Report: Afghanistan aid program flawed
Added under Afghanistan/Pakistan
The multibillion-dollar U.S. aid program in Afghanistan is disjointed, bureaucratic and overly dependent on private Western contractors, according to a report to be released today with implications for President Obama's Central Asia strategy.
The report by Oxfam, the international humanitarian organization, follows two separate studies last week by the Center for American Progress, a think tank with scholars close to the Obama administration, which called for a sweeping overhaul in the way civilian aid is delivered in Afghanistan.
Obama will announce a plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, according to the Associated Press. The plan places increased emphasis on civilian missions such as training police and helping farmers find alternatives to heroin-producing poppy plants, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke said in Brussels last week.
The reports suggest that to succeed, Obama must secure fundamental changes in the weakened U.S. civilian aid bureaucracy, particularly the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). That agency is responsible for $6.9 billion of the total $31 billion in U.S. spending on military and civilian aid to Afghanistan since 2002, according to the Congressional Research Service.
U.S. aid workers are "bound by structures and strategies that often constrain their ability to work effectively on the ground," says the Oxfam report, which was based on 40 interviews by Matt Waldman, a Kabul-based policy analyst.
Other problems, the report says, include "a flawed contracting system, the pressures to measure results of the wrong kind ... an unclear strategy, and excessive restrictions that distance U.S. practitioners from the Afghans they're hoping to support."
At issue is whether Obama can get the changes he needs quickly enough. Scholars and activists have been calling for years for congressional action to overhaul U.S. foreign assistance, to no avail.
One Center for American Progress report argues for the creation of a Cabinet-level development agency to coordinate all non-military assistance, and it says American civilian aid experts need more flexibility in how they spend money. Both changes would require congressional approval.
Oxfam's criticism of USAID's reliance on private contractors echoes that by the agency's own inspector general, who said in a series of audits that contractors have often failed to show results.
Staff cuts over the past two decades have hurt USAID's ability to manage contracts, according to a recent report by the American Academy of Diplomacy. Although recent budget increases call for new hires, training foreign service development experts can take years. That makes it hard for USAID to scale back on contractors any time soon.
Even so, the United States can quickly improve civilian aid in Afghanistan, said Reuben Brigety, co-author of one of the Center for American Progress reports, called "Swords and Ploughshares."
For example, he said, most of the money goes to less secure areas along the border with Pakistan, where insurgent attacks have crippled the aid efforts. The U.S. should steer additional funds to the more secure northern and western parts of Afghanistan, where the programs have the best chance to succeed, he said.
The U.S. also needs to put an Afghan face on its efforts, said Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"More has to be done by the Afghans," he said.
Sources: USA Today