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Millions More Squandered by USAID in Afghanistan

Won’t US aid agencies ever learn?

A new government auditor’s report (pdf) shows that the United States Agency for International Development allowed a contractor to distribute 300 solar panels to scores of shopkeepers in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan—even though almost none of the shops were wired for electricity.

Few if any of the panels were ever put to use. Some shopkeepers took them home, or sold them. At $2,300 each, that’s $600,000 in taxpayer money wasted. But there’s more, so much more.

USAID spent about $70 million overall on an agricultural-development program for southern Afghanistan over the last two years. To carry out the work, it contracted with International Relief and Development, Inc., a Washington-area NGO known as IRD.

But even after countless government auditors’ reports over the last decade lambasting USAID for failing to monitor its contractors in Afghanistan, the agency looked the other way as this NGO wasted tens of millions of dollars on foolish projects that accomplished nothing, the American special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said in his report, published in late June.

The NGO explained that USAID officials rotated in and out of Afghanistan so frequently that it was hard to find anyone in the office who understood what they were doing. So it made many decisions on its own.

Still, like so many contractors, IRD operated as if it were doing work in Arlington, Virginia, home to its headquarters, rather than in Afghanistan, arguably the most primitive nation on earth. For example, the agency decided on its own, without consulting USAID or anyone else, to spend $1.67 million on large, four-wheel tractors—even though most Afghans don’t know how to drive, and the tractors were too big to operate in the orchards and small plots where many Afghan farmers work.

What’s more, a State Department official reported that “all of the 69 tractors that IRD distributed” under an earlier program “are now missing.” So far, only one-third of the 95 tractors distributed under the new program, “could not be located,” the inspector general’s report said.

The agency also distributed seed packets for farmers. Many were found for sale at local markets—or in the hands of Taliban. It distributed 300,000 fruit tree saplings, saturating the market and destabilizing the area’s economy, the inspector general said. Seventy-five percent of the saplings died before they could be planted.

IRD spent more than $20 million on 16,000 irrigation pumps for Helmand Province, even though most farmers there have no electricity, and the province’s governor wrote to the NGO saying his province already “has sufficient water resources and existing irrigation-canal systems,” the report said. So IRD spent another $1.18 million to store the unused pumps. That raises the obvious question: Why does it cost more than $1 million to store some irrigation pumps?

The inspector general concluded, once again, that, “in the absence of effective oversight from USAID, IRD made programmatic decisions that led to both waste and mismanagement.”

That’s what auditors have been telling USAID for a decade. It’s time for Congress to stop appropriating money for the agency until it learns how to monitor its work.       

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