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by Fariba Nawa

Aid Groups Charge U.S. With Extortion Tactics In Afghanistan

(PNS) KABUL -- Near the village of Qalai Qazi, Afghanistan, stood a bright yellow health clinic built by American contractor The Louis Berger Group. It is one of 81 clinics Berger was hired to build -- in addition to roads, dams, schools and other infrastructure -- in exchange for $665 million in American aid money the company has received in federal contracts.

The problem was, the clinic was falling apart. The ceiling had rotted away in patches; the plumbing, when it worked, leaked and shuddered; the chimney, made of flimsy metal, threatened to set the roof on fire; the sinks had no running water; and the place smelled of sewage.

Initially, the Afghan Ministry of Health refused to clear the clinic for use because of its glaring structural flaws. But Berger disagreed with the Ministry engineer's assessment and opened the clinic anyway. Since 2003, doctors at the clinic have treated about 100 patients a day, according to Mohammed Saber, the clinic's around-the-clock guard.

I visited the clinic in October 2005 as part of a six-month research project on the foreign reconstruction of Afghanistan. It was during Ramadan, and the clinic had closed early. An old woman swept the floors, and they gleamed. But as with so many new structures here, the window dressing could not hide the ugly reality that wafted from bathroom drains and leaked from decayed ceilings.

"It's better than nothing," Saber said.

In an interview, Fred Case, deputy operations manager for Berger in Afghanistan, said that the clinic suffered from "defective workmanship," but blamed the subcontractor, who, he said, subsequently fixed the problems.

Another Berger clinic was inexplicably planned in the remote, sparsely populated province of Badakhshan, in a location surrounded by mountains and accessible only by helicopter. That clinic was built on earthquake-prone land. "It's susceptible to landslides and the land has a crack in it already," said the health director of the province, Abdul Momin Jalali. Now, it will be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere.

From 2002 to 2005, USAID budgeted more than $3.5 billion for aid to Afghanistan. In an accounting of its results, USAID boasts that 7.4 million Afghans now have access to improved health care; a paved highway has been completed between Kabul and Kandahar; 100,000 teachers have been trained, 50 million textbooks printed, and 5 million children enrolled in school.

But statistics from UNICEF and other international agencies tell a story of a very different Afghanistan. Twenty percent of Afghan children will die before age 5. Women's literacy rate is 19 percent. Unemployment in the capital is 30 percent. Three-and-a-half million Afghans, out of a population of about 25 million, are hungry and reliant on food rations.

Few expected the international community to fix all these problems in five years, but taxpayers do expect their aid money to be spent responsibly. Instead, millions of dollars of international aid money have been mismanaged, misused and wasted. International aid agencies have designed a system that is efficient in funneling money back to the wealthy donor countries without providing sustainable development in poor states.

Jean Mazurelle, the World Bank director in Kabul, estimates that 35 to 40 percent of all international aid sent to Afghanistan is "badly spent."

"In Afghanistan," Mazurelle told Agence France Press, "the wastage of aid is sky-high. There is real looting going on, mainly by private enterprises. It is a scandal. In 30 years of my career, I have never seen anything like it."

International donors channel three-quarters of funds to private projects not under government purview. Donor nations and agencies defend this by insisting they are more effective at ensuring efficiency and accountability, and that handing over billions to the Afghan government is an invitation to graft and corruption. But a report from the World Bank itself questions that very logic.

In "Managing Public Finances for Development," released in December 2005, Alistair McKechnie, the World Bank country director for Afghanistan, said: "Experience demonstrates that channeling aid through government is more cost-effective... Furthermore, the credibility of the government is increased as it demonstrates its ability to oversee services and become accountable for results."

In the case of the Louis Berger Group, its contract to build 23 schools across Afghanistan has so far resulted in an average cost per classroom of $22,813. But its "model" 20-room school in Kabul cost a whopping $592,690. Berger justified the high figure by saying that it was top-quality construction with an iron truss roof system. The head engineer at the Ministry of Education's construction department said that Afghans could complete a school with the same number of classrooms for half that price.

There is political pressure from Washington and Kabul to buff the image of Afghanistan as a success story, especially as the war in Iraq drags on. USAID, which coordinates reconstruction contracts, in turn puts pressure on its contractors to do more work faster. The contractors chafe under the pressure, cut corners and lean on their subcontractors and underqualified local laborers. When the inevitable failures result -- a clinic with a fresh coat of paint but a rotting interior, or a highway that begins to disintegrate before it's finished -- the blame ricochets around.

Many Afghans believe that "beggars can't be choosers" and that they should appreciate what they get. A heavily land-mined, politically chaotic, desolate and rugged nation cannot be made into Shangri-La overnight.

But some Afghans refuse to settle for broken promises and third-rate infrastructure. Residents in Kabul see the upscale homes, cars and lifestyles of the employees of foreign contractors -- all while the capital grows more crowded, polluted and unmanageable. New buildings with tinted windows and new shops with expensive clothes may be a sign of some economic progress to Westerners, but they are not what Afghans need most: paved roads, fresh water, electricity and a sewage system.

Excerpted from "Afghanistan, Inc.: A CorpWatch Investigative Report," by Fariba Nawa, a freelance journalist living in Kabul

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Albion Monitor   June 1, 2006   (

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