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Safety risks, waste identified in three US-funded projects in Afghanistan

Source: Thu, 27 Jun 2013 16:44 GMT
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An Afghan farmer works on a rice field in Nangarhar province October 17, 2012. REUTERS/Parwiz
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WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Two school buildings in Afghanistan funded by the United States are so poorly constructed that they pose serious safety hazards, while money has been wasted on a $70 million agricultural programme in the country, a U.S. government inspector said on Wednesday.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) John Sopko, an outspoken critic of problems plaguing U.S.-financed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, informed the U.S. Agency for International Development and the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan of his findings this week and he called for urgent action on the school buildings.

International Relief and Development (IRD), the non-profit humanitarian relief and development organisation that completed the $70 million programme to help rebuild agriculture in some of the toughest war-torn regions of southern Afghanistan, strongly disputed the findings. It said it coordinated closely with USAID throughout the project and followed standard procedures for buying supplies. 

The United States has spent over $92 billion on reconstruction and relief in Afghanistan since 2002, more than on any other such effort including the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe after World War II.

On the educational projects, SIGAR said the water and sewage systems at a teachers’ training facility in Sheberghan, Jawzjan province, did not work and there was a danger of electrocution from the electricity system, which had been badly connected.

Students and teaching staff are already using the training facility, although it is still being built. The Sheberghan centre is part of a $3.4 million project for three teacher-training facilities awarded to Mercury Development by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under an agreement with USAID. Further information on Mercury Development wasn’t immediately available.

In response, USAID said it had informed local education officials that using the facility in an unfinished state posed serious health and safety risks and it had told the Afghan government that local officials should vacate the building.

The inspector’s office also said there was a serious danger of school collapse. A concrete ceiling was installed on the extension to the Bathkhak school in Kabul province, instead of the metal roof specified in the contract. It rests on brick walls, which may not have been reinforced to carry the extra load even though the school is located in an area of high seismic activity, it said.  

“In light of these construction flaws and the distinct possibility that an earthquake resistant design was not used, we have serious concerns for the safety of the hundreds of faculty and children that will be using the classrooms at any given time,” SIGAR said.

U.S. Forces-Afghanistan awarded the $262,899 contract to Emaar Emarat Construction Company last year. Neither Emaar Emarat nor Mercury could be reached for comment.

Agricultural project

Additionally, SIGAR said the $70 million agricultural project awarded to Arlington, Virginia-based IRD, lacked oversight and funds had been wasted. The programme, completed in October 2012, included providing seed, fertiliser and fruit trees to Afghan farmers. USAID said the project boosted household incomes by providing temporary jobs to 7,400 labourers who rebuilt essential agricultural infrastructure, such as canals, walls road and reservoirs.

Among the problems SIGAR cited were:

-          Irrigation Pumps: USAID approved $23 million to spend on 16,000 pumps but neither U.S. officials nor IRD could explain how they decided that Helmand province needed the pumps and they acknowledged they had not conducted a capability assessment

-          Tractors:  IRD bought four-wheel tractors at an extra cost of $1.2 million not specified on the work plan, and last October one third of the 95 tractors designated for Kandahar could not be located.  A USAID official retroactively approved the purchase without any documented explanation

-          Solar panels: IRD distributed 300 sets of solar panels, worth $690,000, despite the objections of U.S. officials who feared they would be stolen and despite the district governor and local Afghan officials strongly opposing them on the grounds they were unnecessary

-          Agricultural supplies: IRD implemented a $7.8 million supplies distribution programme in Kandahar, even though U.S. officials expressed concern about the high cost and questionable value of the project

-          USAID: the agency failed to review and approve IRD’s work plan in the first four months of the one-year programme when $44 million had already been obligated. A former IRD employee, who joined USAID one month before the award of the contract, was involved in the approval process of the IRD project work plan.

“USAID did not exercise oversight as effectively as it could and should have,” SIGAR said in its letter released on Thursday to USAID and James Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

“As a result, equipment was purchased that may be left unused or stolen; inflated prices for agricultural projects were potentially paid; and unnecessary costs for storing, disassembling and distributing unneeded pumps were incurred,” it said.

A USAID official said it agreed that oversight of development projects was critical to its work in Afghanistan, and that on the agricultural programme, it was "looking into ways we can incorporate lessons learned into future projects."

IRD in a detailed written statement, however, disagreed there was a lack of coordination with U.S. officials saying they met daily, weekly and monthly with USAID and provided it with regular reports. It denied buying the tractors at the extra cost and said its responsibility for the tractors ended upon handing them over to the Afghan government. IRD said it did not distribute solar panels over official objections, and that it selected the lower cost, qualified bidder using a competitive procurement process to acquire saplings for the agricultural project.

“IRD will continue to work with USAID and our Afghan counterparts to improve programmatic impact and implement programmes to achieve the most effective and highest-impact results that improve the lives and livelihoods of the Afghan people,” it said.

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