Bergen Record: Watchdog group accuses contractor of shoddy Afghan work

Contractor Louis Berger Group has endured killings, kidnappings, armed insurgent attacks and harsh climate while helping to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan.

Now, the East Orange company faces a new problem: criticism at home.

A report by an Oakland, Calif., watchdog group accuses the engineering and construction management company of shoddy, overly expensive work rebuilding Afghanistan that typifies the failure of the U.S. government's effort there.

The 35-page report was compiled by Corpwatch, a non-profit group that monitors the behavior of global companies on issues such as human rights, the environment and corruption.

The report calls Louis Berger's work building and refurbishing Afghan schools and clinics an "unmitigated disaster." It cites a highway construction project overseen by Louis Berger that required maintenance even before completion.

And schools built by the company were twice the cost of similar structures constructed by Japanese contractors, the report says.

Corpwatch concedes the company was hampered by difficult conditions, including poor planning by the U.S. International Agency for Development (USAID). The agency has awarded contracts worth $665 million for work in Afghanistan since 2002.

And for all the problems, the report said, Louis Berger had two notable successes in Afghanistan. It helped introduce a new currency. And it built a 300-mile highway that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Bush hailed as a top priority in the country's reconstruction.

Louis Berger officials vigorously rejected the suggestion that the company performed poorly.

Vice President Tom Nicastro acknowledged that there were problems with the schools and clinics. But he said they accounted for less than 2 percent of the company's work in Afghanistan, and that all the problems have been fixed at no expense to USAID.

Derish Wolff, Louis Berger's chairman, said that aside from a few negative comments, the report merely reflects the "classic views of nation building and reconstruction."

There is a constant trade-off, for instance, between building for permanency - which is expensive - and making cheaper, less durable structures, he said.

"We could have done it better," Wolff said. "But we are pleased."

In addition, Wolff said, some projects were more difficult to complete because USAID wanted to use Afghan contractors, who have less experience.

Asked about the report, USAID released a statement that the company is a "good implementing partner." Louis Berger has "been very responsive to issues that have arisen while rebuilding schools and clinics," the statement said.

Adverse conditions are nothing new for Louis Berger. Its 53-year history includes postwar reconstruction work in Liberia, the Philippines and Nicaragua. The company is currently building transportation and communications infrastructure in Iraq.

Corpwatch studied Berger's work in Afghanistan along with that of several other contractors, giving considerable space to the East Orange company in the report because its contract was the largest.

Corpwatch concluded that the contractors "are pocketing millions, and leaving behind a people increasingly frustrated and angry with the results."

Nicastro, however, noted that a Washington Post-ABC poll taken in December found that 77 percent of Afghanis surveyed felt the country was going in the right direction.

Yet the report cited numerous difficulties facing Berger in Afghanistan. These included delays caused by "poor planning, severe weather, and the fact that the construction in some regions was occurring in an active war zone."

So far, 80 people - among them 18 non-Afghan professionals - have been killed working on projects supervised by Berger, according to the report.

In one case, a Berger construction engineer, Suzanne Wheeler of Texas, flew in with a team to monitor a subcontractor building a school in Kandahar.

"Insurgents ambushed their helicopter as it was leaving," the report says, adding that one passenger died and Wheeler was shot three times in the stomach and once in the leg.

The reconstruction was also hampered by poor coordination between the Afghan government and the donors, "a lack of leadership, and the widespread local corruption," the report said. Contractors were under pressure to finish projects quickly to please Karzai and the Bush administration, both of whom were up for reelection, the report said.

The report gave these examples of Berger's work:

* After heavy snow damaged two roofs, the company replaced 22 roofs it had previously built and fortified another 67 roofs at an added "cost of millions of dollars." Nicastro said there were problems with the initial design that were later corrected.

* While the Japanese built new schools with 12 classrooms for $90,000 to $100,000, Berger's average cost for such structures was $274,000. Nicastro said he didn't believe the claim, suggesting the schools were not comparable.

* A "model" clinic built by Berger in Galai Qazi was soon "falling apart." The report said, "The ceiling had rotted away in patches; the plumbing, when it worked, leaked and shuddered; the chimney, made of flimsy metal, threatened to set the roof on fire; the sinks had no running water; and the place smelled of sewage."

* Another Berger clinic was built on land prone to earthquakes and will now "be demolished and built elsewhere." Nicastro said all the schools and clinics have now been handed over to Afghan authorities and are in good shape.


Louis Berger Group Inc.

Location: East Orange (with offices worldwide)

Business: Infrastructure engineer; consultant on economic development and environmental science

Employees: 4,000

Work in Afghanistan: Rebuilding schools, clinics, highways and other infrastructure. Helped introduce a new currency.

Source: Louis Berger Group

AMP Section Name:Corpwatch in the News

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