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Transcript of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s Opening Remarks at the G7+ Ministerial Meeting

Kabul, 24.03.2016

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In the name of Allah the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate

Your Excellencies. Minister Marah, my colleague His Excellency Xanana Gusmao, Minister Tadjidinne, Minister Konneh, Special Envoy Pires, friends and colleagues on this remarkable shared adventure.

Welcome to Afghanistan! I am so glad that on this beautiful springtime day you can see firsthand the gap between the media perception of forbidding Afghanistan and the reality of our beautiful and hospitable country.

And welcome to this meeting of the G7+ group of nations.

I would like to personally thank you all for forming this group of like-minded leaders who are committed to reinventing aid.  Never has there been a time when international partnerships are more needed. And never has there been a system more in need of reform.

Let us begin with a statement of the problem. Global stability rests in the hands of states under threat.  Fourteen years ago state-building was not considered to be a crucial issue of world interest. Today the question of how to build stable, successful states is the pre-eminent question of our time. Building states and building peace are now goals shared by the entire world.

The general outline of what will bring success  — national leadership, regional coordination, and building up core country systems — is also now clearly understood and broadly accepted, in large part thanks to the untiring efforts of this group to open up the world’s eyes to the challenge of state-building.

But if these global goals are now agreed, the processes that will lead us to achieving them are still barely identified, much less turned into a specific disciplined, set of programs for action.

In my opening remarks this morning I would like to confront two of the challenges that this G7+ sisterhood of nations must address.

The first issue is the challenge of state fragmentation. The relationship between state weakness and fragmentation by now is so widely accepted as to be practically a commonplace statement rather than an insight into the drivers of fragility.  And yet if we frame overcoming fragility from the perspective of distinguishing between what is desirable from what in practice is credible or feasible given the current terms of aid partnership, it becomes instantly clear that the aid system perpetuates rather than overcomes fragmentation.

Current aid practices make state fragmentation inevitable. And while there have been some reforms over the past decades, the promises made in Paris, Seoul, Accra and elsewhere are not yet backed up by sufficient credible actions. Too many aid practices continue to prevent reformist leaders from negotiating strategy, consolidating their budget, and managing their economy in self-reliant ways.  Too often aid partnerships mean that our ministries become speckled with specially created project units that magically appear and never go away. Our ministries and our civil society groups lose their talent to high-paying consultancies that are then sent to build the capacity that they just drained away. Our budgets become assemblages of donor projects that cannot be restructured or re-positioned to tackle new needs.

Not all aid works this way. When leadership can conceptualize its reforms then the aid community can help facilitate and catalyze the kinds of change that build capacity, which is again a lesson on why our leaders must drive reform rather than wait for it to happen.

But if aid still poses the external constraint, we ourselves must address more credibly the problems within us. How many of our countries remain trapped in the bottom-most rungs of the Transparency International rankings?  We cannot continue to ignore this fact or to blame others for not solving this problem that eats our countries alive from within.

Our grasp of corruption remains weak, trapped in the realm of definitions and denunciations but still lacking the framework that will let us define its contours and domains of action. Our discourse on corruption ends up describing bribe paying and bribe-taking as individual transactions that must be brought to an end rather than as the inevitable result of deep sociopolitical processes that must be understood and addressed from within.

State corruption can be analyzed as a fourfold process of elite capture. In many countries that have experienced war and social conflict, capture begins with the perversion of the security sector. Powerful individuals can use the security sector to make enormous amounts of illicit money. Their use of the public security forces ensures impunity. A first breakdown of trust in government quickly follows. Corruption in the security sector allows the threat of force to stifle the development of the rule of law. Economic policy making also erodes in the face of special interests. A stifled economy is further pressured to grab rents rather than build up productivity, further choking growth.

Government institutions often then become the means to perpetuate corrupt behavior rather than the tool for building development.  Oversight systems themselves become captured or emasculated. Without controls, high-level corruption subverts sectoral institutions and entire ministries can become corruption machines. Further down, corrupt officials could control access to positions, contacts, and payments to contractors and other service providers. Public procurement became the means to reward bribe-payers rather than the mechanism for government to obtain value for money.

Finally, political capture drives political leaders to reward followers rather than promoting the national interest. With capture, government reform efforts are blocked if they bring to an end privileged access, and internal organizational reforms will be subverted by political pressure to appoint followers throughout the system.

If this fourfold process of state capture can be easily described and to some extent measured, the remedies that get brought to bear by the aid system not only provide little help in addressing them, but all too often become part of the problem that we are trying to solve. The solution to fragmented and captured states is never going to be more consultants, anti-corruption plans, or good governance projects. Reform will come when reformist leadership is fully equipped with the tools it needs to rebuild core state systems, above all an ability to recruit like-minded reformers into the system and to have the flexibility to use reform to deliver results.

What do state leaders need? In my remaining time I can only touch upon three core areas that in my experience will define the success or failure of the state-building effort here in Afghanistan.

First, reformist leaders need to be able to control their budgets. None of us can spend money. The symptoms of constipated budget management are pervasive. In almost every developing country the recurrent budget keeps rising while large amounts of the development budget remain unspent. And not spending money well means not implementing policy. We need to make public financial management reform and the repair of the budget process a central focus of attention. Poorly formulated budgets, inflexible budgets fragmented by aid projects and their PMUs, budget management by consultant — these are recurrent symptoms of what the aid agency should be helping us overcome. Instead they perpetuate them. I can only advise my G7 colleagues to take inspiration, as we have done, in the path breaking work done by His Excellency Xanana Guomao and Special Envoy Emilia Pires to take back control of their budget and use it to execute policy.

Second, our countries need to understand that across our countries there is a critical role for the state to build price-setting, resource-allocating markets. The past decade has seen the total failure of neoliberal ideology. After two decades of donors preaching to us about dismantling the state and removing it from all economic functioning, when their own real estate, banking, and automobile industries imploded in 2008, every single one of them turned to state-driven solutions. Clearly we do not want to return to centrally planned and managed economies, but defining the role for smart, efficient state in building markets, defining economic strategies, and providing incentives needs to be re-thought.

Third, if state-building rebuilds the ability of our states to carry out their core functions, peace-building must provide a charter of citizenship rights for both women and men that restores a belief that we are all part of one nation. Peace must consist of a program to build citizenship, both at the symbolic level of creating what the late scholar Benedict Anderson called an “imaginary community” and at a practical level of trust that citizen’s engagements with state agents is on the basis of clear rules and transparent rights and obligations. Development can then become not the trickle down form of compensation that it often is, but a citizen-driven agenda whose outcome is a trusted, credible state that works on behalf of the common good. Here in Afghanistan we will soon be launching a nationwide Citizen’s Charter that will not just provide the development rights guaranteed by our constitution, but be the foundation for a renewed partnership between our citizenry and our state.

We have chosen a formidable task. But it is a task on which global peace, stability and prosperity depend. Yesterday’s tragic events amidst our European brothers and sisters transcend any divide between developed and developing countries and shows that we are all in this boat together.

This conference must produce a vision of hope, possibility, and solidarity. But before I close I would like to express my wish that we G-7+ members think through what we want this G7+ process to be. Reading through the documents this morning I was struck by how many of them sound just like the consultancy reports that each day I get fed by the international agencies.

Aid is seductive. Development is not just a practice. It is a mindset. Aid agencies will leap to insert their language, mentalities, and procedures into our thinking and we will respond like Pavlov’s dogs to the ringing bell of technical assistance. And who wouldn’t since that entire world of fragility assessments, country assessments, fiduciary assessments, performance metrics and so on that we continually need to be feeding the aid community in the name of partnership are so time-consuming and distracting for our people to prepare? And so we gratefully accept the assistance and dutifully produce the reports.

I do not think we should go much further down this path. The G7+ is a way to use our common experience to push back against the hegemony of the aid industry.   Our purpose is to substitute aid practices with the kinds of rules, tools, and partnerships that will help our leaders carry out their national agendas. We should not take in aTrojan horse filled with consultancies, studies, and reports to reproduce some “global consensus” on what the donor agencies need.

Our purpose in this network of shared needs is to articulate an agenda to re-negotiate those rules.  Our guiding principle should be whether we — the national leaders who not only believe in reform but have been entrusted to carry it out — really need all of these expensive, time-consuming studies and reports.

We must use these meetings and our network to propose a wholly new set of flexible, effective partnerships that strip away whole levels of stuffy, time-consuming and in the end largely ineffective procedures that grew up over decades of mentored development.

And we must learn to do this work ourselves. We see every day that our countries are increasingly filled with bright, well-educated young people eager to rebuild their countries. They are our greatest resource. We as leaders must build them the career paths, mentorships, and high level coaching not that they need but which weneed so that we can replace the shadow army of global consultancies with a new generation drawn and developed from within our own knowledge institutions.

State-building, peace-building, and market-building are the critical foundations for successful development. Our citizens, and the citizens of the world, are counting us to bring to pass a new model for prosperity, stability, and a future for their children. This process will be long. We  who are gathered here in Kabul today are taking small sips from a broad river. But our countries have much wisdom within them. May your discussions be fruitful.

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