Afghanistan: Local Reconstruction Effort Goes Awry

By Maiwand Safi

TAGAB, Kapisa, Afghanistan, May 19, 2011 (ENS) – Misuse of reconstruction funds at the local level in Afghanistan is undermining confidence in the central government in the northeastern Tagab district.

As in other parts of Afghanistan, people in this district northeast of the capital Kabul should be benefiting from development projects funded under the flagship National Solidarity Programme, NSP.

Kapisa Province, Afghanistan (Photo by John Spykerman)

But people interviewed in Tagab accuse those handling project grants with embezzling much of the money. No one is supervising how the work is being managed, and the few things that have been built are already falling apart, they say.

Pointing at a dyke built to contain the River Adazai, Tagab resident Jafar said, “The NSP built this wall less than a year ago to prevent flood damage, but the rocks are already falling off one by one and the wall is about to collapse.”

The NSP is the brainchild of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development under which local community councils prioritize the projects they need most and are given the money to carry them out. These range from infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, dams and housing to the provision of livestock, fertilizers, tractors and generators.

A humvee of the Afghan National Army on a road through the Tagab Valley, March 2010 (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

The Community Development Councils, CDCs, set up in villages across Afghanistan to participate in the National Solidarity Programme, are now seen as a form of local government rather than just grant-handling agencies.

According to the NSP’s website, this “alternative decision-making process at the lowest community level represents a form of government at its most basic form … democratically elected community decision-making bodies as a viable alternative to the traditional local governance structure has provided a vehicle to re-build the social fabric and relationships at grassroots level.”

That is not how interviewees in Tagab see it. The problem, they say, is that the councils there are often unaccountable and self-serving bodies, dominated by local warlords and other powerful figures who misuse funds.

In the case of the river defense project, Jafar said, the CDC was packed with former militia commanders from the Jamiat-e Islami faction.

“They engaged friends and relatives for the project and paid them wages of up to 1,000 dollars [a month], while impoverished villagers weren’t taken on, not even for four dollars a day. They used the money to buy cars for themselves,” he said.

“What can I say? It’s a form of embezzlement,” Jafar said. “There’s no one to control it. All the money gets distributed among NSP members. Even when they do implement some small projects, they hire members of the same family as project manager, deputy head, secretary, accountant and so on. Even the ordinary laborers also come from the same family.”

A road maintenance crew with members of the Afghan National Police Provincial Response Company take a break at a Tagab Valley school, March 2010 (Photo courtesy NATO International Security Assistance Force)

In the village of Mirakhel, a resident who asked not to be named, said local CDC members had skewed the choice of projects and then ensured the money went to their own contractors.

“The NSP assigned 150,000 dollars to our area. People believed the money ought to be used for power generation or irrigation systems, because the education ministry was building schools for us, but three council members who were former warlords pressed for the construction of schools,” he said.

These individuals then contracted the building work to their own associates. The result, this villager said, was shoddy work.

“You should go to the school and have a look at the quality,” he said. “I’m sure the building won’t survive even the spring showers.”

A rural development ministry official based in Tagab district, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in many of the National Solidarity Programme projects assigned to Community Development Councils, the budgets were controlled by “powerful individuals” who used them to further their own personal interests.

Hayatullah Farhang, the ministry’s head in Kapisa province, which includes Tagab, admitted that CDC members do include ex-militia commanders. But he said the councils are locally elected and the ministry has no authority over them.

Boys read at a school in the Tagab Valley. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

Although the CDCs were created specifically to handle grant money channeled through the ministry’s National Solidarity Programme, Farhang said all current projects in the province are being funded independently of the ministry.

“We don’t have any projects in train at the moment,” said Farhang. “The projects are being run by foreign organizations which distribute them directly to the local councils, and don’t contact us at all. Yet these projects should have been implemented through the Ministry for Rural Rehabilitation and Development.”

Farhang’s deputy, Wahid Ahmad, reiterated that the composition of CDCs is left to local communities. He argued that since the councils are elected every three years, “Those who are accused of fraud certainly won’t get re-elected.”

He acknowledged that the ministry’s project monitoring committee for Kapisa province had identified “corruption and fraud” in 15 projects, and had halted them. As for work administered by the internationally-run Provincial Reconstruction Team and other foreign agencies, he said, “We do not have the authority to halt those projects.”

Finally, there are parts of the province where the situation is too dangerous to allow project monitoring to take place.

An Afghan National Police officer displays a Guardians of Peace Reward Program sign at the market in Tagab, Afghanistan, November 15, 2010. (Photo courtesy NATO International Security Assistance Force)

“I can say with confidence that in areas where security is not guaranteed, corruption and fraud is occurring in projects,” Ahmad added.

National Solidarity Programme Executive Director Mohammad Tariq Esmati initially agreed to be interviewed, but refused to answer questions about the allegations made against Community Development Councils in Tagab, saying he was too busy.

Political experts say that while the international community assigns as much importance to reconstruction as to pursuing the war with the Taliban, stories like the ones in Tagab are undermining these efforts.

Although close to Kabul, Tagab has a significant presence of Taliban, who are keen to play up the failings of the Afghan government and its international partners.

The perception that international aid agencies squander money and that officials in central government engage in corrupt practices with impunity leads to a general sense of hopelessness.

Tagab resident (Photo courtesy NATO International Security Assistance Force)

“The distribution begins in the donor countries. Everyone is involved in embezzlement from top to bottom,” the anonymous rural development ministry official in Tagab said.

“Everyone is putting his own interests first. Government officials like provincial council members and others take a cut of road construction projects. They won’t sign off on documents or turn up for the project completion ceremony unless they’re given their share,” the official said.

Political expert Wahid Mozhda underlines the importance of getting the reconstruction effort right as a factor in building stability.

“If the money is spent properly, the war will end. If it isn’t, the reverse will happen,” he said. “Government officials are generally complicit in the corruption that occurs with these projects. If this continues, there will be dire consequences. This is the sole reason why government is increasingly estranged from the people, and why people are discontent.”

Tagab resident Bahir Ahmad said he no longer expects the current Afghan government to bring any improvements to people’s lives.

“I was very disappointed when I heard an American economist saying on TV that every Afghan citizen had received 75,000 dollars in aid. This at a time when 90 percent of people have not received a single dollar assistance,” he said.

“I now accept that it is foolish to expect [President] Hamed Karzai and his friends to help us, so there’s no point even complaining about them.”

{This article was originally published May 17, 2011 by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.