McLeod Group Blog

Signal Failure: Canada’s ‘Signature Projects’ in Afghanistan

Guest blog by Nipa Banerjee

January 5, 2015

The NATO combat mission in Afghanistan ended in December, while Canadian participation concluded a few months earlier, in March. Seven years before, in 2007, the Harper government dispatched a five-person panel to review Canada’s participation in the war. Led by former Liberal finance minister John Manley, the panel noted that Canadian aid to Afghanistan was largely unknown to both Afghans and Canadians, and proposed that CIDA create ‘signature projects’ that could be used to showcase Canada’s role. Soon after, Canada announced three such signature initiatives: a polio eradication project, an education project and a massive project to refurbish the Dahla Dam and its irrigation systems.

Former CIDA official and long-time Afghanistan watcher, Nipa Banerjee, examines what happened.

The Canadian government introduced signature projects in Kandahar, one of the most insecure provinces in the country and the home of Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team, to raise Canada’s international profile. In reality, however, Canadian ‘signatures’ on these projects disregarded a fundamental principle of aid effectiveness by denying the Afghan government any serious involvement or ‘ownership’ in them (see the 2005 Paris Declaration of on Aid Effectiveness, which Canada has endorsed).

The projects also fail audit and accountability tests. Schools built were overly costly, many are already in need of repair and a large majority are not operational, with no teachers or students in sight. Polio is far from eradicated despite frequently shown videos publicizing Canadian soldiers dropping polio vaccines in children’s mouths.

The Dahla Dam-Arghandab Irrigation Reconstruction Project is the most controversial of Canada’s signature projects. The objective was to help increase agricultural production in the Arghandab Valley, where farming is the primary livelihood and critically dependent on irrigation. The Dahla Dam reservoir, originally built with US assistance in 1952, served as the source of water for irrigating farmlands across the region, through a canal network. In the 1950s, the dam turned the region into the breadbasket of Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, heavy sedimentation reduced the reservoir’s ability to hold adequate amounts of water for irrigation. Canada’s project focused on repair and cleaning of the network of canals that channel water from the source—the central dam reservoir—to the fields. It did not, however, include reconstruction and refurbishment of the central reservoir to increase the dam’s height and raise its water-holding capacity. Canadian planners missed the obvious: that with little water in the main reservoir, the repaired canals would have no sustained source of water to channel to the farmlands. According to the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority, in 2014, the water supply did not reach even 30% of the irrigation canals repaired by Canada.

The Harper government continues to claim success against abundant evidence that the $50 million investment in this poorly designed project failed to address the central problem—inadequate water availability.

Reports also question the wisdom of expending over 20% of total project funds on security. The Canadian implementing agency, SNC-Lavalin, contracted the infamous security firm Watan Risk Management Group, which allegedly paid protection money to the Taliban, further tarnishing Canada’s image.

An appropriately designed project could have had tremendous potential in contributing to Afghanistan’s development and stability, while building a positive image for Canada. An estimated 80% of Kandaharis live in the Arghandab region, the Dahla Dam catchment area.  A functioning dam could thus have been of critical importance.

Failure to protect livelihoods in Kandahar, the Taliban heartland, did not play well in terms of winning hearts and minds or of extending the legitimacy of the Afghanistan government—the major stated objectives of the international community. The inability of Canada and its allies to deliver tangible services in the region has in fact resulted in the growth of popular support for the Taliban.

Canada left behind a half-baked, unfinished project of critical importance to Afghanistan’s economic stability, development and security.

The overall impact of Canada’s canal repair work on irrigation and agricultural production in the region is hard to measure. Reports note a decline in total acreage of land under irrigation, without any analysis of causes for this decline other than insecurity in the province. Notably, security was also under Canada’s command during the project period.

Turning around a fragile state with weak legitimacy requires the strengthening of state machinery and institutions so that the government—not outsiders—can deliver basic economic, social and security services to its people. Canadian development assistance, however, was politicized into prescriptive and self-serving projects that supported Canada’s short-term political and military objectives. In the end, little evidence exists that these investments contributed much to security or development in Kandahar Province.

An earlier version of this blog was published in Embassy, December 3, 2014.