Small Wars Journal

Conditional Cash Transfer Payments and the Irreconcilable Afghan

Development projects in Afghanistan have lacked a clear focus in terms of what development funding seeks to achieve.  While the three main priorities from the international community seem to vary between cementing relations with local elites, cutting and pasting a developed world health and agriculture infrastructure, and pursuing the ubiquitous goal of sustainable development, rarely is development looked at from the Taliban’s perspective. What development projects are most threatening in their eyes, and what are the red lines to them which show civilians are turning away from their values and towards the government’s sphere.  One of these red lines is education provided by the government, specifically girl’s education.  This paper looks at an education program that can effectively isolate the Taliban from their bases of support by using what the World Bank calls “one of the most effective social protection programs in the word”[1] – the Conditional Cash Transfer payment.

Education in Insurgency   

The battle for education has a long history in counterinsurgency warfare; during France’s colonial war in Algeria the FLN would target government run schools while also offering an alternative which sought to impart their vision upon the country.  The Taliban Madrassas along the Pakistani border have supplied recruits for the movement since its inception. They have also pursued a policy of attacking and burning schools and murdering government teachers. The Taliban’s repressive education policies represent the classic insurgent goal of discrediting the government, but they also signify something much deeper.  For example, the act of throwing sulfuric acid on a girl’s face, illustrates something fundamental in the ideology and nature of the Taliban: That girl’s education is an untenable act by an individual which must be responded to with force.

In short, education is a political act, a point that is doubly true for girl’s education. If girls attend school it shows a community’s independence from Taliban infiltration and also acts as a bellwether for a communities sense of security in that they feel confident enough to avoid possible Taliban retribution against their children. This offers a dilemma for the insurgent. Imagine you are a Taliban judge or leader of a vigilante militia. Your main job is not to merely enforce property rights or settle local disputes; it is to enforce the word of God and to discredit the local government. How can you continue to maintain respect and control if people ignore your authority on a signature issue while allowing an illegitimate government to corrupt people with western ideas? Intimidating individuals is easy. A night letter (threats from the Taliban sent to specific individuals) can force an individual to give up a government position or to drop out of school. However, intimidating a community if most of their daughters attend school becomes much more difficult, especially when trying to infiltrate a closely knit rural and isolated community.  

Targeted Development

The question then becomes, what is the best educational program to peel off support from the Taliban? In 2003 a simple idea was popularized in Brazil under the name Bolsa Familia.  For this program, women below a certain income level were paid money if their children receive vaccinations and attend school, while allowing 15% of the school year for absences.  As a result of this program, enrollment shot up and family spending on children increased, which created a virtuous cycle of improved health, education, and increased family consumption.[2]  The program is largely credited with lowering inequality in Brazil, which was once seen as one of the most unequal societies in the world.  The success of Bolsa Familia cemented the rise of the idea of the Conditional Cash Transfer payment (CCT), which simply means giving away money on the condition the recipient takes a particular action.  In Afghanistan, where wages are low, the conditional cash transfer offers a direct incentive for locals to do something the Taliban hates and provide the added benefit of boosting local consumption and family spending. As Dr. David Kilkullen points out, an insurgent network needs to stay connected to a population while having the people operate in certain ways. Otherwise, “they must either emerge into the open, where we can destroy them… or stay quiet, accept permanent marginalization from their former population base, and suffocate. This puts the insurgents on the horns of a lethal dilemma.”   When people talk about development and reconstruction as a ‘weapons system’ there can be no clearer example then a community marginalizing the insurgent by acting in ways the Taliban deem unacceptable.[3]

Also important and rarely addressed is when and where development programs like conditional cash transfers can and should be used.  The most fertile ground for CCT is where there is little to no insurgent activity or in communities that have recently switched sides or come under government control.  CCT provides an immediate positive benefit to members of the community - cash - and shows the Afghan government in a positive light. It can also be rolled out in stages to be more acceptable to local leaders. It can start with cash transfers to all children, which in practice would mean boys education, and eventually be scaled up to encourage girl’s education with an extra premium for female students.  CCT would not be feasible in contested areas, where insurgents have a wide base of support, or where people are not protected by the government or local self-defense forces. These areas present a massive logistical problem in delivering benefits. While Bolsa Familia is able to distribute funding through debit cards to families, Afghan participants outside of major cities would have to be paid in checks or, preferably, cash. Such payments would need to be hand-delivered by program employees, preferably in concert with local shuras, which in areas of insurgent control would be quite impossible. There are however, still opportunities in preparation for eventually establishing a CCT program, even in contested areas. Respected members of the community can be identified as potential teachers and be trained, so that an educational framework will be ready when community self-defense forces are organized or government or multinational forces regain control. This provides several benefits, adding a direct relationship with the community and discouraging the Taliban from taking direct action against local teachers, who have family and community ties, because tribal codes would then demand retribution.  

Schools don’t matter

Overseas development projects are infamous for measuring success by input metrics - how many schools are built, books delivered, project funding spent, etc.  This form of analyzing success has become notorious in the development community for creating white elephant projects, causing local corruption, and,  at worst, providing facilities which become a forward operating base for insurgents. The conditional cash transfer program for Bolasa Familia was particularly successful in large part because it was measured based on outputs - in that case the program could be judges as a success if more children were attending school and getting vaccinations.  In Afghanistan a similar output measure could be used, especially in major towns and cities where schools already operate with paid faculty. However the education problem for many developing countries goes beyond simple enrollment, as enrollment does not mean there are actual teachers who are teaching or for that matter have the ability to cheat. A better measure for rural areas (which make up most of the population of Afghanistan) would be to reward parents of girls who could simply write their names. By using a simple test like this the program would reward the most important output of education, in this case basic literacy. More expansive literacy tests could then be required to continue qualifying for more CCT payments. Schools aren’t a bad thing, of course, especially if a community expresses support. A school can also provide a local economic boost, further institutionalize education, and provide a physical structure that gives a sense of achievement to aid workers.  Student learning, however, must remain the ultimate sign of success and knowledge does not depend on schools. If you have qualified teachers, students can learn outside or in people’s private homes - something which occurred in many places during the Taliban regime, when girl’s education had to go underground.

A new model             

In conclusion, the Taliban and their associated groups have determined that neutral services run by the government or aid agencies are not, in fact, neutral. They are seen as directly or indirectly promoting an apostate government or corrupting people with foreign values, making those that actively support such services irreconcilable to their so called Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan. They have also determined that girl’s education is most offensive to the values of their movement.  Conditional cash transfers work in large part because they focus on human nature. Do X to get Y has proven to be a success across the world and across cultures, from Sao Paolo to New York, with more recent experiments in Cairo to Malawi. CCT has the potential to offer Afghanis the choice of benefiting their families and communities or offending reactionary insurgents. Assuming the international community and Afghan government have to ability to offer that choice, the history of success of the CCT program suggests that Afghans will choose to better their lives while rejecting extremism. And if they do, this implies not only a major defeat for the Taliban and their ability to govern, but also a potential shift against the social conditions that foster Islamist extremism.  

[1] The World Bank. Lifting Families out of Poverty in Brazil-  Bolsa Familia Program.,,contentMDK:20754490~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:322341,00.html

[2] The Economist, July 29th 2010, How to get Children Out of Jobs and Into Schools

[3] Kilkullen, David. Counterinsurgency. Oxford University Press. New York 2010. print.