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In Afghanistan, SIGAR Says Attaching Strings to Aid is a Good Idea

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The Pulse

In Afghanistan, SIGAR Says Attaching Strings to Aid is a Good Idea

SIGAR’s latest quarterly report stresses conditionality in aid and highlights accuracy problems at USAID.

In Afghanistan, SIGAR Says Attaching Strings to Aid is a Good Idea
Credit: Kenny Holston, U.S. Air Force

The latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is little different from those that came before–27 other quarterly reports, to be specific. As SIGARs purpose is oversight, it is not surprising that these reports are largely embarrassing for agencies using (and often misusing) U.S. funds. Past reports detailed the booming Afghan poppy business and the troubling fact that the Afghan security forces can’t account for all their soldiers. This report is perhaps a little different in that it discusses reasons for and challenges associated with setting effective conditions for aid–with an eye to the planned reworking of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF) in September.

In April, Special Inspector General John Sopko told the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s National Security subcommittee that “Every dollar we spend now on training, advising, and assisting the Afghans, and on oversight, must be viewed as insurance coverage to protect our nearly trillion-dollar investment in Afghanistan since 2001.”

Since 2002, the U.S. Congress has appropriated over $109 billion specifically for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Despite, for example, $8.2 billion spent on counternarcotics efforts Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer of opiates. Even though USAID and other agencies tout success in areas like education and health–SIGAR says their investigations paint a less rosy picture.

As security deteriorates oversight on aid projects becomes more difficult. One of the most-hyped methods to provide oversight is geotagging–taking pictures of projects, especially buildings, with geospatial coordinates that allow aid agencies to verify protect progress without physically traveling to sites in dangerous areas. In May 2014, USAID provided a SIGAR criminal investigation with coordinates for health-care facilities funded by the agency’s $210 million Partnership Contracts for Health (PCH) program. SIGAR checked the coordinates and in June notified USAID that they had found nearly 80 percent of the coordinates were incorrect.

As oversight budgets dwindle–SIGAR itself has been told to reduce its staffing–technology rushes to fill the gap. Either someone at USAID entered the wrong coordinates or no one built the centers at the specified sites, both indicate serious problems. In addition, SIGAR says what’s “troubling was USAID’s subsequent admission that it was aware of “precision issues” in the coordinates it gave SIGAR. Evidently, USAID provided the coordinates for a SIGAR criminal investigation without any appropriate caveats on their use, even though it had little or no confidence in the information.”

USAID demured, provided updated data, and argued that “the lack of precise geospatial data in most cases does not interfere with our ability to effectively monitor PCH.”

The future of aid in Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. The Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF) agreed upon by donor countries in 2012 is to be revised this September. The framework, SIGAR writes, “made a portion of donors’ assistance conditional on Afghan achievement of reforms or “hard deliverables” in areas like elections and anticorruption measures” but given failure on the part of Afghanistan to deliver in some areas, and the new national-unity government, donors have agreed to revisit and revise the framework.

With this in mind, SIGAR used the quarterly report as an opportunity to discuss the benefits and challenges associated with attaching conditions to aid. SIGAR says that attaching strings to aid is a good idea and that many agencies already set conditions for aid, whether they are preconditions, benchmarks, or reporting requirements. More than 60 percent of the $109 billion appropriated by the U.S. Congress since 2002 for reconstruction in Afghanistan has been security-related, however, and was given without strings. SIGAR notes that in 2014, the “operating environment changed.”  For the first time the Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Interior signed commitment letters, agreeing to conditions for receiving security aid. In 2015, SIGAR writes, “the two ministries are subject to 93 conditions, 45 for the MOD and 48 for the MOI.”

There is no set definition of conditions for aid, but most aid agencies around the world agree that some sort of conditions enhance the impact of aid by linking funds to actual development outcomes and embedding accountability in projects. But, SIGAR stresses “conditionality is a tool, not a magic bullet,” and “as with mechanical tools, issues of design, suitability for job, skillful use, careful adjustment, and measurement can make the difference between success and disappointment.” SIGAR sets out a list of “ten tasks for smart conditionality” which besides having a bureaucratic title lays out the considerations and questions that need to be answered to ensure that conditions make sense. These range from getting buy-in from local actors to identifying “antagonists” who may “perceive the desired conditions as a threat to their personal, agency, or group interests.” The list places a premium on coordination with other agencies and other donors and stresses a realistic assessment of the capabilities of Afghan partners.

The new commander of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) who took over in 2014, Major General Todd Semonite, is “a firm believer in conditionality,” saying in an interview with SIGAR that “the best way to hold [the Afghans] accountable is to leverage money” with conditions, rewarding good behavior and penalizing poor compliance.