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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Things started badly when the schedule, pushed by USAID, failed to factor in the long winter, says Jon Keeton, PADCO's first operations chief in Badakhshan. "They basically shouted at us: 'We must have projects on the ground, dug out, and started before the first snows.' This was in April. The first snows can start in Badakhshan by October. Congress had pushed $750 million that had to be spent."Skip to next paragraph
But the project didn't launch in the first year because USAID in Kabul rejected PADCO's work plan, then three more – including one drafted by a consultant that USAID recommended. (Contract payments can flow only if a full project work plan is approved; absence of a work plan means that each tiny job requires written proposals and approval from USAID in Kabul.)
Mr. Keeton, who was followed by at least three PADCO project directors during the four-year program, describes one exasperating day in which his office worked to design individual projects, and USAID offices in Kabul would counter with different ones. Example: USAID heard of a promising program in eastern Afghanistan to produce vegetable oils and directed Keeton to adopt it. He balked, noting the different climate in Badakhshan. "Later that day," he says, "they changed [marching orders] to something else" in lieu of the oils.
Five months into Keeton's contract, PADCO fired him, saying USAID wanted him removed. His successor left after a few months, and the job fell to Graham, who faced similar frustrations with USAID during his 21-month tenure. "They sat in their compound in Kabul 24 hours a day and they got creative. You know, they had to keep from going nuts," he says. "We would get calls from creative people who had ideas and we were told to implement their ideas, and these folks didn't have a clue."
Finally, a year into the project, the fifth work plan was accepted – but Graham believes it happened because everyone waited for the USAID officer who'd denied past plans to go on vacation.
"It's almost unique in my experience as an AID officer that we would go through that many iterations to try to get closure on a work plan," Bever says, unable to confirm that four were rejected.
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By May 2007, USAID determined that the project was not meeting midterm goals: Only 56 kilometers of roads were built toward a midterm target of 367 kilometers; and only 543 kilometers of irrigation canals had been built, with 945 kilometers targeted. Even by the end of the project, PADCO never achieved those midterm goals, having completed just 278 kilometers of roads and 576 kilometers of canals. The final targets appear to have been scaled down so that PADCO could claim to have "100 percent complete" on every line item – including the Baharak power canal.
USAID officials repeatedly stress the remoteness of Badakhshan as key to the project's slow start and subsequent problems: In 2005, it took a 24-hour drive from the nearest city of Kunduz to get to Badakhshan; there were no local contractors and there wasn't a single bulldozer in the province. PADCO had to spend a lot of time, therefore, training locals on construction.
Still, Keeton was dismayed by the degree of reliance on outsiders in the beginning. Cars and drivers were brought from Kabul, prompting protests from local drivers.
Some expatriate staffers, meanwhile, weren't prepared to rough it: One Indian engineer arrived with only city shoes, no work boots.
Keeton, a former Peace Corps volunteer, describes a staff meeting where he made it clear that premium salaries meant employees were being paid to go into the field: "[They] just looked at me ... 'What do you mean walk? What do you mean spend overnights in the villages?' "
On a trip to a remote site, Keeton recalls how the engineer in city shoes simply refused to walk across a fallen tree to cross a stream. Finally, a young Afghan picked him up and forded the water. "It was so humiliating."