Foreign aid agency tends to gloss over problems in rebuilding Afghanistan

“It’s all good,” rapper M.C. Hammer famously said, and that’s something the U.S. Agency for International Development appears to believe about the country’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

But watchdogs ranging from the Government Accountability Office to the special inspector general for Afghanistan present a much more critical picture of the agency’s efforts, especially when it comes to how it handles its own operations.

USAID frequently protests the findings of the various agencies and officials that monitor its work in Afghanistan – sometimes with great vehemence. But the number of critics and their list of criticisms make USAID’s responses seem overly rosy.

A major drawdown in troops is planned for 2014, and though U.S. support will continue for years, it will mark an end to more than a decade of continuous U.S. involvement since the September 11th attacks.  Since 2002, the U.S. has spent about $90 billion to help rebuild Afghanistan, according to government records.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, is the government’s chief foreign-assistance agency, in charge of providing funds, support, know-how and other resources to nations across the globe.  The agency has been heavily involved in U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, in charge of everything ranging from building schools and hospitals to supporting women’s rights and small businesses.

So how is the building of the Afghan nation doing?  It depends on who’s telling the story.

Just this week, the Washington Guardian reported that hospitals being constructed by USAID might be too expensive for Afghans to operate. The new medical centers will be more than five times as expensive to run as the existing hospitals, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), who was appointed by Congress to oversee the nation-building effort.

The two hospitals the U.S. is currently building in Gardez and Khair Khot “have estimated operation and maintenance costs that are considerably higher than the associated costs of the hospitals they are replacing,” SIGAR said.  “Better design planning for Gardez and Khair Khot would have produced more economical and practical hospitals and allowed for better use of U.S. appropriated funds.”

USAID disagreed with the report, saying the Afghan national government is prepared to take over operations of the two hospitals.

“USAID takes sustainability of our projects very seriously,” said a letter from S. Ken Yamashita, USAID’s Afghanistan Mission Director.  “The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, with the support of the international community, is focusing its attention on operations and maintenance.”

Likewise, SIGAR said a highly-touted USAID project to improve electricity in the capital city, Kabul, as well as in Kandahar was instead bogged down by two different utility systems that weren’t compatible.  And inspectors said USAID gave the contract for the work to a single company without any competition for the best price.

USAID’s poor project management resulted in a sole-source award that may have inappropriately limited competition, and USAID failed to enforce a key contractual requirement that resulted in almost $700,000 in wasted funds,” SIGAR’s report said.

Once again, USAID said it “strenuously objects” to the report, arguing the energy grid project “represents a major step towards sustainability and full Afghan financing of their energy system.”

USAID’s work is one of the most highly scrutinized areas in the federal government, which may account for the sheer volume of critical reports. Officials do not express doubt that USAID has done needed work in Afghanistan to stabilize the government, bring security and improve the lives of its population.  But the agency’s self-appraisal seems habitually rosy, is at odds with the assessment of its peers, and increases the risk that it is failing to address serious problems that could have an impact on Afghanistan’s success after the U.S. leaves. That’s why we’re awarding the Whopper of the Week to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Larry Sampler, the Deputy Assistant to the Administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, said USAID doesn’t gloss over the problems, and indeed is often acutely aware of shortcomings in the nation.  But, he said, there is an “inherent pessimism” sometimes to the work that is done in Afghanistan that reflects the high cost in lives and money since the U.S. engaged in the country.  It’s important to present the things that are going right in the country, the positive accomplishments from helping in Afghanistan, he said, and USAID is “making sure there is a balance and there is an accuracy and a comprehensive picture presented.”

“When I ask my staff, ‘Tell me a good news story,’ I’m overwhelmed,” Sampler said.

Since 2002, school enrollment across the nation has gone from 900,000 boys to 8 million boys and girls.  Health has been improving, and some estimates say life expectancy is rising by as much as 20 years.  Access to electricity, plumbing and communications have all improved.

But some watchdogs say USAID is sometimes unaware of the shortcomings within its own agency, things that can have an effect on projects in Afghanistan.

The Government Accountability Office – Congress’ chief investigative arm – found problems with USAID’s oversight in a report issued last year.

GAO has found systematic weaknesses in USAID’s oversight and monitoring of project and program performance in Afghanistan,” the report said.  “GAO found in 2011 that USAID had not always assessed the financial risks in providing direct assistance to Afghan government entities before awarding funds.”

But the GAO also noted that USAID has taken steps to improve its financial oversight, and acknowledged just how difficult work in Afghanistan can sometimes be.

“USAID officials face a high risk security environment,” the GAO report said.

Meanwhile, the State Department’s Inspector General was also highly critical of USAID’s current programs designed to stabilize the national government.

“We believe that unless the systemic weaknesses previously discussed are fixed, there is high risk that USAID projects may not be successful in improving the capacity of the Afghan Government to prepare and execute budgets and manage its resources effectively,” said a 2012 report from the IG.  “Without clear metrics of performance, there is high risk that USAID may not be providing sufficient oversight of technical advisers to ensure they are performing as required and that programs are designed and implemented with a clear focus toward transition and sustainability to the Afghan Government.”

Sampler said he welcomes ideas on how to make USAID better.

“I am enormously supportive of the roles that inspector generals and the GAO play in helping us identify room for improvements,” he said.

The difference in tone between USAID’s optimistic reports and other agencies’ more somber ones can be attributed, in part, to the fact that the departments have different missions, Sampler said.  The GAO, inspectors general and other watchdog groups are focused on finding what’s wrong and correcting problems immediately.  But USAID takes a longer look at Afghanistan to see how to continuously improve the nation for years to come.

“We represent an investment that’s in it for the long haul,” Sampler said.  “You don’t see a return on investment on education dollars in a matter of years, you see it in a matter of decades.”

Advertiser Content