Report Takes Dim View of Afghan Rebuilding Work

Writing for the non-profit group CorpWatch, journalist Fariba Nawa tells Renee Montagne she found evidence of flawed work on schools, health clinics, roads and other public projects financed by the United States and other countries.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Attacks by fighters for the ousted Taliban regime are on the rise in Southern Afghanistan, just as NATO expands its presence in the region. That and other violence has plagued the $10 billion international effort to rebuild Afghanistan.

Rebuilding also has been troubled by mismanagement and waste, much of it detailed in a report published this week by CorpWatch, a California-based group that investigates alleged wrongdoing by international corporations.

The author is an Afghan-American journalist, Fariba Nawa. She ticked off some of the problems with the schools, clinics, and other projects built with aid money from the U.S. and other countries.

Ms. FARIBA NAWA (Journalist): Shoddy construction, design flaws, not taking into consideration weather conditions and security conditions, building clinics on an earthquake-prone zone, on a landslide, in which they had to demolish and rebuild it again, building roofs that were damaged after the first winter, roads that were built, and as they were being built, were being damaged. These were some of the problems.

MONTAGNE: There is a little road that you use as an example of problems that are out there, more or less invisible, and that is in this area, Sheberghan.

Ms. NAWA: Right. It's in the north of Afghanistan bordering Uzbekistan. This was a political road. Right before the 2004 Afghan elections, President Hamid Karzai and then Ambassador, American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, went up to this area to campaign and promised the local residents there a 10 meter wide asphalt road.

Now, what they got was not asphalt and it was eight meters wide and it didn't have shoulders nor a median and it cost $15 million, most of which went to overhead, profits, and it took several contractors to actually build this road. And so with each project, the way the system works is that the donor gives it to a contractor, which then subcontracts out to a few other companies and each one takes a profit and its overhead. So by the time it actually gets to the road, so much money has been siphoned off that the actual product that the people are getting is a bad road or a bad clinic.

MONTAGNE: And in the case of this road, you write it wasn't just a bad road, but it actually caused some harm.

Ms. NAWA: Basically, one of the issues was that the road was built atop a raised berm, and it posed a flood hazard to the mud homes and villages that were built there. And those villagers were saying that, well, when the rainy season comes, there's no drainage for the water and our homes are going to fall apart. So they started to dig into the road to create a drainage, and they got arrested for it. And the contractor and the Afghan -- the Afghan government really had very little say in this matter, because it was the donor that decided, and the donor in this case was USAID, decided what kind of road they wanted to build and where and how.

MONTAGNE: Which does bring -- it brings us to something else that comes out here. One of the reasons that donor countries don't want to give to the Afghan government is it's a new government and the fear has been that it will either lead to corruption or that corruption will somehow swallow up all the money and things won't get done.

Ms. NAWA: Local corruption is a big problem, but I think there are many qualified Afghans in the local government, especially Afghan-Americans, Afghan-Germans, Afghans coming back from the West and other countries, that have been trained and skilled, who can do the job. Also, locals who are willing to be trained. And that's part of the problem is that, I think, more money needs to go into training the local population than bringing in foreign advisers and foreign skilled workers to do the job, because they do the job and they leave, and once the road needs maintenance, who does the maintenance? There's no more money and there's no skilled labor.

So it's a very short-term solution to a long-term problem.

MONTAGNE: Even though there are all these problems, are people in Afghanistan happy to have some new schools and roads, even if they have problems? Because many of these didn't exist in the first place.

Ms. NAWA: That's very true, Renee. I think that I want to emphasize, there have been a lot of improvements. We just have a long way to go. Unfortunately, if we don't put in a system of accountability and transparency, I think it will be going backwards.

MONTAGNE: Fariba Nawa is a journalist and author of the report Afghanistan, Inc. Much of the work cited in her report was managed by the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey based engineering consulting firm. The company's chairman, Derish M. Wolff, told NPR there were some problems with some of its projects in Afghanistan, but he said the work had to be done quickly under extremely difficult circumstances and, in general, the company was quote "very pleased" with the results.

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