The Future of Afghanistan -- What's next?

World leaders from over 70 nations and organizations met in Kabul today to discuss the future of Afghanistan -- but the real question, says Oxfam's Ashley Jackson, is what, if anything, happens next?

Today's Kabul Conference lasted approximately six hours, with four-minute speeches by each delegate. While today's proceedings may have been well choreographed, they offered little more than recycled promises.

Each of the nine international conferences on Afghanistan in the past nine years have increasingly focused on creating the appearance of progress without actually demonstrating any. Conference after conference has laid out new strategies, new plans and new pledges of support. Yet few have been followed through and delivered upon.

As one Afghan friend recently told me prior to the conference, "We know what Karzai's speech will be. We know what the donors will do. And we know nothing will come of it. Where is the action on the ground? What do these promises amount to?"

In January 2006 the "Afghanistan Compact" was agreed in London, instituting benchmarks for security and development. Yet four years later, in the same city, in yet another conference, the same benchmarks were barely mentioned.

In 2008, a national development strategy was agreed, but still almost half of international development aid remains out of line with its priorities. The Ministry of Finance cannot even measure progress against its benchmarks because the donors have not fully reported on them.

Since 2002, over $40bn in international aid has been committed to Afghanistan not enough has reached those who need it. It is not only hampered by corruption and weak governance, but also the duplication of efforts and industrial-scale waste that contradicts very principles agreed by the donors.

New plans for development and reconstruction were presented at today's conference, but they looked very similar to the old ones. One attendee even commented that they look more like a "laundry list" than a strategy.

News headlines on Afghanistan rarely focus on much more than the fighting, so one might think that all is lost. Many do - except those of us that actually live here. Another Afghan recently told me, "People say that Afghanistan is falling apart but things have gotten better for many people. There are jobs in Kabul, there is peace in many parts of the country and my children are all enrolled in school. This would never have been possible ten years ago."

Yet this progress has fallen far short of the promises. In 2001, 6% of Afghans had electricity. Now 10% do -- though previous strategies promised power to 65 percent of urban and 25 percent of rural households by the end of this year. They also pledged that 90% of all Afghans would have access to clean water, yet just over a quarter currently do. While some things have gotten better, others have gotten worse, including corruption: a recent report by Integrity Watch found that the number of bribes Afghans paid in 2009 doubled from 2006.

Insecurity is also spreading and conditions are particularly dire in the south, where a half million Afghans lack access to basic healthcare and attacks on schools are at a record high. But many fear that the transition that was agreed upon, to commence by the end of this year, today will see donors doing little more than handing off their responsibilities, getting their troops out and avoiding the real problems driving instability in Afghanistan. As confidence in the future of the country has deteriorated, the needs of Afghans have been pushed to the side -- whether it is government officials abusing their authority to protect their illicit income or factional interests, insurgents using terror to extend their control, regional actors strengthening their position in their own geopolitical agenda, or donors prioritizing domestic political interests.

By ignoring the mistakes of the past, I fear that they may yet again repeat them. Conference delegates also endorsed the government's plans for reintegration, ignoring many of the obvious flaws. Schemes that use cash incentives and aid to buy the allegiance of "upset brothers" have been tried several times before and with little success. They fail to address the reasons why many of the low level fighters these programs target have joined the insurgency in the first place: corruption, poverty, weak governance and little access to justice.

But the challenges are not insurmountable. The answer is not to turn our backs on Afghanistan. Indeed, this could have catastrophic consequences -- not only for Afghans, but also for those in donor countries.

While all eyes were on the proceedings in Kabul today, it's what happens after the conference ends that matters most. Afghans need realistic plans that focus on bringing about concrete improvements to their lives and an international community and government that keeps its word.