Q&A with the U.N.'s Afghanistan Point Man

Mark Malloch Brown talks about the need to be thoroughly Keynesian for the first year or so

Shortly after the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, the U.N. appointed Mark Malloch Brown as its point man for the country's reconstruction. Malloch Brown, administrator of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), will be responsible for raising as much as $15 billion for a 10-year Afghanistan reconstruction fund and getting the project up and running. His agency is working closely with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to assess Afghanistan's most pressing needs.

Malloch Brown, 48, has long been a major player in the business of helping developing nations. Born in South Africa and educated at Cambridge University, he began his career as a journalist before moving on to work for the World Bank and the UN. These days, he spends much time traveling the world, raising money for UNDP programs to fight poverty, assist refugees, and promote democracy. He recently met with a group of BusinessWeek editors in New York over lunch to discuss his concerns about Afghanistan and global development issues.

Q: How have things changed in the business of aid and economic development since September 11?

A: On the aid front, the greatest change of attitudes since September 11 has been in Europe -- in their willingess to consider much higher levels of investment in addressing poverty and relevant areas. They have been given an emotional charge by September 11.

[One reason is that] they have Africa much more in their face. And there have been all kinds of difficult migration flows from Turkey and Central Asia, as well as from North Africa, into Europe. They're living much closer to the danger of half the world economy failing on them. But even long before September 11, they had envisaged that if you let half of that global society be unduly poor and underprivileged, it's going to come and nip you. There was a greater awareness of this.

Q: Do you see a similar change in the U.S.?

A: Scratch the surface in Washington, too, you get some signs of movement. For 50 years of American foreign aid, if defense spending goes up, foreign aid follows. There's a definite guns and butter link -- [they're] the two weapons of the more assertive foreign policy. More profoundly, I think nation building is back on the Republican agenda. I think even in the U.S. you will see a constituency growing for more aid.

But whether it's Europe or the U.S., it's all going to take a couple of years. At the moment, we're constrained by the costs of the war and economic recession.

Q: What projects are you working on in Afghanistan?

A: The first thing is that we'll do whatever we can to build up the government. We literally had to supply each of the ministers [of the new interim government, led by Hamid Karzai] a desk and a car, and we're paying all of their salaries in Kabul. And we're going to do a lot of quick-impact projects along the margins of what the government can do. Mine clearing, disarming small arms. We will pay people for their guns -- about $50. It's a system we have used in other countries.

[We'll work on] community policing. There's no police force at the moment. [We'll work on] job creation. And there's the planting season in March. We want to make sure that they plant -- and that they plant food and not poppy. A lot of those things a weak central government in Kabul will not be able to do on its own.

Q: How much will you support the local economy?

A: We think you need to be thoroughly Keynsesian for the first year or so and really spend what it takes to buy national unity and build a macroeconomy.... You go in there, spend what it takes, keep the economy going, deliver a peace dividend, deliver a clear sense that the national government matters. You hope if you're successful, the civil economy gathers enough momentum of its own, and you start to get an income stream to the government and a restablished tax base. But you can't wait.

Q: Are you concerned that the heroin business in Afghanistan will revive?

A: If I'm going to sustain support for a reconstruction effort, I've got to show that there's a zero-tolerance policy in Afghanistan on drug cultivation. The Afghans may not like it. But in a sense, it's part of the grand bargain.

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