The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) today presented the findings of its recent research synthesis paper, “The Helmand Food Zone: The Illusion of Success”, at a high-profile event in Kabul Serena Hotel.
AREU’s renowned research consultant Dr David Mansfield, who is the author of the paper, presented his findings to a significant number of high-ranking government officials, representatives of national and international agencies, and civil society organizations. The presentation was followed by a question and answer session with the active participation of the audience that discussed various aspects of the research and its findings.
“While the HFZ has finished, the consequences live on,” said David and added, “they [PEF and the Governor’s forces] couldn’t get agreement around the targeting strategy for eradication.”
The study is generously financed by the European Union’s (EU) three-pronged research in Natural Resources Management in Afghanistan. This study documents how the Helmand Food Zone was developed, its origins and architects, as well as the different actors involved in the implementation and the subsequent challenges of delivery. Initially presented as a drug control project, the Helmand Food Zone came to be accredited for supporting stabilisation and governance in the Helmand province between 2008 and 2012. Driven by political demands rather than evidence, the programme became a flagship in Helmand, and lauded as a success, despite evidence to the contrary.
Speaking about the report, AREU Director Dr Orzala Nemat said, “while this research paper is synthesising the overall study in the course of three years, we have brought key stakeholders today, to open up the discussions mainly on answering the ‘so what?’ question, meaning what needs to be done based on this multi-dimensional study’s findings and how to utilize its recommendations. Hence, we hope today’s roundtable discussion will help us find some answers and how to achieve outcomes.”
The study reports that the short term success of the Helmand Food Zone with regards to its association with reducing poppy was far outweighed by the role the programme played in: (i) creating the conditions for unprecedented amounts of land to be brought under poppy cultivation than ever before; (ii) institutionalising forms of corruption that further alienated the rural population from the authorities; and (iii) helping set in motion a process of agricultural intensification that is likely to lead to the displacement of at least half a million people in the next decade.
The paper argues, “However, as yields recovered in 2016 and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces lost control over larger tracts of rural Helmand, farmers returned to poppy cultivation in ever greater numbers,” adding that “So much so that by 2017, UNODC estimated that there were 144,000 hectares of opium poppy in Helmand as a whole; and the United States Government’s estimates of poppy cultivation for the Helmand Food Zone indicated that there was even more poppy within its boundaries than when the programme began in 2009.”
In fact, from a governance perspective, the study concludes that the Helmand Food Zone worked through and consolidated existing systems of power and patronage, empowering the Governor, officials and village elders to solicit rent and favours from farmers in exchange for development assistance or to avoid eradication.
Of particular concern, the Helmand Food Zone turned a blind eye to repeated reports of corruption with regard to the distribution of wheat seed and fertilizers and continued to support the production of unverifiable village lists by district officials and elders with all the problems that this entailed. By doing so, the programme helped institutionalise forms of corruption and fueled the frustration and anger that many rural households felt towards the government and its representatives.
By operating through mechanisms that siphoned off support to the wealthy, the Helmand Food Zone helped undermine the very goal that it set out to achieve – the idea that the governor and the government could deliver services to the population.