Afghanistan aid delivery shortfall a security risk

An international agency's report says 40 percent of aid destined for Afghans is spent on overhead costs.

Humanitarian agencies say peace in Afghanistan, a key battleground in combating Islamic militancy, is being undermined by a $10 billion shortfall in aid deliveries, with the United States among those failing to heed their pledges. Ninety percent of public spending in Afghanistan comes from international aid, and the shortfall could exacerbate critical security issues, which have already hindered the delivery of aid money.

The report, by Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), a 95-member coalition of private agencies, said that about $15 billion had been spent so far to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan. But an estimated 40 percent of that money spent went to foreign consultants, private security contractors, and other overheads – a "staggering" proportion, according to the report.

The aid money is in addition to foreign military spending. NATO counties have about 41,000 troops in Afghanistan, where many face off against Taliban fighters and other factions opposed to foreign intervention. NATO countries, which have squabbled in recent months over their troops levels, meet next week in Bucharest, Romania. At the summit, France is expected to announce a sharp increase in its contingent, currently at 1,500 personnel, while pressing NATO for a broader political strategy to help stabilize Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a close ally of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has told the BBC that local communities should take over the fight against the Taliban. Education Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said NATO should not send more troops to Afghanistan, but instead focus on training Afghans to combat militants, something he called the "Afghanization" of security. He said this strategy had already worked in southeastern provinces where the Taliban are active.

In its report, ACBAR identifies the major donors to Afghanistan as the US, the European Union, the World Bank, several European countries, and Japan. It compares the $25 billion pledged to rebuild Afghanistan in the wake of the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban government with the amount of actual money spent so far.

ACBAR includes international humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, CARE, Islamic Relief, and Save the Children, Bloomberg reports. The group says too much aid from rich countries "is wasted, ineffective, or uncoordinated." Between 2002 and 2008, the US, the largest donor to Afghanistan, has distributed half of its $10.4 billion commitment, the report claims, while the EU and Germany delivered about two-thirds of their commitment of $1.7 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively.

The report is one of several recent studies that have identified inefficiencies in aid delivery to Afghanistan, says The New York Times. In response, the UN Security Council recently invested greater coordination authority in its mission to Afghanistan. The report highlights the waste in US government contracting, using an airport road in Kabul as an example, the Times reports. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) spent more than $3 million a mile to build the road, four times what ACBAR estimates as the average cost of road-building in Afghanistan.

[USAID] does not finance development through the government but works through profitmaking contractors who often subcontract the work to other companies. "Vast sums of aid are lost in the corporate profits of contractors and subcontractors, which can be as high as 50 percent on a single contract," the report said.

The use of foreign consultants is also costly, at $250,000 to $500,000 a year for each, because of high salaries, generous living allowances and security expenses.

A USAID official told the Associated Press that the US government is "on track to provide to Afghanistan that it pledged." Acting deputy administrator Jim Kunder said he understood the concerns over the pace of reconstruction projects but said the report didn't take into account that cash earmarked for projects isn't identified as spent until completion.

USAID said it had pledged $25.8 billion, and of that $17.4 billion has been spent or is in the pipeline. Kunder said the money has gone to a broad variety of projects, including "supporting the national elections, constructing roads, reducing infant mortality by 22 percent, putting more than four million Afghan children in schools."

Agence France-Presse reports that German officials dismissed the report's findings, saying that 76 percent of $1.4 billion that Germany pledged to Afghanistan through 2010 was in the pipeline by the end of 2007. A German overseas development minister said the country was the fourth-biggest bilateral donor and a trusted partner to Afghanistan.

For its part, Britain has said that 80 percent of its aid is channeled through the Afghan government in order to allow it stand on its own feet in future, reports London's Daily Telegraph. However, a member of the Afghan parliament alleged that only 11 cents in every aid dollar spent was going to Afghans, with the rest siphoned off to Western donors.

Earlier this month, the UN said that about 10 percent of Afghanistan was off-limits to humanitarian workers because of the Taliban insurgency, echoing a US intelligence assessment, the Associated Press reported. In that report, the UN said violence in 2007 was at the highest level since the US-led invasion in 2001. Conflict-related deaths were put at more than 8,000, including 1,500 civilian deaths.

Meanwhile, the French government is preparing to send more troops to Afghanistan, reports the Financial Times. President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to commit as many as 1,000 extra troops to serve under either NATO or US command, depending on their location in southeast Afghanistan.

But before he makes a final decision, Mr Sarkozy wants other alliance countries to sign up to a broader political and diplomatic strategy that provides for an eventual hand-over of security to Afghan authorities, places more emphasis on civil reconstruction and engages with Afghanistan's neighbours, particularly Pakistan.
"This cannot just be a military decision taken out of the broader political context," said a French government official.
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