UK aid helped people in Afghanistan but failed to achieve its primary goal of building a viable Afghan state

24 Nov 2022

  • A new ICAI review examines the UK’s development assistance to Afghanistan, which totalled over £2 billion in aid between 2014 and 2020, and £3.5 billion in total over 20 years.
  • The review finds that UK aid provided valuable support to people in Afghanistan, including women and girls, but lacked a realistic approach to building a viable Afghan state.
  • It finds the UK’s commitment to partnership with the US led to some poor choices on the use of UK aid and, in particular, questions the use of aid for funding Afghan police counter-insurgency operations.
  • ICAI awards an ‘amber-red’ score and makes three recommendations.

UK aid has provided valuable support to people in Afghanistan, but it failed to achieve its core goal of promoting stability through building a viable Afghan state, a new review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has found.

ICAI’s latest report published today, Thursday 24 November, examines the UK’s use of development and humanitarian assistance as part of international efforts to stabilise Afghanistan – which totalled £3.5 billion over the last 20 years, and over £2 billion from 2014-20. The report also provides a summary of the UK humanitarian aid that has been provided since the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

The report finds that UK aid to Afghanistan failed to achieve its primary goal of building a viable state and that the UK’s decision to prioritise partnership with the United States led to some poor choices on the use of aid, which contributed to the ultimate failure of the international coalition’s state-building approach. The review questions the use of UK aid to support the Afghan National Police, highlighting concerns about human rights abuses and the police’s paramilitary activities.

ICAI rates the UK’s development assistance to Afghanistan as ‘amber-red’ – meaning unsatisfactory achievement in most areas, with some positive results – and makes three recommendations to guide the future use of UK aid:

  1. In complex stabilisation missions, large-scale financial support for the state should only be provided in the context of a viable and inclusive political settlement, when there are reasonable prospects of a sustained transition out of conflict.
  2. UK aid should not be used to fund police or other security agencies to engage in paramilitary operations, as this entails unacceptable risks of doing harm. Any support for civilian security agencies should focus on providing security and justice to the public.
  3. In highly fragile contexts, the UK should use scenario planning more systematically, to inform spending levels and programming choices.

Commenting on the findings of the review, ICAI Commissioner, Sir Hugh Bayley, said:

“The international evacuation from Afghanistan marked the end of one of the most ambitious undertakings ever pursued by UK aid. It’s clear that the remarkable efforts by those working on the UK aid programme made a significant difference to many people in Afghanistan, including women and girls.

“However, the way the UK pursued its primary objective of building a viable Afghan state contained key flaws that contributed to its ultimate failure, and there are questions around the appropriateness of using UK aid to fund Afghan counter-insurgency operations.

“It’s not clear if the gains made by the UK’s aid programme, in improving literacy and reducing child mortality for example, will last under Taliban rule, and there are lessons that must be learned and used to guide future stabilisation and state-building initiatives.”

The aid watchdog’s report finds that UK aid improved literacy and life expectancy, and cut infant mortality. Significant numbers of women and girls benefitted directly from UK aid funded programmes, that enabled girls to receive education and supported victims and survivors of gender-based violence. It also finds the UK’s advocacy efforts contributed to reforms to Afghan government policies, laws and institutions. But the report points out that progress in tackling gender inequality was still at an early stage and expresses concern that the benefits may be lost under the Taliban regime.

ICAI recognises that state-building in a war-torn country with an active insurgency was an “extraordinarily difficult undertaking” and that the UK’s objectives were ambitious. The report highlights that the lack of an inclusive political settlement, that reflected the diversity of opinion in Afghanistan including those who supported the Taliban, undermined the legitimacy of the UK’s state-building approach. It finds the decision to channel high levels of international aid through the Afghan central government, at the expense of provincial and local government, reinforced power at the centre and entrenched corruption. Overall UK aid worked to unrealistic timescales and objectives.

According to the report, there is evidence of only limited progress towards strengthening the Afghan state, and those gains were modest and unsustainable. While UK government officials recognised these problems, the aid watchdog reports that support for the international military mission remained the UK’s strategic priority and, despite some contingency planning, alternative approaches to the use of aid were not pursued, even as conditions worsened and the prospects of success deteriorated.

The report notes that the UK’s humanitarian response to the intensifying conflict and a series of droughts was well informed and it praises the UK for scaling up its humanitarian assistance appropriately, doubling it to £53 million in 2020 and increasing it to £286 million in 2021-22. But ICAI criticises the UK’s largely reactive response, saying it invested relatively little in crisis prevention and resilience-building, despite Afghanistan’s high vulnerability to conflict, natural disasters and extreme weather.

ICAI reports that £252 million used to fund the salaries of the Afghan National Police as part of an international commitment was a “questionable use of UK aid”, because the police were primarily assigned to counter-insurgency operations rather than civilian policing. The report acknowledges that UK support for what was primarily a paramilitary police force helped protect Afghan communities from Taliban attacks, but it highlights concerns of police corruption and brutality, including extortion, arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings. The report found that attempts were made to end police funding, but they were overruled at the “highest levels of the UK government”.

ICAI found the UK’s largest aid-funded programme – a contribution of £688 million to the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund – responded well to Afghanistan’s development needs. It expanded access to healthcare across Afghanistan, leading to a reduction in maternal, infant and child mortality. It also built schools in remote areas, enabling 4.3 million children to attend school regularly. However, the report finds that declining economic and humanitarian conditions meant poverty rates still increased overall.


Read the report

Sign up to our newsletter to receive notifications of our latest news and reports

ICAI will use your personal data only to contact you about our work via email(Required)
You can find more information in our Privacy notice. Please check your Junk folder for a verification email to confirm your subscription.