Accountability in Afghanistan
by Charles Lemos, Wed Feb 18, 2009 at 09:56:34 PM EST
Near Kabul City, in the village of Qalai Qazi, Afghanistan, stood a bright yellow health clinic built by American contractor The Louis Berger Group. It is one of 81 clinics Berger was hired to build -- in addition to roads, dams, schools and other infrastructure -- in exchange for $665 million in American aid money the company has received in federal contracts.
The problem was, the clinic was falling apart. The ceiling had rotted away in patches; the plumbing, when it worked, leaked and shuddered; the chimney, made of flimsy metal, threatened to set the roof on fire; the sinks had no running water; and the place smelled of sewage.
Chronic mismanagement and profligacy are blighting reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, international aid officials have warned, wasting up to a third of the $15bn (£10.55bn) in funding already delivered and deepening local resentment towards foreign troops stationed there.
Senior British, US and local aid workers have described a number of problems including bribery, profiteering, poor planning and incompetence. The overall effect has been to cripple the development effort structured under the Bush administration's insistence on an unregulated and profit-driven approach to reconstruction.
"The major donor agencies operate on the mistaken assumption that it's more efficient and profitable to do things through market mechanisms," a senior American contractor working in Afghanistan told the Guardian on condition of anonymity. "The notion of big government is a spectre for American conservatives and this [the reconstruction process] is an American conservative project."
The contractor said the "original plan was to get in, prop up Karzai, kill al-Qaida, privatise all government-owned enterprises and get out. It wasn't a development project, that wasn't a concern. Development was an afterthought.
Development cannot be afterthought nor can corruption at any level be tolerated. The stakes are too high and we no longer have a margin for error nor the luxury of time.
From 2002 to 2008, USAID budgeted more than $8 billion for aid to Afghanistan. In an accounting of its results, USAID boasts that 7.4 million Afghans now have access to improved health care; a paved highway has been completed between Kabul and Kandahar; 100,000 teachers have been trained, 50 million textbooks printed, and 5 million children enrolled in school.
But statistics from UNICEF and other international agencies tell a story of a very different Afghanistan. One in four Afghan children will die before reaching the age of 5. That is up from one in five at the start of the war. The literacy rate for women remains 19%. Unemployment in the capital is 30%. Three-and-a-half million Afghans, out of a population of about 25 million, are hungry and reliant on foreign food rations.
Dutch based Zee News reported last year that Afghans say corruption is worse now than at any time in the past nearly 30 years, including under Taliban and Soviet rule. About 60% of 1,250 Afghans questioned for the survey by Integrity Watch Afghanistan thought the Karzai administration was more corrupt than any since 1970s. Over 90% believed more than half the public services required a bribe.
But the corruption isn't just an Afghan problem, it is also, surprise, a contractor problem. Again from the UK Guardian:
An Afghan contractor, who has handled reconstruction contracts for some large foreign donors since NATO took over, said he was routinely asked to pay bribes or kickbacks to western construction firms. "If we want a contract from a foreign firm we have to pay a 10% bribe, that's the culture ... [but] our profits are nothing in comparison to the money that is made at the top, by the foreigners," he said.
He also accused some foreign companies of profiteering, describing a school construction project he worked on for one of the largest US firms in Afghanistan. He said nearly 75% of the $260,000 budget was swallowed as the project was subcontracted out, first to an American firm and then to two Afghan companies.
Without accountability in Afghanistan, no amount of troops will win that war. That war cannot be won by mere firepower.