Plan Aims To Assure Afghanistan Aid Goes Where It's Supposed To

This coming week, the U.S. Agency for International Development plans to announce a new monitoring program that is designed to keep track of the aid dollars being spent in Afghanistan. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Larry Sampler, head of USAID programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We turn our attention now to Afghanistan, where a presidential election is in high gear. The biggest election issue: how to secure Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops leave at the end of this year. Here in the U.S., planning is also underway for the drawdown, so tomorrow, the U.S. Agency for International Development will unveil an aid package for Afghanistan worth hundreds of millions of dollars meant to boost and stabilize the economy there after American and international forces are gone. At the same time, a government watchdog group has accused USAID of wasting taxpayer dollars on aid programs that do not work. Larry Sampler, who heads up USAID in Afghanistan says monitoring their own projects has gotten more difficult.

LARRY SAMPLER: Eight years ago, we could move freely throughout the country and monitoring a program was as simple as visiting the program, or even better, as visiting with the village elders or even the at-risk population the program was intended to help. Getting out to see those populations now is much more difficult for government employees.

MARTIN: I realize the details are still being worked out. You can't reveal everything about the program. But can you give us some sense...

SAMPLER: Sure.

MARTIN: ...as to how it will work if you don't have people going to check on these programs, how are you...

SAMPLER: Sure.

MARTIN: ...going to make sure they're being implemented right?

SAMPLER: First, every program that we design now has monitoring as part of the design of the program. So, if we're doing an alternative crop program - so, we want farmers to plant wheat or some other food group crop instead of poppy, that's really easily monitored by flying a plane over the top and taking photographs. And we can then do imagery analysis. It tells us exactly how many acres of the crop have been planted. Is it getting enough water? Is it getting the right nutrients? We can do that assessment from the air.

MARTIN: U.S. combat troops are, at this point, supposed to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. What does that mean for the people who work for your organization, who have been there for a decade or more trying to make sure these aid programs work?

SAMPLER: We've worked hand in glove with the military since they first showed up. But we also work in theaters around the world where we don't have international military troops present.

MARTIN: Another complicating factor is the relationship with the Afghan government. How important is it for you to know that you have a stable and reliable partner in the Afghan government? Because, as you know, many of the Afghan ministries have been accused of wasting, if not outright stealing, a lot of those U.S. dollars.

SAMPLER: Yeah. With respect to accusations of fraud, waste and abuse, we go after that very aggressively. At the first hint of impropriety with U.S. resources, we stop, we examine. There were a couple of programs very specifically that we terminated after time because the first allegations came in. We suspended the work, we investigated. We didn't have evidence of criminality. But there was enough concern about the program going forward that we just stopped it and we found other ways to accomplish those goals.

MARTIN: But, again, getting back to the question of whether or not you need a reliable partner in the Afghan government - do you need that relationship to be stable, and is it?

SAMPLER: We absolutely do need a partner in the Afghan government to create an Afghanistan that is a self-sustaining democratic society. Some of our programs, it's less necessary. We can do health programs. We can do inoculations and disease prevention through NGOs. But it's always our desire to work through the host national government. People talk about the government of Afghanistan as a monolithic beast, and it's really not. There is President Karzai. There are individual ministries. There are within the ministries individual offices. And we find that all these different elements of the government have different strengths and weaknesses and different capacities. And we have to build that capacity so that 10 years from now we can begin taking ourselves out of this business.

MARTIN: You think that can happen in 10 years?

SAMPLER: I think that can happen. Ten years, I don't know. That's kind of my goal. I've said publicly in other forum, we're not looking to build a Switzerland in 10 years. I want to see Afghanistan that's on a path of self-sustaining democratic governance and a society that respects its population regardless of gender or ethnicity and that has an economic chance. And I do think that can happen, and they can be well on the way to that in 10 years.

MARTIN: Larry Sampler with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He leads the programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He joined us in our studios here in Washington. Thanks so much for coming in.

SAMPLER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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