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Afghanistan 'a success story,' World Bank says
by Alan Freeman

Globe and Mail


OTTAWA -- Economic and social conditions in Afghanistan have improved dramatically since the fall of the Taliban, despite continuing problems with security, corruption and the drug trade, according to the World Bank's top official responsible for the country.

"This is a success story," Alastair McKechnie, country director for Afghanistan at the World Bank, said in an interview yesterday. "Afghanistan has defied predictions and has achieved a lot in a short period of time."

Mr. McKechnie, in Canada for meetings with officials in Ottawa and a speech in Toronto, pointed to a series of positive indicators, including double-digit economic growth, an expanding road network, a surge in school attendance - particularly by girls - and a drop in infant mortality from 165 per 1,000 live births to 135 in 4½ years.

He said it is easy to get a negative view of Afghanistan if one focuses on the south and east of the country, where the insurgency is strongest. In two-thirds of the country, there is no insurgency and conditions are improving more quickly.

Some of the credit goes to the World Bank, which has committed $1.5-billion (U.S.) of its own money to the country and set up the Afghanistan Reconstruction Fund, which has so far gathered $2.4-billion in pledges from two dozen countries.

This year's single top donor to the fund is Canada, with $211-million. Britain is second, with $145-million.

The Canadian money goes to a variety of projects and uses and is a major source of funding for the daily operations of the Afghan government, which still does not generate enough tax revenues to fund these activities on its own.

"Otherwise, teachers and health workers don't get paid," Mr. McKechnie said.

He conceded that much remains to be done in reducing corruption in the police and improving the functioning of the justice system.

Another challenge is to reduce the influence of the poppy trade. Afghanistan is estimated to furnish 93 per cent of the world's illegal opium supply, used in the manufacture of heroin, and opium production accounts for one-third of economic activity.

Even there, Mr. McKechnie said, the picture is not as bad as it seems, with only 4 per cent of the country's total arable land being cultivated with poppies and more provinces becoming poppy free.

To battle the opium trade, the most effective methods include the interdiction of traffickers, encouraging alternative cash crops such as grapes and appealing to the religious values of Afghans, he said.

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