Afghanistan: Local Reconstruction Effort Goes Awry

Residents allege misuse of funds allocated to community leaders.

Afghanistan: Local Reconstruction Effort Goes Awry

Residents allege misuse of funds allocated to community leaders.

Misuse of reconstruction funds at local level in Afghanistan is undermining confidence in 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.

But people in Tagab interviewed by IWPR accuse those delegated with 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 told IWPR, “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 prioritise 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.

The Community Development Councils, CDCs, set up in villages across Afghanistan to participate in the NSP 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 defence 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 labourers also come from the same family.”

In the village of Mirakhel, a resident who asked not to be named who preferred to remain anonymous, 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, told IWPR that in many of the NSP projects assigned to CDCs, 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, told IWPR that CDC members did include ex-militia commanders. But he said the councils were locally elected and the ministry had no authority over them.

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

“We don’t have any projects in train at the moment. The projects are being run by foreign organisations 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 was left to local communities, and argued that since the councils were 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 were parts of the province where the situation was too dangerous to allow project monitoring to take place.

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

NSP executive director Mohammad Tariq Esmati initially agreed to be interviewed by IWPR, but refused to answer questions about the allegations made against CDCs in Tagab, saying he was too busy.

Political experts say that while the international community is assigning as much importance to reconstruction as pursuing the war with the Taleban, stories like the ones IWPR heard in Tagab are undermining these efforts.

Although close to Kabul, Tagab has a significant presence of Taleban, who are keen to play up the failings of the Afghan government and its international partners. (See Afghan Checkpoints Draw Insurgent Attacks.)

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.

“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.”

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 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 expected 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 per cent 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.”

Maiwand Safi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kapisa province.

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