Billions For Aid Never Reaches Afghans

The special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction has found it nearly impossible to account for the almost $18 billion spent from 2007 to 2009, declaring that much of the record-keeping was too poor to analyze. An insider from one USAID program says nearly the entire budget was spent on staff salaries, lavish accommodations and security. Some long-standing aid groups in Kabul denounce the flood of money for what they consider the inevitable corruption that comes with it.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin this hour with Afghanistan. In a moment, I'll talk with the former Afghan ambassador to the U.S. In September, he was ordered by the Afghan government to leave his post.

But first, we're going to hear about the complications facing American efforts to rebuild Afghanistan through civilian programs. The programs are part of a larger strategy to flood the country with good governance paid for with American money.

But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul, it's proved impossible to spend that much money without raising serious concerns about waste.

QUIL LAWRENCE: This year, the budget for USAID in Afghanistan has jumped to $3.4 billion. The money goes towards governance, education, agriculture, health and infrastructure. But inevitably, a lot of that money also goes towards security for the programs in Afghanistan, especially for non-Afghan staff.

In one case, that included accommodating the staff of a program here at the Serena, Kabul's only five-star hotel, which charges over $400 a night. All of the foreign staff on a rule of law project run by a contractor called Tetra Tech DPK stayed in the hotel for five months. That, among many other things, pushed Fareed Osman(ph), a consultant on the project, to quit and talk to NPR about what he called waste and incompetence.

Mr. FAREED OSMAN (Former Consultant, Tetra Tech DPK): I was tasked with implementing this project. It's a $35 million rule of law formal sector project. The focus was anywhere but trying to implement the contract.

LAWRENCE: Osman, an Afghan-American, said the group focused more on Kabul's expat nightlife scene than on the Afghan legal system. He says while the staff lacked experience, they still commanded salaries over $200,000 a year. After the costs of security and lodging, Osman says, almost nothing remains for helping Afghans.

Mr. OSMAN: What would it cost for having one person there? You're talking anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 a day, including their daily rate, their lodging, security, et cetera. Percentage-wise, the first year for this contract, we have 15 million allotted for it, and clearly, to me, at least 92 percent was going to security and salaries for expats.

LAWRENCE: The communications adviser for DPK deferred comment to USAID, which issued a statement read by spokesman Mark Dillon(ph).

Mr. MARK DILLON (USAID): The amounts budgeted by DPK for security and personnel costs are comparable to our other programs.

LAWRENCE: USAID said that the DPK program spent something more like 11 percent on security and 33 percent on salaries. DPK moved out of the five-star hotel a few days ago.

But Osman says for all the expense, the rule of law program hasn't delivered anything. He says all the company did was spend tens of thousands of dollars for rule of law kite flying festivals, giving away kites to Afghan children with anti-corruption slogans written on them.

Fareed Osman.

Mr. OSMAN: So what has it delivered? So far, just kites and comic books to people who can't read and write and who are desperate, and they're looking up to us for leadership and for a way forward to generate some hope.

LAWRENCE: This project constitutes a tiny fraction of the USAID funding in Afghanistan, much of which supports aid groups that have worked in the country for decades. But the issue of aid and accountability has become sensitive, especially as Afghans hear that billions are being spent but they don't feel their lives have improved, says Martine van Bijlert of the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network.

Ms. MARTINE VAN BIJLERT (Senior Analyst, Afghanistan Analysts Network): So there's a lot of anger about that, and actually, to announce how much you've spent to prove how much you're doing in the country, only makes people more angry.

LAWRENCE: And Bijlert says much of the money has gone to for-profit development agencies that charge a premium and then subcontract sometimes to another middleman. By the time it reaches the village level, she says, there's not much left.

USAID officials cite numerous oversight bodies, including the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction or SIGAR, but audits so far haven't been encouraging. SIGAR's comprehensive review of the $18 billion in reconstruction money spent by the U.S. in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009 found the bookkeeping had been too poor to be analyzed, leaving it wide open to fraud and waste.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

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