US Foreign AID: Developmentally Disabled?

Kemater Alm (Austria) in September 2003. A cow...Image via Wikipedia

Remember Senator Leahy calling USAID “a check-writing agency” in Ken Dilanian’s article in USA TODAY? Well, here is Ken Silverstein, the Washington Editor for Harper’s Magazine in this month’s issue:

“Staff and budget cuts, which began in the 1980’s and accelerated under the Bush Administration, transformed USAID from an agency that ran its own development projects into a pass-through for taxpayer money to private companies and nonprofits, many of which seems to exist only to garner government contracts.”

Nothing more than a check-signing agency? A pass-through as in “transit”? Why not a water trough, given all the goats and cows that drink from it? duit

Ken Silverstein pens Developmentally Disabled: Why foreign aid to Afghanistan stays in America in the September issue of the magazine. It is a shocking catalog of what has been done in the name of development. And he’s only talking about Afghanistan, where $7.9 million billion has been allocated in the last 7 years and where he said “much of this money […] never made it to Afghanistan, largely because half of all USAID funds end up being spent on American companies.”

According to this piece, USAID hired a contractor in 2002 to conduct an assessment of Afghanistan’s infrastructure need, “essentially allowing the company to determine the need for projects on which it would later bid.” It seems that road building is a popular project in Afghanistan. Silverstein writes that 20% of USAID funding in the country is allocated to road building. So I went and look it up. Here is the lowdown: in FY2002 – FY2006 Obligations, roads accounted for 24% of the money in Afghanistan. But in FY2007 – FY2008, roads accounted for 30% of the total budget request – just $763 million and change. In fact, according to SIGAR’s report to Congress, USAID is overseeing the Ring Road project, which is working to rehabilitate the Afghan roadway system. When completed, approximately 60% of Afghans will live within 50 km of the Ring Road. As of September 2008, more than 1,650 miles of road had been constructed or rehabilitated with support from USAID.

Of course, no one expects USAID employees to actually do the building of roads; it’s not an inherent government function. So the professional road builders were called in, just like the school builders were called in, as well as experts in power, alternative agriculture, democracy, rule of law, etc. etc. etc.

This will make you cringe as a taxpayer; cover your eyes if you don’t want to get mad:

Some items Silverstein cited in this article would make any taxpayer cringe, understandably and may make you want to throw shoes at your computer monitor:

  • The Kandahar-Kabul-Heart highway was a project originally estimated at $155 million. By the time it was completed, a year later than contracted, it cost $730 million.
  • A nonprofit group contracted to build 60 schools and clinics completed nine and 19 months later, the company had “pulled all of its officials […] before USAID’s Office of Inspector General could audit the project.”
  • Silverstein calls “Technical Assistance” a code for “near-mandatory consulting programs.” USAID consultants can earn up to $1,000 a day, and the total annual cost of one contract employee can reach $500,000.
  • Tragicomic results: Silverstein says that experts sent did not bother to confer with counterparts on the ground. A company was contracted to rebuild Afghanistan’s agricultural economy including repair and upgrade of the irrigation canals in Helmand Province. Helmand, of course, is the world’s largest opium-producing region, responsible for 42% of the world’s total production. Silverstein concludes that “in effect, USAID helped finance a surge in the world’s heroin supply.”

The last item is too funny; if only it does not make me want to bang my head on my newly painted wall and scream waaa!

And that’s not even the best part – Silverstein writes that “Many firms responsible for the problems in Afghanistan continue to win contracts” and that one company is actually is hiring for the position of “chief of party” for an anticipated USAID project. No language proficiency in Dari or Pashto, or experience in the region needed. But apparently the company had the good sense to require fluency in English. {Oh, holy mother of goat and all her fancy nephews!}

Harper’s Online is only available to subscribers. You may read the issue highlights here (see page 2) or if you have a subscription to Harper’s you may access the full article here (see page 68).

As an aside – SIGAR told Congress in July it is examining how USAID provides oversight of contracts for Afghanistan reconstruction. Auditors are reviewing USAID’s current contract files as well as prior work done by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the USAID Office of the Inspector General (USAID OIG), and the Commission on Wartime Contracting concerning USAID contract oversight and project requirement issues. Its auditors are also reviewing the contracts that U.S. agencies have with one of the companies mentioned in Silverstein’s report. The audit, which is assessing the agencies’ oversight of the contractor as well as contractor performance, is scheduled for completion during the third quarter of 2009.

Who has the cojones to clean this up?

I supposed if you follow the money, and you look under enough rocks you would eventually end up at the root cause of this problem. You might even be able to bring some of that money back and start reconstruction at home, you know. But I just don’t know who has the cojones to clean this up.

Secretary Clinton’s QDDR help do the job?

President Obama has recently signed Presidential Study Directive authorizing a U.S. government-wide review of global development policy. The review is co-chaired by National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones and the chairman of the National Economic Council Larry Summers according to this report. Review is not action, but it’s a good place to start providing that they allow themselves to look at the brutal facts, the numbers game and who’s feeding from this trough.


Updated: SIGAR info added.