09.29.10

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy on Assistance for Afghanistan

MR. LEAHY.  Mr. President, at a time when many Americans are increasingly concerned with the situation in Afghanistan, I was interested in an investigative report on U.S. aid for Afghanistan in the August 2, 2010, issue of the Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.  The report describes several aspects of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s approach to development in that country, and I want to take a minute to clarify what may be a misconception about the Congress’ expectations.

The article describes USAID’s focus on the “burn rate” – that is, how quickly aid funds are spent.  With this as USAID’s focus, the more money the President asks for, the more money Congress appropriates, the more money USAID has available to spend, and the faster USAID says it needs to spend it in order to satisfy Congress. 

The article gives examples of the mistakes and problems that have resulted from trying to spend too much, too fast, in an environment where security threats severely limit the ability of USAID to monitor the funds, where a large percentage of the population lives as though it were the 12th Century, where corruption is pervasive, and where the Karzai Government is widely perceived as ineffective or worse.  The article describes big-dollar contracts with foreign companies that are not familiar with Afghanistan, for projects that are hastily designed from the top down, are overly ambitious, and too often do not produce good results.

This is one Senator who is not impressed by burn rates.  I don’t think they are a good measure of anything, except possibly waste.  When I hear that the administration expects to increase the burn rate for USAID programs and activities in Afghanistan from $250 million per month to $300 million per month, it rings alarm bells.  I am interested in projects that are worth the investment and that provide lasting improvements in the lives of the Afghan people.  More often, that means spending less, and spending it more slowly and more carefully.

What we are seeing in Afghanistan is reminiscent of Iraq, although in Iraq the waste and shoddy results were on a far larger scale.  The Pentagon was asked to be a relief and reconstruction agency that it was never meant to be.  The empty buildings, electricity blackouts and unfinished projects are part of the costly legacy of that debacle. 

But the increasing tendency in Afghanistan to measure progress by the rate at which money is spent is unwise.  We have urged USAID to go slower, to focus on smaller, manageable, sustainable projects that are chosen with input from local communities.  Local people, and local governments or national government ministries with a record of transparency, accountability and good performance, should be involved at all stages, from design to implementation to oversight.  It may take longer, the projects may not be as grandiose, but the long term results are likely to be better.   

In response, we are told USAID needs more money to support the civilian surge and implement bigger projects quickly as part of the “clear, hold, build” strategy.  I understand the pressure USAID is under, from the Pentagon, the White House, and the State Department, to spend more money faster.  I suspect if it were up to USAID alone it would spend less and get better results.  And I am concerned that at the same time USAID is being told to spend more, it is treated as a second-class agency that sometimes has to fight just to be included in the discussions about the very strategy it is told to implement. 

But I have seen, as the Christian Science Monitor describes, the disappointing results of the big-spending, rushed approach.  Costly new roads that are already deteriorating, poorly built irrigation canals that have collapsed from landslides, hydro-electric projects that don’t produce electricity.  United States officials in Kabul who have been in the country only a few months and will be gone after a year, trying to direct what happens on the ground hundreds of miles away.  Perhaps the worst of it is that many Afghans have become angry and distrustful of the United States because they know these projects were expensive and mismanaged, and promises were not kept.  Just as bad is when USAID contractors issue self-serving reports -- describing projects which cost too much and produced too little -- as success stories.   

Of course, spending billions of dollars does produce successes.  Hundreds of thousands of Afghan girls are in school thanks to the United States.  That alone is a major achievement.  Agricultural productivity is increasing, thanks to USAID programs, although opium poppy cultivation is also flourishing.  Another success is the money we provide to the National Solidarity Program, which works from the bottom up, with better oversight and less waste than the big contracts.  It is supporting economic development projects, often costing only a few tens of thousands of dollars, in thousands of Afghan towns and villages. 

But these successes should not obscure the fact that planning, implementation, and oversight of programs need to be better, both for American taxpayers and for the Afghan people.

At a time when we face large budget deficits and money is scarce, I doubt the wisdom of spending billions of dollars this way.  That is one reason the Department of State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee has recommended $1.3 billion less than the President requested for aid for Afghanistan for fiscal year 2011.  Some argue that we should have cut even more.

We want to help the people of Afghanistan.  They have suffered, and continue to suffer, every imaginable hardship.  Combating poverty, empowering women whose political participation is essential to the future of that country, building more effective public institutions, and strengthening the rule of law in Afghanistan are in the long term interests of the United States.  We know that in a country torn by conflict and where corruption is rampant, some projects will fail no matter how well designed they are.  We understand that there is an unavoidable element of risk.  But spending money fast is not the same as taking risks to help people. 

I urge the administration to review its current assumptions, look critically at the results so far, take the time to understand the lessons learned, and reevaluate the amount of aid that Afghanistan can effectively absorb so progress is measured not by the rate at which money is spent, but by tangible improvements in the lives of the Afghan people.

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