LONDON (AlertNet) - U.S. military commanders have been throwing large sums of money at development projects in Afghanistan in a bid to revitalise the country, but appallingly shoddy work is undermining their efforts and playing into the hands of the Taliban.
That's the picture painted by Martin Walshe, an engineer with Britain's Department for International Development (DFID), who said a lot of money had been wasted in Helmand province because of a lack of transparency and accountability in implementing projects meant to help stabilise the war-torn region.
Part of the problem is on the American side because military commanders are often given large amounts to spend with little knowledge of procurement processes, Walshe said. Meanwhile, a few Afghan firms have become very good at promoting themselves as experts in a particular field but then subcontract the job to the cheapest workers around.
The coalition forces have launched a major drive to boost agriculture and trade in Helmand as part of efforts to bring peace to the Taliban stronghold which has been the focus of heavy fighting.
Helmand was once the breadbasket of Afghanistan. It has impressive irrigation systems which were built in the 1960s but are now badly in need of rehabilitation, Walshe told the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London on Friday.
"The call for irrigation improvements is something we hear constantly from the local populace, particularly when the armed forces move into an area, stabilise it and there is opportunity for further development," he said, speaking during an ODI discussion on transparency in fragile states.
Walshe added that the U.S. Marines in particular arrived with massive amounts of money for "stabilisation projects" most of which could be spent at the discretion of the local commander.
"Most of the local commanders are soldiers. They are not procurement people. And it has been a real challenge for us in DFID and the donor community ... to try to align the massive spending power of the military with the development efforts ... We are starting to do it, but there's a whole raft of challenges."
MONEY SIPHONED OFF
Walshe, who recently worked on DFID's infrastructure programme in Afghanistan, said normal practice was for a commander to give money to a local company which purported to be particularly knowledgeable on how to carry out a project.
"One or two companies in particular are very good at this – in going in and saying we are the experts in irrigation systems or canal rehabilitation. There's a problem here, give us a million dollars ... and we'll go and fix it.
"Generally what's happened, is the money has been handed over, the organisation has sub-contracted the work to the lowest possible bidder who has delivered what you see is really the most appalling piece of work," Walshe added, pointing to a photo of a muddy ditch. "It's not going to do anything except fall down again and the problem will perpetuate.
"There's no mechanism available to account for how that money is being spent so really what's happening is that most of that money is being siphoned off. The local population, who are wanting to see benefit, see no benefit from the coalition effort and the result is propaganda for the Taliban ... which undermines stabilisation."
Walshe said the U.S. military is aware of the problem and that the situation is beginning to improve.
"We've been trying to work with the local military commanders to bring a much clearer approach to design proper procurement bidding for proper construction supervision and accountability and it's starting slowly to deliver projects which work and which local populations really quite appreciate," he added.
Walshe said the World Bank is about to roll out a global programme, initiated by DFID, to tackle mismanagement and corruption in publicly-financed construction projects.
For more on the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST) see: World Bank to launch drive to clean up construction sector