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ACLU Sues USAID: Are We Exporting US Taxpayer Funded Religion? February 19, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Civil Liberties, Health, Religion, Uncategorized.
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(Roger’s note: a must read on the topic of  religion and society: Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion.”  Most highly recommended.)
 
Published on Friday, February 19, 2010 by RH Reality Checkby Amie Newman
The ACLU has waited long enough.On Thursday, February 18th, they filed a lawsuit against USAID for refusing to comply with their Freedom of Information Act requests from July and September 2009, for documents related to USAID-funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs abroad. The ACLU has patiently awaited documents that may help shed light on an audit completed last year suggesting USAID is dispersing money, unconstitutionally, for religiously-based HIV prevention programs. 

The report, filed by the Office of Inspector General, surveyed 9 out of the 10 faith-based organizations using USAID funds and stated clearly that USAID-awarded funds were being used for religious activities. 

For example, USAID monies fund abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for African youth that include “Biblical stories and religious messages.”  What do these look like?

One curriculum, used for HIV/AIDS prevention education, includes an optional psalm for self-reflection: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.”

The take-away concept the curriculum sums up: “God has a plan for sex and this plan will help you and protect you from harm.” 

While it is important to recognize cultural mores when crafting curricula, these messages do more harm than good. Rates of HIV and AIDS throughout Africa vary greatly but sub-Saharan Africa is more heavily affected by AIDS than anywhere else in the world. Religious messages that reinforce harmful cultural and social constructs are far from useful – if God has a plan for sex, how does this help young people protect themselves against HIV and AIDS – especially young women who more often than not are not, in developing nations, the final arbiters when it comes to protecting themselves against HIV or pregnancy. 

The ACLU, in its complaint, calls these USAID funded programs “an unconstitutional expenditure of federal tax dollars” through PEPFAR (the program President Bush created to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic – President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and notes that, by definition, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs withhold life-saving information on contraception and condoms. 

“In the face of a growing global HIV/AIDS crisis, USAID is not only violating basic constitutional principles by promoting government-funded religious activities, it is unconscionably putting young people’s health and lives at risk,” said Rose Saxe, staff attorney with the ACLU AIDS Project. 

USAID regulations related to the dispursement of funds for faith-based organizations are clear:

Organizations that receive direct financial assistance from USAID under any USAID program may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization, as part of the programs or services directly funded with direct financial assistance from USAID. If an organization conducts such activities, the activities must be offered separately, in time or location, from the programs or services funded with direct financial assistance from USAID, and participation must be voluntary for beneficiaries of the programs or services funded with such assistance.

The ACLU also notes, in its complaint against USAID, that the Office of Inspector General’s report found that the government agency “has a history of unconstitionally funding religious abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in developing countries.”

In African nations, in particular, using U.S. government funds to craft and disseminate HIV/AIDS prevention programs that include strong religious messages — and let’s be honest, we’re talking about strong fundamentalist Christian messages which reinforce strict gender roles on women and do not acknowledge the range of gender and sexual identities — seems particularly terrifying given the more recent reports of escalating violence and threats in the form of anti-gay bills, in Uganda, Rwanda and other African nations, that clearly arose from the intimate relationships between religious fundamentalists in the U.S. and these African nations. 

HIV and AIDS prevention messages must impart life-saving information to young people. If the United States is, with one hand, attempting to address the continuing spread of HIV and AIDS in developing nations by providing government funds for prevention education and on the other hand disseminating powerful religious messages that only foster harmful gender and sexuality constructs that stand in the way of healthy behaviors and prevention, we’re constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. 

U.S. taxpayers need to know how our money is being spent. The ACLU is doing its part to push for transparency:

“The United States government cannot be in the business of exporting religiously infused abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that we know fail to give young people the information they need to stay healthy,” said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “It is essential that the government provide all of the information it has about these programs so that the public has a full accounting of how taxpayer dollars are being spent.”

Amie Newman is Managing Editor of RH Reality Check.

Robert McNamara’s Second Vietnam July 17, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Foreign Policy, Philippines.
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Published on Tuesday, July 14, 2009 by Foreign Policy in Focus by Walden Bello
The conventional view of Robert McNamara, who passed away a few days ago, is that after serving as the chief engineer of the disastrous U.S. war in Vietnam, he went on in 1968, to serve as president of the World Bank. In this way, he sought to salve his troubled conscience by delivering development assistance to poor countries.The reality is, as usual, more complex.

Development from Above?

As president of the Bank, the world’s premier channel for multilateral aid, McNamara did quadruple the institution’s lending portfolio to $12 billion. The key beneficiaries, however, were authoritarian dictatorships. Indeed, the rise to hegemony of authoritarian regimes in the developing world cannot be separated from the massive funding that the World Bank under McNamara provided them. By the late 1970s, five of the top seven recipients of World Bank aid were military, presidential-military, or military-controlled regimes: Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, Turkey, and the Philippines.

Why did the Bank under McNamara feel a special affinity to military-dominated regimes? A major reason stems from McNamara’s own background. He was one of the prototypes of the “technocrat,” a term coined in the early 1960s to refer to the seemingly apolitical practitioner of the science of political and economic management. As chief executive of the Ford Motor Company and later head of the Defense Department, McNamara ran organizations that were hierarchical and non-democratic in structure. Not surprisingly, he was susceptible to the rhetoric of authoritarian regimes that promised to sanitize the political arena in order, according to them, to allow economic managers the space to modernize the country.

The Marcos Connection

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos was one of the leaders who most successfully cultivated the image of bringing “development from above.” In 1972, he imposed martial law in order, in his words, to “break the democratic deadlock” that had become a barrier to development. “All that people ask,” Marcos explained, “is some kind of authority that can enforce the simple law of civil society. Only an authoritarian system will be able to carry forth the mass consent and to exercise the authority necessary to implement new values, measures, and sacrifices.”

Skillfully deploying a cadre of technocrats to impress the World Bank president, Marcos won McNamara over to backing his regime in a major way. The country was upgraded to what the Bank called a “country of concentration.” Between 1950 and 1972, the Philippines received a meager $326 million in Bank assistance. In contrast, between 1973 and 1981, the Bank funneled more than $2.6 billion into the country. Whereas prior to martial law, the Philippines ranked about 30th among recipients of Bank loans, by 1980 it placed eighth among 113 developing countries.

In return for this massive increase in aid, the Bank was given carte blanche to forge a comprehensive economic development plan for the Philippines. The two pillars of the strategy were “rural development” and “export oriented industrialization.” 

Containing the Countryside

“Rural development” was the Bank’s response to the agricultural crisis. The centerpiece of the strategy was increasing the productivity of small farmers through the delivery of “technological packages” and upgrading agricultural support services like credit systems. Rural development, however, had implications that went beyond improved efficiency.

As McNamara explained to the Bank’s board of governors, the strategy would “put the emphasis not on redistribution of income and wealth — as justified as that may be in our member countries — but rather on increasing the productivity of the poor, thereby providing for an equitable sharing in the benefits of growth.” In short, rural development was partly counterinsurgency, directed at defusing the appeal of the revolutionary movement among the restive rural masses. It was, as one development specialist close to the Bank described it, “defensive modernization” which, if successful, will create a smallholder sector closely integrated with the national economy. Bank projects will encourage subsistence farmers to become small-scale market producers. With economic ties to other sectors, the farmers will be loath to link their interests to those not yet modernized and will hesitate to disrupt the national economy for fear of losing their own markets.

Export-oriented Industrialization

When it came to industry, McNamara pushed Marcos and other World Bank clients to “turn their manufacturing enterprises away from the relatively small markets associated with import substitution toward the much larger opportunities flowing from export promotion.” Quotas were to be eliminated and tariffs brought down to expose protected local industries to the winds of international competition; exporters were to be given incentives; export processing zones were to be set up; and wages were to be kept low to attract foreign investors. The Bank shot down a plan by Marcos’ more nationalistic technocrats to set up “11 big industrial projects,” including an integrated steel industry and a petrochemical complex. The Bank did not consider this attempt to create a strategic industrial core to be in line with export promotion.

As in the case with rural development, there was a social logic to export-oriented industrialization. Persisting in industrialization based on the internal market would have meant having to undertake massive income redistribution in order to expand the market necessary to sustain it, a move opposed by the local elite. By instead hitching the industrialization process to growing export markets, the Bank broke the link between industrialization and domestic income redistribution. The cost, however, was intensifying class conflict as governments attempted to keep wages low and exports competitive.

The World Bank vision was grand, but implementation of a project that favored foreign interests and the traditional elites met mass resistance. The project was also dogged by corruption, cronyism, incompetence, and when it came to land reform, lack of political will. Then there was the special problem of Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, who wanted to corner more and more World Bank money for her projects. “Mrs. Marcos,” one Bank bureaucrat wrote in a briefing paper for McNamara, “has identified herself with a few showcase projects that we consider ineffective and which are a bit of a joke among knowledgeable Filipinos.”

Crisis and the Advent of Structural Adjustment

By the early 1980s, the World Bank program was floundering, prompting management to commission political risk analyst William Ascher to assess the situation. Ascher’s findings were grim. The Marcos regime was marked by “increasing precariousness” and “the World Bank’s imprimatur on the industrial program runs the risk of drawing criticism of the Bank as the servant of multinational corporations and particularly of US economic imperialism.”

In a desperate effort to salvage a deteriorating situation, the Bank forced Marcos to appoint a cabinet of technocrats headed by Prime Minister Cesar Virata, its most trusted agent in the country. But the cure that Virata and company administered was worse than the disease. The country was subjected, along with only three other countries that agreed to be guinea pigs, to an experimental Bank program called “structural adjustment” that involved the comprehensive liberalization and deregulation of the economy. The program, one of McNamara’s last innovations before he retired in 1981, sought to fully expose developing economies to international market forces in order make them more efficient. In the Philippines, this adjustment entailed bringing down the effective rate of protection for manufacturing from 44 to 20%. Instead of invigorating the economy, however, this shock liberalization combined with the international recession of the early 1980s to bring about deep economic contraction from 1983 to 1986.

Indeed, structural adjustment led not only to deindustrialization; according to one study, it also created so much unemployment that migration patterns changed drastically. The large migration flows to Manila declined, and most migrants could turn only to open access forests, watersheds, and artisanal fisheries. Thus the major environmental effect of the economic crisis was overexploitation of these vulnerable resources.

Adjustment led to a decade of stagnation from which the country never really recovered, even as its neighbors, who were smart enough to avoid being saddled with the program, were registering 6-10% growth rates in 1985-1995.

Familiar Ending

Yet there was one unintended benefit for the Philippines: The economic chaos that structural adjustment provoked was one of the key factors that brought about the ouster of Marcos in the combined civil-military uprising of February 1986.

By that time, McNamara had been out of the Bank for five years. Ensconced in retirement, he must, however, have seen parallels between the last U.S. helicopters leaving Saigon in 1975 and Marcos going into exile in Hawaii on a U.S. aircraft in 1986. The Philippines was McNamara’s second Vietnam. Like the first, it was a memory the once-celebrated whiz-kid of the Kennedy administration would probably have preferred to bury.

Copyright © 2009, Institute for Policy Studies

Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives of the Republic of the Philippines and president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition. A retired professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines, he is currently a columnist at Foreign Policy In Focus and a senior analyst at the Bangkok-based analysis and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South. He is the author of 15 books, the most recent of which is The Food Wars (New York: Verso, 2009). He can be reached at waldenbello (at) yahoo (dot) com.

Calling a Time Out January 23, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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obama-in-officeAs Obama gets down to work, the question of how best to deal with the conflict in Afghanistan looms large. (Photo: Getty Images) 22 January 2009, www.truthout.org

by: George McGovern, The Washington Post

more than $3 trillion. That war has clearly weakened our economy and our armed forces even as it has made the national debt soar. The Bush administration committed itself to Iraq before the recession. Today, with our economy teetering, does the Obama administration believe that it is time for yet another costly war in yet another Muslim country?

 As you settle into the Oval Office, Mr. President, may I offer a suggestion? Please do not try to put Afghanistan aright with the U.S. military. To send our troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan would be a near-perfect example of going from the frying pan into the fire. There is reason to believe some of our top military commanders privately share this view. And so does a broad and growing swath of your party and your supporters.

    True, the United States is the world’s greatest power – but so was the British Empire a century ago when it tried to pacify the warlords and tribes of Afghanistan, only to be forced out after excruciating losses. For that matter, the Soviet Union was also a superpower when it poured some 100,000 troops into Afghanistan in 1979. They limped home, broken and defeated, a decade later, having helped pave the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    It is logical to conclude that our massive military dominance and supposedly good motives should let us work our will in Afghanistan. But logic does not always prevail in South Asia. With belligerent Afghan warlords sitting atop each mountain glowering at one another, the one factor that could unite them is the invasion of their country by a foreign power, whether British, Russian or American.

    I have believed for some time that military power is no solution to terrorism. The hatred of U.S. policies in the Middle East – our occupation of Iraq, our backing for repressive regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our support of Israel – that drives the terrorist impulse against us would better be resolved by ending our military presence throughout the arc of conflict. This means a prudent, carefully directed withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere. We also need to close down the imposing U.S. military bases in this section of the globe, which do so little to expand our security and so much to stoke local resentment.

    We cannot evade this reckoning. The British thought they could extend their control over Iraq even while pulling out their ground forces by creating a string of bases in remote parts of the country, away from the observation of most Iraqis. It didn’t work. No people that desires independence and self-determination wishes to have another nation’s military bases in its country. In 1776, remember, 13 little colonies drove the mighty British Empire from American soil.

    In 2003, the Bush administration ordered an invasion of Iraq, supposedly to reduce terrorism. But six years later, there is more terrorism and civil strife in Iraq, not less. The same outcome may occur in Afghanistan if we make it the next American military conflict.

    Mr. President, the bright promise of your brilliant campaign for the White House and the high hopes of the millions who thronged the Mall on Tuesday to watch you be sworn in could easily be lost in the mountains and wastelands of Afghanistan.

    The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz has estimated that the war in Iraq will have a total cost of

    I’m aware that some of my fellow Americans regard me as too idealistic. But sometimes idealism is the best realism. And at a minimum, realism and idealism need not be contradictory. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has not only angered Iraqis who have lost family members, neighbors or homes; it has also increased the level of anger throughout the Muslim world and thrown up obstacles to our political leadership in that deeply important part of the planet.

    Like you, Mr. President, I don’t oppose all wars. I risked my life in World War II to protect our country against genuine danger. But it is the vivid memory of my fellow airmen being shot out of the sky on all sides of me in a war that I believe we had to fight that makes me cautious about sending our youth into needless conflicts that weaken us at home and abroad, and may even weaken us in the eyes of God.

    As you have noted, Mr. President, we take pride in our soldiers who conduct themselves bravely. But as you have also said, some of these soldiers have served two, three and even four tours in dangerous combat. Many of them have come home with enduring brain and nerve damage and without arms and legs. These troops need rest, rehabilitation and reunions with their families.

    So let me suggest a truly audacious hope for your administration: How about a five-year time-out on war – unless, of course, there is a genuine threat to the nation?

    During that interval, we could work with the U.N. World Food Program, plus the overseas arms of the churches, synagogues, mosques and other volunteer agencies to provide a nutritious lunch every day for every school-age child in Afghanistan and other poor countries. Such a program is now underway in several countries approved by Congress and the United Nations, under the auspices of the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Act. (Forgive the self-serving title.) Although the measure remains painfully underfunded, with the help of other countries, we are reaching millions of children. We could supplement these efforts with nutritional packages for low-income pregnant and nursing mothers and their infants from birth through the age of 5, as is done here at home by WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

    Is this proposal pie-in-the-sky? I don’t think so. It’s food in the stomachs of hungry kids. It would draw them to school and enable them to learn and grow into better citizens. It would cost a small fraction of warfare’s cost, but it might well be a stronger antidote to terrorism. There will always be time for another war. But hunger can’t wait.

    George McGovern, a former senator from South Dakota, was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972.

The Afghan Scam: The Untold Story of Why the US Is Bound to Fail in Afghanistan January 12, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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 11 January 2009

by: Ann Jones, TomDispatch.com

    The first of 20,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops are scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan next month to re-win the war George W. Bush neglected to finish in his eagerness to start another one. However, “winning” the military campaign against the Taliban is the lesser half of the story.

    Going into Afghanistan, the Bush administration called for a political campaign to reconstruct the country and thereby establish the authority of a stable, democratic Afghan central government. It was understood that the two campaigns – military and political/economic – had to go forward together; the success of each depended on the other. But the vision of a reconstructed, peaceful, stable, democratically governed Afghanistan faded fast. Most Afghans now believe that it was nothing but a cover story for the Bush administration’s real goal – to set up permanent bases in Afghanistan and occupy the country forever.

    Whatever the truth of the matter, in the long run, it’s not soldiers but services that count – electricity, water, food, health care, justice, and jobs. Had the U.S. delivered the promised services on time, while employing Afghans to rebuild their own country according to their own priorities and under the supervision of their own government – a mini-Marshall Plan – they would now be in charge of their own defense. The forces on the other side, which we loosely call the Taliban, would also have lost much of their grounds for complaint.

    Instead, the Bush administration perpetrated a scam. It used the system it set up to dispense reconstruction aid to both the countries it “liberated,” Afghanistan and Iraq, to transfer American taxpayer dollars from the national treasury directly into the pockets of private war profiteers. Think of Halliburton, Bechtel, and Blackwater in Iraq; Louis Berger Group, Bearing Point, and DynCorp International in Afghanistan. They’re all in it together. So far, the Bush administration has bamboozled Americans about its shady aid program. Nobody talks about it. Yet the aid scam, which would be a scandal if it weren’t so profitable for so many, explains far more than does troop strength about why, today, we are on the verge of watching the whole Afghan enterprise go belly up.

    What’s worse, there’s no reason to expect that things will change significantly on Barack Obama’s watch. During the election campaign, he called repeatedly for more troops for “the right war” in Afghanistan (while pledging to draw-down U.S. forces in Iraq), but he has yet to say a significant word about the reconstruction mission. While many aid workers in that country remain full of good intentions, the delivery systems for and uses of U.S. aid have been so thoroughly corrupted that we can only expect more of the same – unless Obama cleans house fast. But given the monumental problems on his plate, how likely is that?

    The Jolly Privateers

    It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the failure of American reconstruction in Afghanistan. While the U.S. has occupied the country – for seven years and counting – and efficiently set up a network of bases and prisons, it has yet to restore to Kabul, the capital, a mud brick city slightly more populous than Houston, a single one of the public services its citizens used to enjoy. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, they modernized the education system and built power plants, dams, factories, and apartment blocs, still the most coveted in the country. If, in the last seven years, George W. Bush did not get the lights back on in the capital, or the water flowing, or dispose of the sewage or trash, how can we assume Barack Obama will do any better with the corrupt system he’s about to inherit?

    Between 2002 and 2008, the U.S. pledged $10.4 billion dollars in “development” (reconstruction) aid to Afghanistan, but actually delivered only $5 billion of that amount. Considering that the U.S. is spending $36 billion a year on the war in Afghanistan and about $8 billion a month on the war in Iraq, that $5 billion in development aid looks paltry indeed. But keep in mind that, in a country as poor as Afghanistan, a little well spent money can make a big difference.

    The problem is not simply that the Bush administration skimped on aid, but that it handed it over to for-profit contractors. Privatization, as is now abundantly clear, enriches only the privateers and serves only their private interests.

    Take one pertinent example. When the inspectors general of the Pentagon and State Department investigated the U.S. program to train the Afghan police in 2006, they found the number of men trained (about 30,000) to be less than half the number reported by the administration (70,000). The training had lasted eight weeks at most, with no in-the-field experience whatsoever. Only about half the equipment assigned to the police – including thousands of trucks – could be accounted for, and the men trained were then deemed “incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work.”

    The American privateer training the police – DynCorp – went on to win no-bid contracts to train police in Iraq with similar results. The total bill for American taxpayers from 2004 to 2006: $1.6 billion. It’s unclear whether that money came from the military or the development budget, but in either case it was wasted. The inspectors general reported that police incompetence contributed directly to increased opium production, the reinvigoration of the Taliban, and government corruption in general, thoroughly subverting much ballyhooed U.S. goals, both military and political.

    In the does-no-one-ever-learn category: the latest American victory plan, announced in December, calls for recruiting and rearming local militias to combat the Taliban. Keep in mind that hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly donated by Japan, have already been spent to disarm local militias. A proposal to rearm them was soundly defeated last fall in the Afghan Parliament. Now, it’s again the plan du jour, rubber-stamped by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

    Afghans protest that such a plan amounts to sponsoring civil war, which, if true, would mean that American involvement in Afghanistan might be coming full circle – civil war being the state in which the U.S. left Afghanistan at the end of our proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. American commanders, however, insist that they must use militias because Afghan Army and police forces are “simply not available.” Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, deputy commander of American forces, told the New York Times, “We don’t have enough police, [and] we don’t have time to get the police ready.” This, despite the State Department’s award to DynCorp last August of another $317.4 million contract “to continue training civilian police forces in Afghanistan,” a contract DynCorp CEO William Ballhaus greeted as “an opportunity to contribute to peace, stability and democracy in the world [and] support our government’s efforts to improve people’s lives.”

    America First

    In other areas less obviously connected to security, American aid policy is no less self-serving or self-defeating. Although the Bush administration handpicked the Afghan president and claims to want to extend his authority throughout the country, it refuses to channel aid money through his government’s ministries. (It argues that the Afghan government is corrupt, which it is, in a pathetic, minor league sort of way.)

    Instead of giving aid money for Afghan schools to the Ministry of Education, for example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funds private American contractors to start literacy programs for adults. As a result, Afghan teachers abandon the public schools and education administrators leave the Ministry for higher paying jobs with those contractors, further undermining public education and governance. The Bush administration may have no particular reason to sabotage its handpicked government, but it has had every reason to befriend private contractors who have, in turn, kicked back generously to election campaigns and Republican coffers.

    There are other peculiar features of American development aid. Nearly half of it (47%) goes to support “technical assistance.” Translated, that means overpaid American “experts,” often totally unqualified – somebody’s good old college buddies – are paid handsomely to advise the locals on matters ranging from office procedures to pesticide use, even when the Afghans neither request nor welcome such advice. By contrast, the universally admired aid programs of Sweden and Ireland allocate only 4% and 2% respectively to such technical assistance, and when asked, they send real experts. American technical advisors, like American privateers, are paid by checks – big ones – that pass directly from the federal treasury to private accounts in American banks, thus helping to insure that about 86 cents of every dollar designated for U.S. “foreign” aid anywhere in the world never leaves the U.S.A.

    American aid that actually makes it abroad arrives with strings attached. At least 70% of it is “tied” to the purchase of American products. A food aid program, for example, might require Afghanistan to purchase American agricultural products in preference to their own, thus putting Afghan farmers out of business or driving even more of them into the poppy trade. (The percentage of aid from Sweden, Ireland, and the United Kingdom that is similarly tied: zero.)

    Testifying before a congressional subcommittee on May 8, 2001, Andrew Natsios, then head of USAID, described American aid as “a key foreign policy instrument [that] helps nations prepare for participation in the global trading system and become better markets for U.S. exports.” Such so-called aid cuts American business in right from the start. USAID has even developed a system for “preselecting” certain private contractors, then inviting only those preselected companies to apply for contracts the agency wants to issue.

    Often, in fact, only one of the preselected contractors puts in for the job and then – if you need a hint as to what’s really going on – just happens to award subcontracts to some of the others. It’s remarkable, too, how many former USAID officials have passed through the famed revolving door in Washington to become highly paid consultants to private contractors – and vice versa. By January 2006, the Bush administration had co-opted USAID altogether. The once independent aid agency launched by President Kennedy in 1961 became a subsidiary of the State Department and a partner of the Pentagon.

    Oh, and keep in mind one more thing: While the private contractors may be in it for the duration, most employees and technical experts in Afghanistan stay on the job only six months to a year because it’s considered such a “hardship post.” As a result, projects tend not to last long and to be remarkably unrelated to those that came before or will come after. Contractors collect the big bucks whether or not the aid they contracted to deliver benefits Afghans, or even reaches them.

    These arrangements help explain why Afghanistan remains such a shambles.

    The Afghan Scam

    It’s not that American aid has done nothing. Check out the USAID website and you’ll find a summary of what is claimed for it (under the glorious heading of “Afghanistan Reborn”). It will inform you that USAID has completed literally thousands of projects in that country. The USAID loves numbers, but don’t be deceived by them. A thousand short-term USAID projects can’t hold a candle to one long, careful, patient program run, year after year, by a bunch of Afghans led by a single Swede.

    If there has been any progress in Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul, it’s largely been because two-thirds of the reconstruction aid to Afghanistan comes from other (mostly European) countries that do a better job, and partly because the country’s druglords spend big on palatial homes and services in the capital. But the one-third of international aid that is supposed to come from the U.S., and that might make a critical difference when added to the work of others, eternally falls into the wrong pockets.

    What would Afghans have done differently, if they’d been in charge? They’d have built much smaller schools, and a lot more of them, in places more convenient to children than to foreign construction crews. Afghans would have hired Afghans to do the building. Louis Berger Group had the contract to build more than 1,000 schools at a cost of $274,000 per school. Already way behind schedule in 2005, they had finished only a small fraction of them when roofs began to collapse under the snows of winter.

    Believe me, given that same $274,000, Afghans would have built 15 or 20 schools with good roofs. The same math can be applied to medical clinics. Afghans would also have chosen to repair irrigation systems and wells, to restore ruined orchards, vineyards, and fields. Amazingly enough, USAID initially had no agricultural programs in a country where rural subsistence farmers are 85% of the population. Now, after seven years, the agency finally claims to have “improved” irrigation on “nearly 15%” of arable land. And you can be sure that Afghans wouldn’t have chosen – again – the Louis Berger Group to rebuild the 389-mile long Kabul/Kandahar highway with foreign labor at a cost of $1 million per mile.

    As things now stand, Afghans, as well as Afghan-Americans who go back to help their homeland, have to play by American rules. Recently an Afghan-American contractor who competed for reconstruction contracts told me that the American military is getting in on the aid scam. To apply for a contract, Afghan applicants now have to fill out a form (in English!) that may run to 50 pages. My informant, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, commented that it’s next to impossible to figure out “what they look for.” He won a contract only when he took a hint and hired an American “expert” – a retired military officer – to fill out the form. The expert claimed the “standard fee” for his service: 25% of the value of the contract.

    Another Afghan-American informed me that he was proud to have worked with an American construction company building schools with USAID funds. Taken on as a translator, he persuaded the company not only to hire Afghan laborers, but also to raise their pay gradually from $1.00 per day to $10.00 per day. “They could feed their families,” he said, “and it was all cost over-run, so cost didn’t matter. The boss was already billing the government $10.00 to $15.00 an hour for labor, so he could afford to pay $10.00 a day and still make a profit.” My informant didn’t question the corruption in such over-billing. After all, Afghans often tack on something extra for themselves, and they don’t call it corruption either. But on this scale it adds up to millions going into the assumedly deep pockets of one American privateer.

    Yet a third Afghan-American, a businessman who has worked on American projects in his homeland, insisted that when Bush pledged $10.4 billion in aid, President Karzai should have offered him a deal: “Give me $2 billion in cash, I’ll kick back the rest to you, and you can take your army and go home.”

    “If Karzai had put the cash in an Afghan bank,” the businessman added, “and spent it himself on what people really need, both Afghanistan and Karzai would be in much better shape today.” Yes, he was half-joking, but he wasn’t wrong.

    Don’t think of such stories, and thousands of others like them, as merely tales of the everyday theft or waste of a few hundred million dollars – a form of well-organized, routine graft that leaves the corruption of Karzai’s government in the shade and will undoubtedly continue unremarked upon in the Obama years. Those multi-millions that will continue to be poured down the Afghan drain really represent promises made to a people whose country and culture we have devastated more than once. They are promises made by our government, paid for by our taxpayers, and repeatedly broken.

    These stories, which you’ll seldom hear about, are every bit as important as the debates about military strength and tactics and strategy in Afghanistan that dominate public discourse today. Those promises, made in our name, were once said to be why we fight; now – broken – they remind us that we’ve already lost.

    —-

    Ann Jones wrote at length about the failure of American aid in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan Books), a book about American meddling in Afghanistan as well as her experience as a humanitarian aid worker there from 2002 to 2006. For more information, visit her website. For a concise report on many of the defects in international aid mentioned here, check out Real Aid (pdf file), a report issued in 2005 by the South African NGO Action Aid.

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