The withdrawal from Afghanistan: Implications for global development advocacy


Last night, watching footage of the chaos at the Kabul Airport in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, I found myself wondering how we got here and what the development community should take away from the unfolding crisis. Although the current circumstances require an immediate focus on the security of people in Afghanistan, the events of the past months also indicate the need for those working in the global development space ­— including us at the Donor Tracker — to reflect on how donors allocate and prioritize official development assistance (ODA).

For example, should the billions in ODA spent over the past 20 years to further wider foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan have been sourced from chronically underfunded development budgets at the expense of other sustainable development goals (SDGs)? Between 2002 and 2019, OECD donor countries spent US$63 billion in ODA on long-term state-building in Afghanistan and multilateral donors contributed an additional US$12 billion, making Afghanistan by far one of the largest ODA recipients globally. As a comparison: US$75 billion is roughly half of what donors spend per year on ODA to support all SDGs in all low- and middle-income countries. Yet despite their large share of the budget pie in most donor countries, development funds going to Afghanistan have not been the focus of advocacy efforts. This might be because the topic of Afghanistan is so politically charged or because funding for Afghanistan is considered by many to be non-negotiable; however, if our aim is to make advocacy for sustainable development effective, we need to adopt a more open approach to discussing even the most uncomfortable and contentious issues.

Of course, I am by no means arguing that the billions in ODA invested in Afghanistan have been spent in vain. The country has seen impressive progress on women's rights, education (see details in this CGD analysis), health care, infrastructure, and many other sectors that received support from OECD donors. It would be a shame to forget about these gains in the face of current events.

Nonetheless, we know pictures like those emerging from the Kabul Airport could have a lasting impact on public opinion in donor countries and have the potential to shape the future of donors’ investments abroad. This is particularly salient in the post-pandemic context in which many donors increasingly focus on domestic issues and decade-lasting budget deficits and subsequent ODA cuts seem likely. A further decline in the political appetite for complex foreign policy and state-building initiatives may entail less funding for development programs. Advocates should carefully watch for emerging signs of such an “Afghanistan effect” over the next weeks and months as many donor countries get ready to debate and approve their 2022 global development budgets in Parliaments this fall and counter it with a strong narrative that makes the case for the need to urgently scale up, and not cut, donor funding for the SDG agenda.