Expensive and Useless: America's Botched Afghanistan Aid

USAID can't even reliably tell you where its projects are.

On June 4, India’s Narendra Modi traveled to the Afghan city of Herat to join Ashraf Ghani in inaugurating the Salma Dam, renamed the India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam for the occasion. The dam, a multi-decade project funded by India, provides two things that are urgently needed by millions of Afghans every day: water and electricity.

Social media, for once without the usual cynicism, celebrated the event as a genuine step forward for the still impoverished, still struggling Afghanistan. To us in the United States, the Salma Dam can serve as a forty-five-megawatt, seventy-five-thousand-irrigated-hectare object lesson for how far we have drifted in the wrong direction, in our understanding of development aid and, yes, of friendship. We used to build dams, too—in Afghanistan, for that matter. Now we’re trying to build democracies and educate others about human rights, women’s equality, freedom of the press . . . We’ve become the exporter of intangibles—no, not even that. We’ve become the exhorter of intangibles. Do this. Don’t do that. Do it this way.

Consider the new favorite of U.S. development aid: the workshop. Not an actual workshop teaching something real, like carpentry or farming, these are California-ish feel-good sessions in which women, mostly, and generally the same ones over and over again—the ones who speak good English and have the savvy to get themselves on the invitee list (which is then recycled endlessly because that’s so much easier than looking for new candidates)—are informed by their “trainers” that they are equal, important and born to be leaders, whereupon they practice writing their “visions for the future” on a whiteboard and giving fictitious radio interviews, two skills that are clearly essential for oppressed women in traditional societies in post-conflict situations. The graduates go on to a “train the trainer” course, and if they play their cards right, to the advanced class and the refresher workshop and the specialized class on how to run for office. It can become something like a profession, with free meals, a stipend, days spent in nice hotels and for the especially lucky, conferences in Dubai or Europe or even the United States. USAID runs a $416 million program called Promote, intended to bolster the self-esteem of Afghan women and “empower” them to be leaders.

Afghanistan’s first lady, a generally tactful, polite and very diplomatic person, is not a fan. She warned with unusual directness that

“I do hope we are not going to fall again into the game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else.”

The U.S. government’s own Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), upon reviewing the program, was even more direct, expressing the concern that “the Afghan women engaged in the program may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion”—which also translates into the American taxpayer having squandered those hundreds of millions of dollars.

No attention has been paid to these warnings, and indeed it would be difficult to change course: an entire apparatus replete with departments, bureaus, officials, career paths and, of course, massive and major vested interests has grown up around this currently fashionable approach.

The “game of contracting and sub-contracting” mentioned by the first lady was also what brought ruin to our more conventional development aid in the first place. Under this ill-advised process, a very large sum of money is allotted for a particular project—let’s say, health clinics in rural areas. The money is given to a major contractor, who in turn has spent vast amounts of effort and money building relationships with the U.S. government agencies dispensing these goodies, and has hired a staff of grant writers who know the respective agencies and the lingo they prefer, often because they themselves were employed there in the past. Upon winning the bid the lead contractor, known as the “prime,” takes a hefty slice and then immediately farms the project out to one or more subcontractors, who take their share and hand it off in turn. Along the way an expensive Kabul office is rented, SUVs purchased, security guards hired and a domino process of further subcontracting is launched, at the conclusion of which a few Afghan or Pakistani workers hired by a local ramshackle business are sent out with spades, hammers and the negligible remains of a once huge budget to slap something together. It doesn’t matter, because due to security regulations, the USAID officer in charge is not allowed to visit the site, will never come anywhere near the project and can safely be told—this happens all the time—that the clinic has been completed, when in truth the only thing in place is a slab of cracked concrete out somewhere in the desert, possibly slanted into the dirt to approximate the mandated handicap ramp. The intrepid SIGAR, which actually goes out into the field, found that many clinics were ten kilometers or more from their designated location, that many had no running water or electricity, and had cracked walls, mold and other basic construction issues.

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