The U.S. government’s watchdog for Afghanistan reconstruction efforts is sounding the alarm over seven high-risk areas that could spell trouble for U.S. efforts to help rebuild the country after 2014.
Corruption tops the list.
In its first-ever “high-risk list” to be made public Wednesday, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko highlights the seven “areas and elements” of U.S.-funded reconstruction “that are especially vulnerable to significant waste, fraud and abuse.”
According to the watchdog, they risks are: corruption and rule of law, sustainability, Afghan National Security Forces capacity and capabilities, on-budget support, counternarcotics, contract management and oversight access, and strategy and planning.
The ‘existential threat’ to reconstruction
Sopko frequently cites retired NATO General John Allen, who told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April that while most of the attention has focused on the Taliban insurgency, “the existential threat to the long-term viability of modern Afghanistan is corruption.”
The SIGAR chief has criticized the U.S. government’s apparent lack of a cohesive anti-corruption strategy to guide its operations in Afghanistan, and the high-risk list reiterates his office’s concern.
According to the new report, Sopko’s office has been informed that the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework and the U.S. Civil-Military Strategic Framework for Afghanistan “guide the current U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan.” However, SIGAR claims, “both documents [lack] specific goals and objectives with measurable outcomes for anti-corruption activities against which the U.S. government can measure its progress.”
U.S. Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator Larry Sampler told Devex in an email that the agency is focused on “continuing our work with the new government of national unity that outlined its commitment to combating corruption and increasing self-reliance this past week in London.”
Recently inaugurated Afghan President Asraf Ghani made no effort to diminish the urgency of the challenge corruption poses to his government’s legitimacy.
“You, our partners, do not need to remind us that corruption is a problem or institution building, we own them and will deliver,” Ghani told attendees at the recently concluded London Conference on Afghanistan.
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But, according to SIGAR, that question of ownership by the Afghan government — and its ability to sustain reconstruction efforts on its own after international funding declines — is hardly a given. The watchdog’s report warns that the Kabul will struggle to provide many of the programs and social services that U.S. bilateral funding has enabled. A recent funding shortage that created delays in payment to Afghanistan’s civil servants seems to underscore that fear, and the high-risk list points to energy infrastructure, in particular, as an area where demand could outpace the government’s capacity to deliver, potentially leaving residents of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city, in the dark.
International donors to Afghanistan have sought to channel more of their funding through government systems — so called on-budget assistance — instead of paying international contractors and nongovernmental organizations to implement programs. Doing so is meant to help stand up a government bureaucracy that is capable of operating independently.
SIGAR’s high-risk list questions whether the Afghan government has satisfied its obligations as a steward of on-budget assistance, and whether the U.S. government has sufficient access to financial information.
The list is fashioned after the Government Accountability Office report by the same name, which calls attention to high-risk U.S. government agencies and program areas every two years. The list is the latest report from an oversight office that has made a name for itself as a vocal — even brash — critic of U.S. aid efforts in Afghanistan, with Sopko known to take his concerns and criticisms of U.S. reconstruction in Afghanistan to social media and speaking engagements like Wednesday’s report launch at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.
But Sopko and Sampler agree on one thing: In Afghanistan, some degree of risk is inevitable.
“Like many places where USAID works around the world, Afghanistan is an inherently risky environment. That's why we design our programs with rigorous safeguards against the risks identified in the report,” Sampler told Devex, while SIGAR notes in the report that “even in conflict-free areas, no reconstruction or development project is without risk of waste, fraud and abuse,” adding that “in conflict areas where security concerns and instability are high, the risk is much greater.”
‘Unnecessarily high levels of risk’
Sopko nevertheless remains unsatisfied that U.S. government efforts are keeping pace with those risks, as he has since assuming office in 2012.
“The problem is that American taxpayer dollars and our strategic and humanitarian interests in Afghanistan are being placed at unnecessarily high levels of risk by widespread failure to track results, anticipate problems and implement prudent countermeasures,” he said in remarks prepared for Wednesday’s address.
The sources of that “unnecessary” risk, according to SIGAR, include “limited institutional and human-capital capacity in Afghan institutions,” “poor record keeping and data retention by U.S. agencies and Afghan entities,” “frequent personnel turnover and loss of U.S. agencies’ in-country institutional memory.”
SIGAR also calls attention to “U.S. oversight personnel’s noncompliance with existing rules and regulations,” in what may be a nod to recent Washington Post article alleging that USAID’s inspector general “removed critical details from public reports.”
USAID Deputy Inspector General Michael Carroll, who formerly sought confirmation for the role, announced that he will retire at the end of this year, but maintained that his decision was unrelated to any allegations of wrongdoing by the office.
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