The achievements of development co-operation in Afghanistan will not be lost

Finland suspended its development cooperation with Afghanistan after Taliban took control of the country. However, the results of development cooperation in the past 20 years will not be lost, says Senior Specialist Merja Mäkelä.

Two persons are facing a computer screen. They are wearing long scarfs.
In the 21st century, employed women have, through their example, influenced attitudes towards the social status of women in Afghanistan held in their communities. Photo: VWPics / Press photo

Merja Mäkelä worked as Special Adviser on Development Policy at the Finnish Embassy in Kabul from autumn 2020 until this summer.

What was achieved through development cooperation in Afghanistan?

Significant progress was made in Afghanistan particularly in the education and healthcare sectors. The status of women and children in Afghanistan improved, and both maternal and infant mortality was halved. Unlike during the previous Taliban regime, which denied girls’ access to education, the majority of girls, around 70 per cent to 80 per cent of them, were able to begin primary school. 

The number of women in central government occupations increased considerably, and the latest figures for this year show that 36 per cent of teachers and 29 per cent of all officeholders were women. Women were able to participate in local decision-making, and living conditions improved in many areas.

Freedom of expression has also improved over the past two decades, and Finland has supported the creation of a local professional journalist community through an NGO project. The project provided training for some 500 women journalists between 2009 and 2017.

Operating conditions for the private sector improved thanks to new roads, better access to electricity, Internet connections and the adoption of an electronic tax return system, among other things. Development of the private sector in the most critical industries, agriculture and mining, proved less successful because it is extremely difficult to attract investors to work in conflict zones.

Finnish funding was used to build schools and health clinics and to improve water supply and sanitation.

Finland has supported humanitarian mine actions to successfully clear mine and other explosives from the ground. In 2017, 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s land area where mines have been used had been successfully cleared, after which the amount of various explosives again began to rise.

Afghanistan has been affected by conflicts for several decades. As a result, development cooperation has been difficult or impossible in many areas, particularly rural regions, as government and NGO employees have feared for their lives. The most significant progress was made in cities.

How much of the funding was used to support girls and women?

Improving the status of girls and women was taken into consideration in all projects supported by Finland.

For example, water supply in schools and villages and toilets built in schools have a direct impact by making life and schooling easier for girls. Teacher training was aimed particularly for women so that girls would have a chance to participate in the classroom. Schools were given funding based on the proportion of girls to all pupils. 

In the geophysics project for the mining sector that improved the capabilities of the Afghanistan Geological Survey and Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to prospect and manage mineral resources, nearly half of the students trained for field work were women.  

The World Bank has provided funding to the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan (MISFA) through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund and approximately 70 per cent of microfinance clients were female small entrepreneurs.

Finland has been a staunch advocate of human rights in Afghanistan. Among other efforts, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs has supported citizens’ opportunities to report on human rights violations against them through the Afghan Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Finland has also given long-term support to the development and implementation of Afghanistan Action Plan 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which guarantees women's opportunities for meaningful participation in peacebuilding, reconstruction and conflict prevention.

Are all these achievements now in vain?

No, at least not entirely. Thanks to the long-term development cooperation by Finland and the international community, Afghan citizens are more educated, healthier and better informed. This is an achievement that will not go to waste.

Women who have worked as teachers and doctors have changed Afghan society and the attitudes of both men and women in their communities. The same is true for numerous educated and influential women journalists, artists and human rights activists.

For example, development cooperation strengthened local decision-making and increased the participation of women. More than 16,000 villages set up committees to manage the funds needed to provide basic services. In all these communities, women were able to become involved in decision-making.

All in all, Afghanistan’s civil society, including the media, NGOs and informal joint action by citizens, has become stronger over the last two decades. The Red Cross has helped establish a volunteer organisation in the country that continues to operate actively in the current crisis.

Young people in Afghanistan, especially in cities, are networked and active on social media. Nothing like this happened when the Taliban were last in power.

How do we know whether the assistance made it to its destination? 

Finland’s funding for bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan was sent primarily through international organisations, such as the World Bank, UNICEF and the UN Entity for Gender Equality, UN Women. These organisations were also supported by many other donor countries, large co-financing mechanisms in which Finland participated as a member of the international community of donors.

The use of funds by the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund was regularly audited by a third party. The same was true of the water supply and sanitation project by UNICEF. Third-party experts audited the projects’ accounts, payments, purchases and payrolls systematically and extensively. The results of projects in villages were also inspected by independent third parties.

Development cooperation around the world is always done under difficult circumstances. In Afghanistan, rife corruption has presented a particular challenge. In 2019, more than 90 per cent of Afghans named corruption as a serious problem causing the most damage to ordinary people.

Between 2014 and 2020, a total of five cases of suspected misuse of funds and abuse were reported related to Finnish development cooperation and humanitarian in Afghanistan. All of the cases were investigated.

The most serious of these was suspected abuse, uncovered in 2019, related to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which is managed by the World Bank. Audits revealed inconsistencies in the way procurement guidelines had been followed and documented.  The total sum concerned was USD 3.9 million, which the Afghan government repaid to the World Bank. Finland has been one of the project’s 19 funders since 2014.

What happens now to development co-operation?

It is too early to tell as the Taliban has not yet formed a government and it is not clear under what conditions assistance organisations could operate in the country in the future.

Several organisations supported by Finland, such as UNICEF and MSIA Reproductive Choices, have been able to operate in Taliban-controlled areas in the past. They are likely to be able to continue their work in the country.

Finnish CSOs and their local partners will assess if they will be able to continue their work. The Finnish Red Cross is carrying out a health programme in remote village communities that fall outside the reach of the public health care system. The Family Federation of Finland and its local partner, MSIA Reproductive Choices, is providing reproductive and sexual health services at clinics.

Finland’s goal is to work with its international partners in order to protect the results achieved so far. Finland has made it clear that respect for human rights is a basic condition for future cooperation. The rights of women and girls must be respected, and this must be reflected in girls’ right to education and women’s right to work, among other things.

Long-term development cooperation is also not the only way to help. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs also directs the provision of urgent, life-saving humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance provides food, shelter, water and hygiene services to people living in the midst of a crisis. 

Due to the drought made worse by climate change, the prolonged fighting and the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan was high even before the latest turn of events in the conflict.

The UN estimates that half of the country’s population is now in need of emergency relief. More and more people have been forced to flee their homes, either within Afghanistan or to other countries. The majority of displaced people, around 85%, have sought refuge in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan.

In mid-August, Finland allocated three million euros to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to help Afghan refugees.


Hanna Päivärinta

The author is a Communications Officer at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.


Finland's aid to Afghanistan in recent years

  • UN Women (EUR 6 million, 2020–2022)
  • UN Office on Drugs & Crime UNODC (EUR 3.5 million, 2020–2021)
  • UNICEF water and sanitation project (EUR 7.3 million, 2019–21)
  • World Bank Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (EUR 10 million, 2021)
  • Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission AIHRC (EUR 1.5 million, 2019–2021)
  • MSIA Reproductive Choices, which provides sexual and reproductive health services for women and girls (EUR 4 million, 2017–2020). INGO funding (EUR 8 million, 2021–2024)
  • Afghanistan Geological Survey (EUR 1.2 million, 2018–2021)
  • InterMediate conflict resolution organisation (EUR 700,000, 2019–2022)
  • UNMAS and HALO Trust mine clearance operations (EUR 4 million, 2021–2024)
  • Dental health programme by Fida International (EUR 670,000, 2018–2021)
  • Remote Afghan villages project by the Finnish Red Cross together with the International Red Cross and Afghan Red Crescent (EUR 2.1 million, 2018–2021)
  • Project to promote sexual rights for people with disabilities, Family Federation of Finland together with MSIA Reproductive Choices (EUR 240,000, 2019–2022)

In addition, Finland has given a total of EUR 7.4 million in humanitarian funding to Afghanistan between 2016–2020 through the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In 2021, Finland's humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan will amount to EUR 6.5 million. The funding is used to provide food aid and clean water, care for malnourished children, protection for refugees, and to treat people injured in the war as well as to prevent the spread of COVID-19.