Thursday, August 05, 2010

The war over hearts and minds in Afghanistan

An article that was published while we were away on vacation we have since seen cited in two different blogs that critique US aid. In late July, the Christian Science Monitor published a great piece on the effects of US Aid in Afghanistan.

The US military is using aid development projects as a part of its mission. They hope that by developing Afghanistan infrastructure, the people of Afghanistan will begin to admire their occupiers. The article exposes how this hopeful goal can fall short at times, as aid projects become tangled up in bureaucracy and corruption and can sometimes make life even more unpleasant.

Our snippet from the Monitor article written by Ben Arnoldy gives one example of aid gone wrong. We encourage you to read the entire article as it gives some very damaging evidence of the US strategy.

In 2005, the remote northeastern province of Badakhshan worried United States officials. Considered one of the safer regions of Afghanistan, it had become a major cultivator of poppy and a magnet for drug traffickers.

So USAID called for bids to spend $60 million on development there. The winner, PADCO (now called AECOM), had no experience in Afghanistan, but offered an ambitious crop substitution and economic development plan to build roads, irrigation canals, hydroelectric plants, and better agriculture. The project – Alternative Development Program/North (ADP/N) – ended in early 2009 with work hastily finished or left incomplete.

They left on their schedule," says Abdul Wajid Wajid, the Afghan provincial planning minister at the time of the project.

For example, the cement walls on the Baharak power canal stop abruptly less than a mile from the start; at that point, landslide damage begins.

Work on the canal was delayed a year when one of the villages – angered by broken promises from a previous aid group – threatened to halt canal construction through its land. Then, toward the end of the project, some of the money needed to finish the work was diverted elsewhere, says Johannes Oosterkamp, an engineer who worked in Baharak for PADCO. That PADCO claims to have tripled power production is an "imprecision," he writes in an e-mail.

Indeed, the final evaluation report done by yet another USAID contractor concludes, "[U]nless the work on this [Baharak] canal is redone, its cost of over $1 million will have no benefit whatever." The report also notes that $650,000 was wasted on hydropower feasibility studies that disappeared.

The PADCO project brought "no added electricity," says Mr. Husseini, the electricity minister. He describes similar failures to deliver in Faizabad. PADCO said it was fixing two defunct hydroturbines – it didn't. PADCO spent $20,000 to fix a third, but it broke within days.

Mr. Oosterkamp never learned where unused portions of the canal funding went before he was fired, he says, for asking such questions. But he figures it may have gone toward another boondoggle – the paving of a 14-kilometer road between Faizabad and the village of Argo – done at the end of the project when money needed to be "burned" quickly.

A PADCO subcontractor upgraded the dirt road for $2.5 million. But the layer of asphalt measured only about an inch. Within three months the asphalt fell apart, says Abdul Jabar Mosadiq, a former district governor of Argo. Now the road is worse than before – pockmarked with gigantic potholes. But the village can no longer regrade it, thanks to the remaining patches of asphalt. Consequently, prices at the Argo bazaar rose 25 percent because delivery trucks now must come with smaller loads.

Business is good, however, for a tire repairman in Argo who says he fixes 10 tires a day, up from two before the paving.

"People know this was money of the American nation," says Mr. Mosadiq. "Mostly people are feeling that the same corruption that is in the government of Afghanistan is in the US and its companies and projects."

Mosadiq and provincial officials all say they felt powerless to protest cheap construction because PADCO refused to share budget figures for its work. The lack of transparency led locals to whisper that the former governor was getting a take, as well as his deputy, who rented his home to PADCO as an office.

The secrecy was to avoid corruption by local officials – "to prevent people putting their hand in the till when they could," says James Graham, former Afghanistan director of PADCO.

Some expenditures did become public when subcontracted work went through open bidding. "[A] lot of the complaints came from the fact that the local politicians couldn't control the actual process of letting the contracts," says Mr. Graham.

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