Tag Archives: foreign aid

Goats and boats

Several times in the past, I have drawn attention to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, who audits the $117 billion the United States has spent on economic and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. His reports are a catalogue of waste and incompetence on a quite staggering scale. Among other things, he uncovered the stories of how the US spent $6 million airlifting 9 Italian goats to Afganistan; spent $486 million buying aircraft for the Afghan airforce which were so dangerous to fly that they were never used and ended up being turned into $32,000 of scrap metal; built an entirely unused 64,000 square foot command centre at a cost of $34 million ; spent $150 million building luxury villas to lodge staff of its economic development office; and expended $3 million on building a navy for landlocked Afghanistan, but never actually delivered the boats. Unfortunately, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a chronicle of folly which boggles the mind.

I cannot recommend SIGAR’s reports enough to anybody wanting to understand why America’s campaign to stabilize Afghanistan (and by extension, many other places) is failing. Sopko is in some ways the storyteller of our time, reaching to the heart of the rot in the West’s international policy. Yesterday, he gave a public lecture at the University of Ottawa and provided a number of valuable insights. Below is a brief summary of what he said.

  • The situation in Afghanistan is not getting any better. Afghan security forces are ‘playing a deadly game of whack-a-mole’. They have little mobility or capacity for offensive operations. All they can do ‘is retake major areas after they fall’. They are ‘unable or unwilling to take the fight to the Taleban.’
  • The root of the problem is an ‘insidious combination of poor leadership and corruption.’
  • ‘The donor community contributed mightily to the corruption problem’ by putting in ‘too much money too fast in too small a country’ without considering local conditions. ‘The United States and other donor nations contributed enormously to the corruption explosion in Afghanistan.’
  • The Taleban have stopped providing supplies to many of their troops and instead told their commanders to buy the supplies from the Afghan army because it is cheaper! ‘Fully 50% of the fuel purchased for the Afghans never reaches the intended recipient.’ ‘At the end of the US supply chain in Afghanistan is the Taleban.’
  • ‘The US has spent $8.5 billion in Afghanistan to fight narcotics. Unfortunately, we have little to show for it.’ ‘Afghanistan is continuing to grow poppies at near record levels’, providing the Taleban with the majority of its revenues.
  • The Afghan state is not financially sustainable. Its revenue from domestic sources is a mere $2 billion a year, whereas it spends $4 billion a year on non-security expenditures and $4-6 billion on security. The difference comes from foreign donors. Meanwhile, the state lacks the capacity to manage large sums of money, and once that money is given to Afghans, it ‘becomes incredibly hard to follow’. ‘It may take decades for the Afghan government to achieve success and military and financial sustainability’. ‘Future prospects look bleak.’

Sopko concluded his lecture by saying that ‘It’s been amazing to me how little common sense has been used in our reconstruction effort’. ‘If we don’t change how we do things’, he said, ‘we will almost certainly fail in Afghanistan. … If we keep doing what we did the last 15 years, we’re going to get run over.’

Putting this all together, it seems to me that the basic problem is this:

To fight the Taleban, Western countries have created a huge Afghan military and security system, which is far beyond what Afghanistan can afford. Also, in an effort to bring ‘good governance’, economic development, human rights, and all the rest of it, in the hope that all this will contribute to defeating the insurgency, we have constructed an Afghan state with a large volume of social commitments which again it cannot afford. To make up the massive budget deficit, we have pumped billions of dollars into the country, thereby creating the conditions for corruption on a gigantic scale. This has then fatally undermined the legitimacy and competence of the state we are trying to support.

It’s a sort of vicious circle, or a Catch 22 situation. If we stop supporting the Afghan state, it will collapse. But supporting it on the scale it needs to survive pretty much guarantees that it will fail.

Sopko refused to make any policy recommendations, saying that as an auditor that’s not his job. Personally, I can’t listen to what he says or read his numerous reports, and feel any optimism that we are capable of finding a good way out of this mess. Frankly, we are way too incompetent. On the whole, rather than continuing to invest to recover sunken costs, it probably makes more sense to cut our losses and admit defeat.


Since the publication of my book Aiding Afghanistan, I have been receiving email bulletins from the office of John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), who is responsible for auditing the billions of dollars the United States spends on providing aid to Afghanistan. The emails don’t make for happy reading. They are a catalogue of money wasted on badly conceived projects. The latest email directs me to a speech given by Sopko at Georgetown University on 10 September, which is worth quoting in some detail.

Sopko mentions that the United States has spent $110 billion on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and adds that ‘To give that number some perspective, after adjusting for inflation, Afghanistan reconstruction exceeds the value of the entire Marshall Plan effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.’ He then proceeds to focus on just one aspect of this aid, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), to illustrate the dangers of spending vast sums of money without clear goals and controls.

CERP distributes money to US military commanders to spend on aid and development projects within their areas of operations. ‘Incredibly’, says Sopko, ‘for the first nine years of CERP’s existence, I have not been able to find a single, clearly articulated mention of the program’s true objectives in any official document.’ Consequently:

Because this program was initially designed without explicitly-stated objectives and stringent performance metrics, it largely lends itself to anecdotal ‘evidence’ by small-unit commanders … it should surprise no one that the sustainability of CERP-funded schools have been singled out because, say, they are literally crumbling and fall apart. Or that CERP-funded hospitals actually became unsafe because their electrical and water supply systems failed. The overarching objective was never to build a school or hospital, staff it, supply it, and otherwise maintain it in order to improve education or health in Afghanistan.

‘What about the anecdotal “evidence” about CERP’ successes?’, Sopko asks, ‘how it has saved the lives of our troops, built trust where it was lacking, and furthered the security mission in Afghanistan. It probably has. But I can’t verify that. No one can. … when I can’t even tell what the program’s basic objectives were, I certainly can’t tell you whether it’s succeeding or not.’

As far as aid other than that of CERP is concerned, Sopko gives an example of typical spending and results – $15 million spent by USAID on a new hospital in Gardez, ’12 times larger than the previous hospital’. ‘There was just one problem,’ says Sopko:

USAID did not fully assess the Afghan Ministry of Public Health’s ability to operate and maintain the hospital once completed. In the end, USAID managed to increase the cost for the Afghans to operate a hospital in Gardez by a factor of five. I wish I could say that this is an isolated incident, but this sort of thing happens in Afghanistan all the time. You would think after 13 years of these types of occurrences, and hundreds of cases of SIGAR pointing these problems out, that someone would wake up, look around, and say, “You know what folks? Maybe we’re going about this all wrong.” It seems that time and again, people have to be reminded that Afghanistan is not Kansas.

‘Here we are’, says Sopko, ‘Almost fourteen years into our trillion dollar effort, with over 2,000 American lives sacrificed. At the risk of sounding dramatic, if we can’t honestly point to some actual, measurable accomplishments from that massive investment, we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity.’

Wow! Despite expenditures exceeding those of the Marshall Plan, the US auditor ‘can’t honestly point to some actual, measurable accomplishments’. I can’t say that this is a great surprise. Worldwide, foreign aid has been remarkably unsuccessful over the years, so it’s hardly surprising that it has failed in the specific case of Afghanistan. It’s even less surprising that it should have failed when managed by soldiers, who are not, after all, experts in social and economic development and who in any case aren’t actually aiming at either. Here, it seems, we are deep in the realm of this blog’s theme of irrational policy making. The enormous amount of money, the consequent bureaucratic interests involved, and the overarching determination to prove that the operation is a success, which means that contrary evidence is ignored, all add up to produce a scenario in which failed policy continues uncontested despite its obvious uselessness.

Yet even Sopko can’t bring himself to admit that the whole effort is futile. He ends his speech with a plea against isolationism, conjuring up the image of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement to argue that the United States must remain engaged in foreign conflicts. And here, I think, we confront what is perhaps the greatest problem with the way Western policy makers view the world. It isn’t spending a hundred billion dollars on aid to Afghanistan that was the mistake, it’s the way the money was spent, they say. If we learn the lessons, and spend the aid money better, then next time it will do some good. Likewise, it wasn’t invading Iraq that was wrong, it was how the subsequent occupation was handled. It wasn’t bombing Libya that messed that country up, it was failing to invest in the country afterwards. And so on. Again and again, policy makers view the disastrous consequences of their actions as the products of mistaken tactics on the part of the people implementing the policies, not as the product of faulty strategic design. The idea that the underlying policy itself might be faulty is never properly considered. That would produce far too much cognitive dissonance. And so the disasters keep piling up.

One model fits all

Recently I attended the annual conference of the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in San Antonio, Texas. One interesting panel examined Russian/East European development assistance to the Third World during and after the Cold War, a subject I had done some work on in my 2013 book Aiding Afghanistan: A History of Soviet Assistance to a Developing Country. Of particular interest to me was a paper by Patty Gray of Maynooth University in Ireland, which discussed Russia’s move from being a recipient of development assistance after the collapse of the Soviet Union to once again being a donor.

Russia’s contemporary aid agency is Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Cooperation in English). Gray pointed out that this organization evolved not from the Soviet institutions which were involved in development assistance but rather from those which handled cultural ties and exchanges with foreign countries. Because of this, Rossotrudnichestvo has to date focused on cultural matters. However, the organization’s website recently added a section devoted to ‘international development assistance’ which speaks of providing ‘financial, technical, humanitarian and other aid, helping the social-economic development of states’.

Rossotrudnichestvo's logo
Rossotrudnichestvo’s logo

As yet there is not much evidence to indicate what this will mean in reality. In Soviet times, development practice closely tracked academic theory. With this in mind, I asked Dr. Gray whether there even was any modern Russian development theory. Her answer was revealing. There are apparently a handful of contemporary Russian textbooks on development theory, but there are no university programs dedicated to the subject and very few academics are paying any attention to it. To overcome this deficit, the European Union (EU) has been running courses on the subject for Russians and others from Eastern Europe. According to Dr. Gray, the EU courses do not present different concepts of what development is and how it can be helped, but rather teach a single model (the EU’s model) which it is assumed students will apply once they go home. In practice, though, said Dr. Gray, students do what is expected of them and parrot what they are taught in order to pass the course, then when they go home mainly ignore it all in favour of their own country’s traditions and experiences.

'From the people of Russia' - label attached to aid supplied by Rossotrudnichestvo
‘From the people of Russia’ – label attached to aid supplied by Rossotrudnichestvo

This story neatly encapsulates the arrogance of much of Western ‘capacity building’. In theory, we know that local institutions matter and that you cannot impose the same template on every country. But we keep on acting as though you can. Soviet development assistance was not notably successful, but its results weren’t generally any worse than that provided by its Western competitors. As it takes up this activity once again, Russia needs to start thinking seriously about how it can make its aid effective. This means doing more than simply copying a template provided by the West.