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"People are Dying of Starvation in Kabul"

Billions Down the Drain in Useless US Afghan Aid



Beautiful but fake photographs are often the only evidence that companies have carried out expensive aid projects located in parts of Afghanistan too dangerous for donors to visit.

“I went to see a food processing plant in the east of the country which was meant to employing 250 women,” says an Afghan who used to work for an American government aid organization. “We had started the project and were paying for the equipment and the salaries. But when I visited the site all I found was a few people working on a vegetable plot the size of a small room.”    

When he angrily complained about the non-existent plant he was told by a local official to keep his mouth shut. He said that “if I did not keep quiet there would be trouble on the road back to Jalalabad ? in other words they would kill me.”

As President Obama prepares his review of how his Afghan strategy is working to be issued next week he is likely to focus on military progress.

But the most extraordinary failure of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan is that the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars has had so little impact on the misery in which 30 million Afghans live.  Since 2001 the US alone has provided $52 billion in aid, two thirds for security and one third for economic, social and political development.

Despite this some nine million Afghans live in absolute poverty while a further five million, considered ‘not poor’, try to survive on $43 a month.“Things look alright to foreigners but in fact people are dying of starvation in Kabul,” says Abdul Qudus, a man with a deeply lined face in his forties, who sells second-hand clothes and shoes on a street corner in the capital. They are little more than rags, lying on display on the half frozen mud.

“I buy and sell clothes for between 10 and 30 Afghanis (two to six cents) and even then there are people who are too poor to buy them, “ says Mr Qudus. “I myself am very poor and sometimes I don’t eat so I can feed my children.” He says he started selling second hand clothes two years ago when he lost his job washing carpets.

US officials admit privately that the torrent of aid money that has poured into Afghanistan has stoked corruption and done ordinary Afghans little good. Aimed at improving economic and social conditions in order to reduce support for the Taliban it is having the reverse effect of destabilizing the country. Afghanistan was identified as the third most corrupt country out of 178 in the world in a report released yesterday by Transparency International.

“The aid projects are too big, carried out in too short a time, and the places they are located are too remote,” says a diplomat. He recalled that he was unable to monitor a road construction project in Kunar province in the east, because he was not allowed for security reasons to visit areas where he and his team could not be protected by indirect fire. Afghan and Americans who have overseen aid projects agree that the ‘quick fix’ approach has been disastrous. Schools that local people may not need are equipped with computers in districts where there is no electric power or fresh water.

The flood of money has had little success in reducing economic hardship. “It has all messed up into one big soup,” says Karolina Oloffson, head of advocacy and communication for the Afghan NGO Integrity Watch Afghanistan. Aid organizations are judge by the amount of money they spend rather than any productive outcome.

“The US has a highly capitalist approach and seeks to deliver aid through private companies,” she says. “It does not like to use NGOs which its officials consider too idealistic.”

Big contracts are given to large US companies that are used to a complicated bidding process, can produce appropriate paper work, and are well connected in Washington. The problem is that much of Afghanistan is far too dangerous for these companies to carry out work themselves or monitor sub-contractors.

In his office in Kabul Hedayutullah, the owner of the Noor Taq-e-Zafar Construction Company, says that there is a simple reason why the quality of work is so poor. He says: “Let us say the main US contractor has a contract worth $2.5 million donated by a foreign government. He will take a 20 per cent administrative fee and find a sub-contractor, who will sub-contract to an Afghan company, which may sub-contract again. At the end of the day only $1.4 million may be there for building the project which is too little to do it properly.”

Progress of schemes is often monitored by photographs of work in progress. In one small but typical case an Afghan company was paid to build and get running a tractor repair shop in highly dangerous Oruzgan province in the south to give employment to local youth.

The contractor rented an existing tractor repair shop in Kandahar for the day and hired local young men to look as if they were busily fixing engines in the  shop. This was all photographed and the pictures emailed to the main contractor and the donor organization, both of which expressed high satisfaction at what had been achieved. “There is no intention to provide service,” says Mr Hedayatullah, “just to make money.”

There have been some successes. Kabul now has an almost continuous supply of electricity which comes from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan along wires hanging from newly built pylons that cross the Hindu Kush mountains. The US commander, Gen David Petraeus, is demanding that emergency generators supply continuous power to Kandahar.

But overall aid has done surprisingly little for most Afghans. Little of the money trickles down and much of it is monopolized by a tightly-knit group of businessmen, warlords and politicians at the top. Former Vice President Ahmed Zia Massoud is alleged to have been stopped entering the United Arab Emirates with $52 million in cash in a suitcase according US diplomatic documents leaked through Wikileaks.  Police chiefs and provincial governors all want a cut of the pie.

Yama Torabi, the co-director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, says it is not really possible to carry out development aid in areas of conflict where there is fighting, It might be better to stick to humanitarian aid.

This would be contrary to US military policy, pioneered in Iraq, whereby local US military commanders control substantial funds that can be used for local aid projects through the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). But this militarization of aid means that the Taliban target schools built on the orders of a US commander.

“People see schools built by the Americans as American property,” says an Afghan who once worked for a US government agency. “They are frightened of sending their children there.” Overall it is doubtful that aid provided by PRTs does the US or other members of the foreign coalition much good because “villagers don’t forgive the US army for killing their sons just because it has built a road or a bridge.”

The US government policy of providing aid through large American private companies, whose interest lies in making a profit rather than improving the life of Afghans, is proving a failure in Afghanistan as it did previously in Iraq.

As winter approaches half of Afghans face the prospect of ‘food insecurity’, or not getting enough to eat in the next three months, according to the US Famine Early Warning System. The best use of aid money may be to subsidize food prices and help people like Mr Qubus, the old clothes seller, and his family from starving.  

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘ and ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘.