What lessons should Sweden draw from its engagements in Afghanistan?

December 3, 2021

Adam Pain: Sweden’s engagements in Afghanistan have shown poor results.

Photo: Kabul, Afghanistan. Unsplash / Sohaib Ghyasi

The Western state building mission in Afghanistan came to an end in August 2021 with the Taliban takeover – but has this really led to critical reflection by the west as to what it got so wrong after 2001? It should not have been a surprise that Taliban would retake power and it clearly exposed the bankruptcy of the Western project. But the west has resorted to punitive action, judging the Taliban rather than themselves. And the withholding of funding and freezing of financial reserves is effectively punishing Afghanistan’s rural population which had lost confidence in a corrupt and predatory government.

Sweden has been engaged in Afghanistan since the formation of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) in 1980. From 2002 it has supported primary education, basic health care, human rights, gender equality and economic development. Between 2001 and 2020 Sweden has disbursed a total of 13.65 bn SEK in aid to Afghanistan and 3.592 bn SEK was allocated for the period 2021–2024. While this commitment made Afghanistan Sweden’s largest country programme, Sweden has remained a minor player in the aid effort, providing just over 1 to 2.6 percent of funding. Positioning itself in a crowded and competitive field of donors in an ambitious but flawed and incoherent effort has challenged Sweden’s ability to pursue its principles. In many, if not all, respects Sweden has failed to achieve a distinctive and principled position and the outcomes that it wanted. Why is that?

Part of the problem has been the objectives that Sweden set in its periodic country strategy papers for its Afghanistan intervention. These have essentially been visions of an imagined ideal state to which Afghanistan should seek to aspire – indeed to become more like Sweden.

But the strategies have not been strategic or provided a good guide as to how to reach this outcome. They have also shown a woeful lack of understanding about Afghanistan’s history or how interventions actually engage with the way things worked in the country. The last strategy issued in April 2021 showed no evidence of taking into account in any explicit way the hard lessons to be drawn from the evaluations of results from Sweden’s previous strategies or the consequences of donor engagement in Afghanistan since 2001.

Some 50 percent of Sweden’s aid budget to Afghanistan was directed through government and multi-donor programmes and international agencies. In common with most donors, these have been primarily designed to address and reduce the many deficits that Afghanistan has been seen to have – the lack of gender equality, limited access to education and health, the absence of democracy and low levels of poverty. There has been a tendency to frame the relevance of programmes in terms of these deficits on which most of these interventions score well. But they have failed to be effective as a recent review of evaluation studies clearly shows. Programmes have worked to a set of policy narratives that have pre-defined solutions to the assumed problems. There has been a focus on technical means such as skill training to address complex social behavioural change issues that outside actors have not fully understood.

Where  Sweden’s and other donors have aimed to improve the supply of basic public goods such as basic health and primary education there have been results and these are likely to have long term benefits. But outcomes in terms of poverty reduction and economic development, let alone peace and security have been meagre as can now be clearly seen. Sweden as with other donors failed to take account of the fact that many Afghan, particularly in the countryside, live under conditions of acute physical, emotional and nutritional insecurity. They do not have freedom from fear and to survive they live under conditions of dependent security. This is provided through dense networks of social relationships in which the family and community are central. This has severely limited much of Afghanistan’s population freedom to exercise choice or act as individuals, challenging a core assumption of much of western programming. And until those contextual conditions of insecurity change, individual behavior will not change.

Bottom-up processes for gradual local change

The other half of Sweden’s aid budget has gone to various NGOs and civil society organizations. Fifty percent of this has supported the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA), an unprecedented level support by a donor to a country NGO. Central to the approach of the SCA and other NGOs has been a different way of working.  The SCA has pursued a social change agenda consistent with Sweden’s values and mission. But it has done it in a way that is gradual and based on a deep contextual understanding that recognizes the constraints to freedoms. It has also been embedded in local trust relations. Rather than trying to impose top down change it has worked bottom up seeking incremental change in specific contexts, gradually enabling individuals to secure greater freedoms. This by necessity is a locally negotiated process that is not amenable to prescriptive project formulations.

The Swedish aid programme, as the country strategy papers show, has not systematically learned from its interventions and analytical engaged in understanding Afghanistan. This needs to change.  Programming ambitions need to be more modest. They should be narrowed to focus on public goods delivery in health and education and gender and rights programming. To these should be added a focus on job creation to address acute rural and urban poverty. These will have long term dividends. But Sweden must accept that rather than aiming for the perfect outcome (e.g. gender rights) a long incremental process of working through good enough change to get to the goal is needed. And Sweden should work more with organizations that it trusts and who share its principles and give less weight to working with organizations as instruments of change towards preset goals.

Written by Dr. Adam Pain, part of a research team led from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.

Dr. Adam Pain is the author of the EBA report Punching Above its Weight or Running with the Crowd? Lessons from Sweden’s Development Cooperation with Afghanistan 2002–2020

Interested to learn more about Afghanistan? Read the SweDev interview with Helene Lackenbauer State building in Afghanistan: What have we learned?