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.
(Page 5 of 5)
Just getting staff in the first place was a challenge. "We were always down a third of the staff until the end," says Graham. "For periods of time I was [also] running the engineering office and I was saying to people, 'If we design a bridge while I am in charge ... don't walk over it!' "Skip to next paragraph
Project workers from the outside had some reason to fear. In 2006, three Afghan workers for PADCO were killed and two American workers injured when their car was hit by a roadside bomb in Badakhshan. On the other hand, it has always been among the safest provinces.
By the end of the project, PADCO staffers traveled with armed escorts. A former Afghan staffer says the coterie of gunmen prompted one farmer to joke that maybe they came along to shoot the potato beetles.
Security directives keep USAID staff cloistered in their Kabul compound. On this project, that meant only one expatriate staffer for USAID was on the ground in Badakhshan – sometimes none. Turnover was high during the PADCO project, with at least six different people holding the job. When the project concluded, an Afghan employee was the only USAID representative on the ground. He – not an American – would be the one to check the work on the Baharak canal and send the "all done" back to Kabul. That monitoring situation is not rare, says Bever.
"That's the reality of aid in these kind of conflict zones where American government officers have difficulty getting out or don't have enough of them to get out," he says. During the final months of the project, USAID in Afghanistan was extremely short-staffed, and Badakhshan is "the most far-flung part of the world."
However, this Monitor investigation only spent a week on the ground and a few thousand dollars to uncover the hydropower falsehoods in the completion report that apparently went unnoticed by USAID. Outside evaluators found many of the same problems, but some 17 months after PADCO packed up.
• • •
Over the four-year project, United Nations data show, poppy cultivation fell in Badakhshan by 99 percent.
In 2005, Badakhshan was a province that had to import wheat to feed its people; by 2008, it was an exporter to other parts of Afghanistan, says USAID. Markets in places like Baharak that once had half a dozen vegetable traders now have scores.
Graham even defends PADCO's work: "The project was bringing in ways that people could make money and not grow poppy."
The final evaluation report ordered by USAID found that the project created up to $40 million in economic benefits, falling short of the $60 million spent. But while the project "was not as effective as it should have been," the report argues, it was still "worthwhile" because it brought "better personal mobility, exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking, improved nutrition, sociopolitical gains, objective evidence of [US government] concern, enhanced economic potential, etc."
But in the end, the US lost this battle in the "other war" for hearts and minds in Afghanistan. No local official is willing to credit PADCO for the successes.
"If we think about this project of alternative livelihoods, this did nothing for the people," says Mosadiq, whose community in Argo promised to stop growing poppy in exchange for the faulty road. "Instead of creating facilities, this created problems for the people."
- Afghanistan war: USAID spends too much, too fast to win hearts and minds
- Afghanistan war: Successful foreign assistance lets Afghans pick their project