relief effort, and then, as he put it, "9/11 happened." A reconstruction process has been taking place since January, when governments across the globe offered aid for the effort.

Needless to say, the process of reconstruction is a complicated one. "The principal failure of reconstruction efforts has been because we haven't looked at the microeconomic forces that could undercut or support reconstruction efforts," explained Natsios. There are four economies in Afghanistan, he continued, which must be considered when discussing relief and reconstruction:

• The war economy (militias, warlords, black market activities)
• The poppy economy (70 percent of the opium worldwide comes from Afghanistan)
• The non-governmental organization and United Nations economy (an artificial economy consisting of rents and salaries for educated Afghans involved in the reconstruction efforts, but one that will disappear once these agencies move out)
• The agricultural economy (under attack in the last 25 years; 50 percent of the irrigation system has been destroyed due to the Russian invasion.)

After outlining these economies, Natsios asked the thorny question: "How is the reconstruction effort going to support the legitimate economy and undermine the others?" It will be no easy task in a country that has been plagued by a drought for three years and where 90 percent of the animal herds have died in certain regions. Natsios answered the question by highlighting what he termed the "principles of reconstruction." These principles include reconstituting the legitimate traditional institutions of Afghanistan; rebuilding the agricultural economy; promoting Afghan ownership so that growth can continue without aid; strengthening the business community and providing targeted relief for some time.

Targeted relief is crucial, Natsios pointed out, because it takes years to recover from a famine—assets are depleted, thereby ensuring that Afghans remain "famine victims" even when the famine is over. Hydrologists are now trying to determine how to best preserve the water resources that are still there. And once the drought is over, the issue of displaced persons will need to be addressed. Natsios believes it was constructive to open the schools last winter, regardless of the lack of supplies and resources, because it brings order to the lives of the children who might otherwise be hanging out on the streets. In addition, as an incentive to return to their classrooms, food parcel coupons were given to teachers—90 percent of whom are women—for nine months. It is hoped that once the teachers are paid a salary, the local economy will benefit.

Natsios emphasized that the focus needs to be on efforts that will undermine the warlords. Hamid Karzei, the man leading Afghanistan through this transition, is regarded as a folk hero, Natsios observed, but whether this good will can translate into a governing coalition is another matter.

The talk was followed by a question-and-answer period that reflected the knowledge and expertise in the auditorium, which was full of faculty, staff and students from both the nutrition and Fletcher schools. Sue Lautze, program director at the Feinstein Famine Center at the nutrition school, who, at the behest of Natsios, has been in Afghanistan working on a food security surveillance network, thanked him for "being a thinker about this," stating that it was good for students to see someone in his position address the issues as he did.

Bacow ended the event by asking the USAID administrator to give some advice to students who are interested in careers in humanitarian assistance. Natsios stated that several of his best jobs were those he did not want originally. He advised students to get a general liberal arts education and "to develop analytical skills [so you can] think and write."