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Congress brings down top auditor of Afghan corruption. Wrong target?

Congress targeted the man responsible for protecting US taxpayer dollars from Afghan corruption, but aid workers say the bigger problem is that the US is sending too much money.

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Congress wasn’t amused. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, chairman of the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, and committee member Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma wrote President Obama requesting Fields be fired.

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Fields's departure

Reacting to Fields’s departure, Senator McCaskill released a statement saying, “Mr. Fields simply was not the right person for this very difficult job. I hope his departure will allow the agency to turn over a new leaf and finally begin to do the important contracting oversight work we so desperately need.”

Ms. Jackson with Ofxam says SIGAR has already done some valuable work, particularly in prying information out of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and military reconstruction groups known as Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

Andrew Wilder, an aid expert at the US Institute for Peace in Washington, says SIGAR has faced a tough task given the poor data available.

“Because of the imperative to spend money quickly, record keeping was very weak, so I’m somewhat sympathetic to those who are trying to conduct audits.” Says Dr. Wilder. “I think it’s gotten better in the last year or two partly because groups like SIGAR have tried to promote [better record-keeping.]”

For Jackson, SIGAR’s work does fall short in comparison to what was accomplished by its companion investigation unit in Iraq, known as SIGIR. The latter’s reports provided a clearer big picture view on reconstruction progress and pitfalls, she says.

And given the repetitive nature of SIGAR’s reports, the ideal leader for the agency would be a more forceful advocate for getting the recommendations implemented, she adds. “[But] this is also the role of Congress. They repeatedly called up Fields to testify … but what is their role in seeing that concrete changes are made?”

At this point, problems such as short tenures for aid workers, a focus on quick results, and poor coordination among the various players in the field are well known. So, too, is the corruption in the Afghan government, a discouraging reality that saps attention from reform efforts on the US side.

Congress's role?

Congress, says Jackson, has responded unhelpfully when its frustration with President Hamid Karzai boils over by issuing “knee-jerk” threats to suspend development dollars.

Wilder agrees that Congress has a role in the mistakes, but from the perspective of throwing too much money into the reconstruction of a country that cannot handle what he calls a “tsunami of cash.”

“I wouldn’t hold the auditors responsible for the corruption in Afghanistan. In addition to those who are actually pocketing the money, I would hold responsible those trying to spend far too much money in a war zone where there is little capacity to implement programs or provide adequate oversight over how funds are spent,” says Wilder.

IN PICTURES: Afghanistan aid

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