Dieu Nalio Chery / AP

For departing USAID administrator, Afghanistan is rarely mentioned

In his five years as chief of aid agency, Rajiv Shah has focused on everything except the biggest recipient

Two months after he was sworn in, Rajiv Shah, the youngest administrator in the history of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), appeared before the House Committee for Foreign Affairs to discuss the agency’s 2011 fiscal year budget request.

“By far, the largest component of our requested budget increase is dedicated to the critical states of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he told the committee in March 2010. “We have made some progress in each of these countries, but we realize that significant challenges remain.”

In the five years since those remarks, Shah has appeared to focus less and less on Afghanistan and more on other development programs, such as combating global poverty and the Ebola outbreak, while aid to Afghanistan accounts for billions more U.S. taxpayer dollars than any other country where the agency operates.

In this year’s USAID budget request, Afghanistan topped $2.6 billion in reconstruction and development aid — more than double the amount requested to combat the growing threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, more than the $2.5 billion for the growing refugee crisis and over twice as much as the request for Feed the Future, a global initiative to develop agriculture projects that would alleviate hunger. Feed the Future has, perhaps unsurprisingly, become one of Shah’s signature projects during his tenure, since he arrived at USAID from the Department of Agriculture.

In his announcement that he would step down — Wednesday is his last day on the job — he highlighted progress during his time at USAID on several fronts: fighting child hunger, coordinating global disaster response and increasing worldwide access to energy. In his statement there was only one reference, in passing, to Afghanistan. 

Despite $100 billion and counting in reconstruction funding from the United States since 2001, Afghanistan has rarely rated a mention by Shah, particularly during his last year. With USAID’s Afghanistan projects fraught with graft, questionable spending and corruption by Afghan contractors and some major U.S. partners, the agency has struggled to prove its programs’ success and justify continued U.S. government spending in the war-riven nation. During his five years at USAID, he has made three visits to the region, according to the official agency website. Despite repeated requests to USAID, he was not available for an interview, nor did his office respond to requests for comment.

How to prove success

Much of the challenge regarding development spending in Afghanistan revolves around accurately accounting for the money and measuring the success of the programs it has funded.

USAID’s Larry Sampler, the assistant to the administrator on Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs, says that Afghan women and girls “have experienced rapid advancements in health, education and empowerment over the past 13 years.” Last year Shah announced Promote, a new program for Afghan women. USAID would spend $216 million on “the education, promotion and training of 75,000 Afghan women,” by bolstering women’s rights groups and pushing for greater female representation in Afghanistan’s government. According to one press release, Afghan women have a lower maternal mortality rate, greater life expectancy and higher academic enrollment thanks to USAID. But skeptics say the agency cannot prove those claims.

“Be very careful when someone says they’ve extended the life expectancy by 20 years in Afghanistan. That’s baloney,” says John Sopko, the top U.S. government official tasked with oversight of spending in Afghanistan. “They don’t collect data. They don’t collect birth- and death rates.”

For years he and his staff at the Congress-appointed office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) have attempted to verify USAID’s spending on development programs in that country. He says he has been routinely frustrated by the agency’s inability to specify initiatives that have worked.

“I said, ‘Can you point to any program? Is it better to put money into building schools, or was it better to hire teachers, or was it better to train?’” he says. “The American taxpayer deserves an answer. Congress deserves an answer.”

Last year SIGAR concluded that the success of USAID’s spending on women-related projects in Afghanistan could not be evaluated because the agency was unable to identify which portions of programs specifically related to women.

‘You can spend a lot more money pretty quickly building a bridge or a dam than a women’s empowerment program.’

John Norris

senior fellow, Center for American Progress

In response to SIGAR’s report, Sampler says his employer has trained thousands of judges, midwives and teachers and given loans to female entrepreneurs. “USAID integrates gender equality across all of its work in Afghanistan and closely tracks these funds on a project-by-project basis. For projects which have gender equality as the primary goal or where gender equality is an important component of the project, we track the impact on the women who benefit.” This, according to a USAID press officer, includes the construction of roads and power plants, since they indirectly benefit the population.

According to John Norris, a senior fellow on international development at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, “All of the stuff in Afghanistan has been a little infrastructure-heavy at times.” While there were “real problems,” he says, there was also “an awful lot of pressure at different points to show that they were getting things done by the money they were given to spend … You can spend a lot more money pretty quickly building a bridge or a dam than a women’s empowerment program.”

Brian Atwood, the USAID administrator when Republicans took over the Senate in 1995, says Shah has accomplished much for a department that two decades ago was on the verge of being dismantled.

“I think he’s rejuvenated the agency,” Atwood says. “I had the privilege of speaking to mission directors at the beginning of the Obama administration. Some of them were demoralized.”

Shah’s youth and experience, both at the Department of Agriculture and overseeing financial services for the poor at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, helped fuel new initiatives on a small budget, says Atwood. “He took a fairly aggressive stand on issues of local ownership, and that angered some of the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that got used to living well off USAID’s money,” says Atwood, who is now the chairman of global policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “I think he should feel very pleased about his tenure there.”

A USAID-funded clinic in Farza, Afghanistan, in 2011. The U.S. funds some 500 Afghan health facilities, most run by nongovernmental organizations contracted by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health.
John Moore / Getty Images

USAID and SIGAR sparred last year over the release of documents from the accounting firms Ernst & Young and KPMG. The firms were hired by USAID to assess the capacity of the Afghan government to administer the U.S. funding it will receive as the international footprint in Afghanistan slowly shrinks.

“They [USAID] went into a major panic and first refused to give it to us,” says John Arlington, the general counsel for SIGAR. “Then they stamped them as sensitive but unclassified, [which means they] can only be circulated in the executive branch. So we obtained copies of the thing and gave out unredacted documents. USAID is extremely angry.”

Al Jazeera America obtained the assessments under the Freedom of Information Act. One of those audits evaluated the Afghan Ministry for Public Works. In it Ernst & Young recommended that the ministry meet several conditions — create an internal audit charter, improve its budget analysis and strengthen its monitoring process — before it was allowed to manage any funds. Another assessment from the firm investigated the Afghan Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Services Commission, which focuses on employing civil servants. It concluded there, too, that better practices, stronger governance and monitoring and financial management was necessary.

According to SIGAR, USAID waived its own requirements that recipients of donor money must fulfill before they can receive any funds and, says SIGAR, “has not required the Afghan ministries to fix most of the risks identified, prior to receiving U.S. money.” Further, SIGAR notes that USAID “failed to disclose to Congress that none of the ministries it assessed are capable of managing direct assistance funds.”

Tenure marked by scandal

In January, USAID’s biggest contractor in Afghanistan, International Relief and Development [IRD], was alleged to have misappropriated millions of dollars.

IRD was suspended, and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., wrote Shah demanding a review of IRD’s activities in Afghanistan to determine whether the U.S. government should continue to partner with it. Shah made no public statement in response, but weeks later, USAID announced it was suspending the contractor. And in a 2014 annual letter, the agency announced that since the inception of its contractor compliance unit in 2011, it has “executed over 230 suspensions and disbarment actions — 25 times the number we executed just a few years ago.”

Responding to the IRD scandal, USAID issued a statement that “USAID has a zero tolerance policy for mismanagement of American taxpayer funds and will take every measure at our disposal to recover these funds.”

One way that the agency says it intends to keep track of the money it gives Afghan partners is through technology. Last March the agency announced a five-year $170 million project that would use smartphones, satellite imagery and GPS cameras to monitor ongoing projects from afar, once its workers would not be able to travel there in person because of security concerns. The agency says it already uses the technology in countries such as Yemen, Iraq and Colombia.

But, Norris says, so much depends on the reliability of local partners, and in Afghanistan, it has been hit-or-miss. Despite Shah’s “pretty decent record,” Norris adds, “the development community treats Afghanistan and Iraq as special places, not candidates for good development partners … It’s amazing how little [Afghanistan] has been discussed.”

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