From bad to worse? Afghan aid under the microscope

A road construction in Afghanistan funded by the U.S. government. Photo by: USAID Afghanistan

U.S. lawmakers are considering whether to freeze billions of dollars in aid to the Afghan government.

Some $20 billion of money still kept in the Afghan government’s coffers might be going to waste, John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, warned lawmakers at a Feb. 13 hearing in the House of Representatives.

“It’s an important opportunity to stop and reassess all of that money that hasn’t been spent and make a determination, ‘Is it worth the risk?’” Sopko told the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations.

He noted that the United States, particularly the Defense Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, lacks oversight on billions of direct aid the Afghan government is ill-prepared to handle.

During the hearing, at least one lawmaker agreed with Sopko’s suggestion to consider freezing Afghan aid. Rep. John Duncan Jr., a Republican from Tennessee, said, “I think you made a good suggestion on stopping these projects that haven’t started yet.”

During the hearing, lawmakers expressed dismay about accounts of taxpayers’ money going to waste because the United States is unable to ensure the Afghan government spends it as intended.

“If they can’t disburse and manage a billion dollars, why give them a billion dollars?” Rep. John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat, argued. “The executive branch already has the authority to make all these terms to be part of any negotiation, any contract. Our fear is that they’re not doing it.”

If the White House cannot act immediately on these funds, the ball is now in Congress’s court, Tierney suggested.

“So the real question for us becomes whether or not we act legislatively to put a halt on things, in the disbursement of money until then,” Tierney said. “Which means wrestling with our appropriation committee. These people love to give money out on the basis of trust factor.”

Another option, according to Sopko, is for U.S. agencies like USAID to at least ask the Afghan government to justify the release of money.

“We have an opportunity to hit the pause button or at least say, ‘Justify why you’re doing it,’” Sopko told Congress. “There may be a reason because it’s really important to national security, so we are going to lose that money but we have to do it. But at least justify it and hold that agency accountable.”

Until the government takes serious steps to address the situation, billions of dollars will be put at risk of mismanagement and corruption.

And Sopko raised doubt on whether the U.S. government was truly making it a priority. He cited USAID’s plan to test third-country nationals to audit project sites in dangerous locations.

“But they haven’t issued the contract,” Sopko said. “The contract won’t come out until September to do the pilot or test project. Why wasn’t it done a year ago? So that’s my concern.”

Not only that.

SIGAR’s look at $236 million that went directly to the Afghan ministry of public health is raising alarm bells, too.

“Some of the initial findings – these are preliminary – give me pause because we don’t think the Afghan ministry is well prepared,” he said. “The other thing … is we’re finding evidence of clinics being built and it looks like the Afghans don’t even know they are being built, which again goes back to my second question: Have we coordinated?”

USAID officials often cite their work with the ministry as a positive example for a partnership with a recipient country.

The withdrawal of international forces in 2014 threatens to compound these challenges, Sopko suggested. Billions of dollars remain to be spent on development projects, much of it in conflict regions.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said, “Without the proper checks, without the proper balances, without the proper oversight, this money will be pilfered and lost and we’re increasing the amount of doing that.”

So how can the United States ensure its aid money is well-spent, if the Afghan government isn’t able to provide proper assurances? Technology may help – to a degree, Sopko suggested.

“You can use geospatial. You look down and see, ‘Is that a school? It looks like a school.’ Maybe that’s good enough. You can do over-flights. You can also use third country nationals,” Sopko said. “There are other alternatives. None of them are as good as American-trained auditor, investigator going out there kicking tires.”

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About the author

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    John Alliage Morales

    As a staff writer, John Alliage Morales covers the Americas, focusing on the world's top donor hub, Washington, and its aid community - from Capitol Hill to Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom to the downtown headquarters of USAID, the World Bank and Millennium Challenge Corp. Prior to joining Devex, Alliage worked for a variety of news outlets including GMA, the Philippine TV network, where he conducted interviews, analyzed data and produced in-depth stories on development and other topics.