Afghanistan war: How USAID loses hearts and minds
One battle in the other Afghanistan war: How a mismanaged $60 million USAID project alienated those it aimed to help.
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In the West's battle for hearts and minds, Baharak farmer Juna Khan, by all rights, should have been won over by what success USAID's program did achieve.Skip to next paragraph
Bumper crops of vegetables and grain were reported throughout the region. And Mr. Khan says his farm income rose sharply because of PADCO's improved potato seeds and agricultural training. With the extra money, he opened a shop – exactly the effect the program hoped for.
But, ironically, Khan and many others in the region are left deeply distrustful of PADCO, and, by extension, the US.
Partly that's because of the secrecy in bidding and the wasteful spending. But a quirk of nature also seemed to increase it: Farmers in the region are convinced the new potato seeds brought the Colorado potato beetle, a voracious pest. It eats leaves, causing "lots of disadvantage" to the crop, says Khan.
There is plenty of evidence to show that the beetles already existed nearby and were not introduced here by PADCO, says Andrei Alyokhin, a potato beetle expert at the University of Maine, Orono, and unconnected to the project.
But the farmer, Khan, also believes PADCO compounded the beetle problem. To reduce use of insecticide, PADCO paid farmers to catch beetles (at $5 per bottle of 1,000 beetles). So farmers began breeding them in their homes, Khan says.
The beetle has taken away some of the gains in yield and much goodwill toward America.
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PADCO declined to comment on the project. However, the Monitor visited portions of it and interviewed six former PADCO employees and numerous Afghan officials and residents of Badakhshan.
USAID refused interviews with staff in Badakhshan. Only after two months of requests did the agency grant two interviews: One with Jim Bever, head of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy for USAID, who could only go on the findings of the USAID evaluation and talk broadly about agency reforms; the other with a USAID staffer who'd worked as a PADCO contractor – but wasn't allowed to be quoted.
Mr. Bever's bottom line: "We and our Afghan partners probably overreached in terms of what we had hoped would be the results of the program in the time frame allotted. I think we need to learn the lessons from this effort."
But Bever resisted seeing some project failures as the responsibility of USAID. For instance, responsibility for maintaining the crumbling road to Argo falls to the Afghan government, he says. The same goes for some other elements of the project that proved unsustainable, including a veterinary lab in Faizabad that diagnosed samples sent by refrigerated car from sick animals. The lab is closed because the provincial government can't pay staff.
Local Afghan officials explain that they are, in fact, broke. USAID counters that the American government gives large sums to the Afghan government to spend as it sees fit on government services.
In one silver lining, PADCO also built 30 vet clinics, all of which operate today thanks to salary support from an aid group. An Afghan veterinary official lauded the construction of the clinics, which make it easier to get treatment for livestock.
USAID created an atmosphere of frantic urgency about the "burn rate" – a measure of how quickly money is spent. Emphasis gets put on spending fast to make room for the next batch from Congress.
Mistakes such as the Baharak canal and the Argo road – made under the heat of deadline toward the end of the four-year project – can be traced to unexpected delays at the beginning of the project.