Afghanistan war: USAID spends too much, too fast to win hearts and minds
In the Afghanistan war, it's quantity vs. quality: The USAID battle for hearts and minds is being lost just as President Obama's 'civilian surge' prepares to more than double annual assistance to $5 billion.
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During the cold war, Washington funded USAID to compete with the Soviet Union in winning foreign friends. With the Soviet collapse, Washington gutted USAID, forcing out many technical experts who'd spent time in the field. The agency became dominated by contract managers with little institutional memory. Between 1995 and 2007, 45 percent of the Foreign Service officer corps reached retirement age. And this decade, USAID tackled Iraq and Afghan reconstruction without new staffing.Skip to next paragraph
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"Until the Obama administration, USAID's personnel and authority had been systematically diminishing over time," says Paul O'Brien, vice president of policy at Oxfam America. While internal USAID protocols recommend each manager oversee roughly $10 million in grants, in Afghanistan the number was topping $100 million, he says.
A "civilian surge" beginning last fall increased the number of American USAID officers in Afghanistan from 90 to 270. USAID says the amount of money each officer is overseeing has stabilized or decreased. With the added staff and its wider footprint, USAID is confident the agency can manage the money.
"We have US private firms and US private volunteer firms who have shown they can handle [the money] responsibly," says James Bever, USAID's Afghan and Pakistan operations chief. "Yes, sometimes there are problems – and [inspectors] have picked up on those cases."
Though USAID says the adjustment allows more staff to get out of Kabul and into the field, one of the government employees deployed as part of the surge says many of his colleagues outside Kabul still are trapped on bases due to security restrictions. And they end up overseeing cash-for-work programs that don't require agricultural or engineering expertise.
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One inspector charged with finding problems says it's too soon to know how much the civilian surge has helped.
But, says John Brummet, a top auditor with SIGAR, "more attention is needed on increasing the capacity of the Afghan institutions to help deal with this. We should strengthen those offices because they can play a role in bringing more accountability and hopefully bringing less corruption to these large sums of money."
A successful example of that is the $1 billion spent on the NSP. The money is carved up into chunks of $30,000 or so and given to villages to spend on projects of their choice, with locally elected leaders held accountable by their neighbors.
USAID says the agency is working to rely less on large international contractors and more on building Afghan institutional capacity, but transition time is required. USAID is channeling more money through the Afghan government to fund programs like the NSP. But the big pieces of Afghanistan's infrastructure skeleton can't be tackled by small-scale nongovernmental organizations and bottom-up approaches like the NSP, says Mr. O'Brien of Oxfam. Big projects should still be attempted, but with more involvement from pockets of competence in the Afghan government. "What happens in Afghanistan may end up shaping the broader development agenda," says O'Brien. "It would be a real tragedy if the outcome of the Afghanistan story is that money just can't be spent responsibly."
• Correspondent Edward Girardet contributed to this report.
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