When the dinner bell rings in Washington, D.C., a swarm of politically-connected consultants and nonprofit organizations (NGOs) rush in to feast on aid funds designated for Afghanistan. The culprits are members of an exclusive club of favored parties who feed off of USAID and State Department contracts, grants and awards. The group includes Checchi and Company, Louis Berger Group, Chemonics, Inc., the Asia Society, Democracy International, the Brookings Institution, Casals and Associates, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), National Democracy Institute, the International Republican Institute, etc.
A review of their boards of directors and leadership reveals that many are former USAID, State Department, Millennium Challenge, U.S. Institute of Peace, National Endowment for Democracy or United Nations officials who have decided to cash in on their relationships and experience. While the relationships between these groups and the U.S. Government are incestuous, an equally important problem is that most of this aid (tens of billions of dollars each year) is simply wasted.
Ordinary Afghans need good food, clean water, sewage treatment improvements, rural health care and education; instead these aid groups primarily generate reports, surveys and hold meetings with each other in Kabul. The following is a recent summary of how Afghan aid funds are being expended by the United States.
Earlier this month, Democracy International finalized its “Survey of Afghanistan Parliament.” It posed 38 questions to 176 members of the two houses of Parliament and published the results. This project was paid for by USAID and its findings are worthless. The members of Parliament largely supported election reforms, most thought the Afghan President had too much power, a bare majority supported the general concept of talks with the Taliban etc. Whether their public positions have any credibility is questionable. This is a classic NGO-crafted aid effort. It was conducted safely in Kabul, undoubtedly in air-conditioned offices, with proper breaks for lunch and refreshments. This effort and its results are detached from reality and no one will ever bother reading this survey (except this author), but that apparently bothers none of the groups involved.
Another ongoing program is AERCA (the Afghan Electoral Reform and Civil Advocacy Project). U.S. taxpayer funds are being expended for the nebulous goals of “fostering innovation” and “building capacity within CSOs” (Civil Capacity Organizations) in order to “strengthen Afghan democracy.” What this fluff means is that the consultants conduct an endless string of meeting in Kabul with senior officials, politicians and groups, all of which are always successful.
These governance, democracy and anti-corruption projects have no objective metrics attached to them to measure success, therefore they are always described as producing “progress,” which then leads to follow-on contracts to build on that real or imagined progress. The fact is that money is being wasted in Kabul on expensive lunches, meetings, travel, hotels and in the preparation of endless reports, while Afghans in the countryside go without basic necessities.
Another ongoing USAID project in Afghanistan is the Community Cohesion Initiative (CCI). Its vague goal is to “create an environment for sustainable peace” by improving ties between local actors and by “empowering community-based resiliencies” in order to “mitigate sources of instability.” This apparently is part of its ASI (Afghanistan Stabilization Initiative) which commenced in July 2009 with the equally vague goal of “building confidence and trust” between the Afghan Government and local communities.
Then there is the $120 million USAID-funded Kabul City Initiative (KCI). Its goal is to create an “effective, responsive, transparent and accountable municipal government” in Kabul. The funding is all being paid to another U.S. favorite, Tetra Tech ARD.
This author served in the State Department for a short time in 2008. The Department remains oblivious to budget realities and to concepts of efficiency. It is addicted and literally runs on a diet of publicity. In order to fuel the constant need for press releases, the State Department and USAID fund thousands of boutique development efforts that produce nothing of substance, except for an attractive press release heralding an impressive-sounding project (and of course the project is always a success).
President Obama should immediately channel all U.S. foreign aid into humanitarian relief programs (i.e., food, clean water, emergency shelter and health care), ending all these wasteful and ineffective development programs.
Without adult supervision from the White House over the State Department, without accountability and without a drastic shift in how the U.S. Government’s “country team” functions, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is doomed to failure.