Afghans are losing their faith in the development experts whose job is to reconstruct and rebuild their country. While the quality of life for most is modestly improved, they were promised much more. What the people see is a handful of foreign companies setting priorities for reconstruction that make the companies wealthy, yet are sometimes absurdly contrary to what is necessary.
On paper, it looks as though the international community has been awash in altruism and generosity toward Afghanistan. But most of the money allocated to Afghanistan never actually reaches Kabul; the U.S. and the international community have a system, through world financial institutions, that treats the country like a massive money laundering machine. The money rarely leaves the countries that pledge it; USAID gives contracts to American companies (and the World Bank and IMF give contracts to companies from their donor countries) who take huge chunks off the top and hire layers and layers of subcontractors who take their cuts, leaving only enough for sub-par construction. Quality assurance is minimal; contractors know well they can swoop in, put a new coat of paint on a rickety building, and submit their bill, with rarely a question asked. The result is collapsing hospitals, clinics, and schools, rutted and dangerous new highways, a “modernized” agricultural system that has actually left some farmers worse off than before, and emboldened militias and warlords who are more able to unleash violence on the people of Afghanistan.
To be fair, some progress has been made in Afghanistan, if you look closely enough. There is more freedom of expression, and gradually basic amenities such as sewers and running water, and reliable electricity are reaching more of the country. For the past five years, I have been traveling to my home country Afghanistan and I lived there for most of the past two years. When I first returned after 19 years away, the Taliban was in control, and the opium trade constituted the entirety of the country’s economic activity. Today opium accounts for nearly 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. But there are new opportunities and hope slowly emerging for the average Afghan.
The frustration here is not with the drug trade; indeed, drug traffickers are financing some of the best reconstruction the country has seen. The frustration is with the inefficiency and greed that riddles the aid efforts meant to lift Afghanistan up and into the modern age. The financial institutions and the contractors to whom they award multi-million-dollar projects rarely bother to consult with the government agencies that might be able to give them a sense of what is most needed.
Afghans have pleaded to be allowed to allocate aid money as they see fit. And donor countries continue to object, claiming that the Afghan government is too corrupt to be trusted. No doubt, corruption is a problem in Afghanistan, where business-as-usual generally involves bribes. But Afghan ministers decry the characterization, saying the no-bid, open-ended contracts the U.S. and the international community award contractors such as Ashbritt, Halliburton, DynCorp, Louis Berger, Blackwater, and others is little more than a dressed-up form of bribery and corruption. In the end, Afghanistan is hugely indebted to the international community, but barely enriched.
I was warned by one of my sources in the United States that I might be doing a grave disservice to my country by publishing this report. If it cast the United States’ aid efforts in a bad light, he warned, it might jeopardize future aid money. And again I was reminded that post-war Afghanistan is not truly free, but completely subject to the whims of major corporations who see it as a cash cow, and of nations who view it as geopolitical keystone in an increasingly unstable Central Asia.
My object is not to demonize all contractors in Afghanistan, but rather the system that not only enables, but encourages abuse. The first step to reforming the fatally flawed contracting system is to subject it to safeguards ensuring accountability and transparency. Taxpayers in the United States would no doubt object to their money, earmarked for Afghanistan, paying for failed projects, let alone contractors’ prostitutes and imported cheeses. We must hold these contracts up to the light, exposing how some are awarded in exchange for political contributions, demanding accountability down to the dollar, and rooting out waste and abuse. While USAID, the World Bank, and the IMF all claim to have strict rules and regulations, a look at the data shows that the rules are regularly bent or ignored, and virtually never enforced. Millions go unaccounted for. Meanwhile, citizens in Kabul have a brand-new mall, but still no reliable electricity.
It will also be crucial to help the Afghans root out corruption and give them the tools to make decisions on their own behalf. In December 2005, Afghans and international donor groups signed the Strategic Objectives Agreement (SOAG), which provides a framework for closer cooperation and more Afghan input. Let’s see if what’s on paper will be implemented.
Meanwhile, the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, directly threatening ongoing reconstruction. Some of the fighting is simply the result of deep frustration and distrust among Afghans who no longer believe the international community is looking out for their best interests. Further, deliberate use of warlords and militias in reconstruction efforts has only lent them more credibility and power, further undermining the elected government and fueling a Taliban-led insurgency that continues to gain power. The basic infrastructure in the country is in shambles; the drug trade is booming. This result should be seen as a major setback to the “War on Terror.” To Afghans, who after decades of war, believed they would finally catch a break, it’s a heartbreak.
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