Sunday, April 06, 2014

By Alice Speri --- The US Just Can’t Stop Blowing Billions in Afghanistan --- You might have heard that the US spent some $102 billion trying to develop Afghanistan over the last decade — and that’s in addition to the estimated $6 trillion it spent going to war there in the first place. -- You also might have heard that a lot of that money vanished into thin air, went to shady contractors, corrupt politicians, or, occasionally, the Taliban. -- But if you thought that getting out of Afghanistan would save us some cash, you’re wrong. The troops might withdraw, if things go as planned, by the end of the year, but US dollars are going to have to keep flowing into the country for years to come to keep it afloat. If things go bad, the US might feel compelled to start the war all over again. --- As VICE reported in its recent HBO documentary “Afghan Money Pit,” monitoring the billions in aid has been a huge challenge so far. And with the security situation in the country taking a sharp turn for the worse, that’s about to get a lot harder. --- “Our concern is that as we continue with the drawdown, it’s going to be more difficult to manage and oversee the billions of dollars of programs that we’ll continue to do. It’s going to be harder, and it’s going to be more expensive,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), told VICE News. --- Sopko will testify about wasteful spending in Afghanistan before a Congress subcommittee on Thursday. -- “What you need is to look at how much money it is going to cost to monitor those programs and then sit back and say, well, is it worth spending, for example, $1 million on monitoring a $500,000 program? Maybe you want to look at some of the programs you’re doing and not do them because it’s not cost effective. But there may be some programs you still have to do.” --- Both executing and monitoring development projects is going to be tough with no troops on the ground, as SIGAR expects less than 21 percent of Afghanistan to be accessible to US civilian employees by the end of the year. Military officials also said they won’t allow civilians to travel anywhere further than 30 minutes away from advanced medical facilities. -- If the plan is to follow the money, this doesn’t bode too well. -- That at least is the concern of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which has put some $14.4 billion towards the country’s reconstruction, and which earlier this month opened a call for bids on a new monitoring project contract — making up for a lack of access through technology. -- The agency hopes to step up its use of smartphones, satellite imagery, and GPS cameras to oversee tax-funded programs it won’t be able to access once the troops are gone. --- “The American people have been very generous in pursuit of our national security objectives in Afghanistan, and we’re absolutely intent on making sure that that funding is used as effectively and as accountably as possible,” Kathleen Campbell, USAID’s Deputy Assistant to the Administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, told VICE News. “If we don’t have the monitoring and oversight that we want, if we’re not comfortable with our access, with our sources, with what we’re hearing, or if we’re not able to get enough data, then we’ll close the project down.” -- Campbell, who said the agency made “huge progress” in Afghanistan, said that technological oversight has already proved that it works, and that it is worth the cost. --- “When somebody goes and visits the project they can bring a camera, which is GPS and time-stamped, they can use mobile technology to upload data,” she said, explaining that the agency will tap local government, civil society, and sub-contractors to help in a “multi-tiered” approach to oversight. --- “If you’re at the point where that’s one of your only sources of evaluation, you really have to ask the question whether or not you should be doing it in the first place,” Ashley Jackson, a researcher with the Overseas Development Institute's Humanitarian Policy Group who spent years working on aid effectiveness in Afghanistan, told VICE News. “The further you put yourself away from your project, the greater the risk of fraud. And it doesn’t really matter if you have GPS or satellite technology.” --- Did we spend too much money in Afghanistan? -- Jackson criticized donor agencies and larger NGOs for repeatedly employing contractors with “atrocious track records,” for spending too much money, and for not seeking the input of the local population. The battle to buy the hearts and minds of the Afghan people through development projects, she added, was “naive.” -- “You can’t buy off the Afghan population by paving a road,” she said. “We tend to think of people who receive aid as passive victims who are so grateful for our support, but if you have a western government coming into your country saying ‘This is how you should do things,’ you’re going to take your piece and exploit it, you’re going to be active in that process.” -- The projects that did work in Afghanistan were small-scale and long-term, Jackson said. -- “The question wasn’t asked, ‘What do people need, what’s going to be sustainable?’ It was, ‘We have a lot of money to burn,'” she explained. “You don’t need to spend that much money to have an impact, you just need to spend it well. It’s not rocket science.” -- MORE, VICE, at:


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