The High Cost of High Costs

The High Cost of High Costs

By Mary Ann Callahan

Something extraordinary happened in Washington in this last week of January 2015.   International Relief and Development, a long time USAID contractor given hundreds of millions of dollars for projects in post conflict countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, has been shut down pending investigations into fiscal wrong doing related to those projects.

Once the “darling child” of development, IRD, a non-profit organization with the lion heart of a corporation, once held its own with Fortune 500 companies also given tax payer funds for such projects as massive road construction or electricity infrastructures.   Alleged misuse of funds is a serious matter, and it is gratifying that the government has finally taken steps to address the issue. It has long been suspected by many that there were things that were very wrong within some of the IRD projects, and it may be that more will be unearthed as the investigations continue.

Yet, it will be interesting to see if anyone will make the connection between misuse of funds and the fact that US policies in places like Afghanistan are crippled when money becomes the be all and end all. International projects in reconstruction and development in post conflict countries like the ones IRD was given are already precarious and leaning toward failure, partly because in almost all cases, these projects are never properly communicated to the local population in ways that make them active participants.  In fact, the opposite is usually true.

IRD once held up its not-for-profit status and its willingness to try to do impossible projects in improbable places to help local populations as its raison d’etre.  The sad thing is that at some point, they forgot about their more noble aspirations and replaced them with pleasing the funder, telling USAID what they wanted to hear to get more funding. More funding meant more pleasing the funders. The problem is that lasting positive development is often the first casualty of such a framework. Sadly, it happens more often than not.

At this point the allegations against IRD are fiscal, and the company may become the poster child for what not to do if given federal funding, but another equally important issue should now be dealt with as well. Getting large federal projects and their accompanying budgets, more often than not, does bring out baser human tendencies. Money often clouds a larger and much more important aspect of US involvement in other countries. When it becomes the most important factor, the ability of US policy to make a real difference in the world falls victim to sinful human nature. Noble visions in the end boil down to the flow of money and not the mission.  Nothing of lasting value can come of such an arrangement. It may also explain why the US is so disliked in so many places where it really tried to help  and why its agendas are always suspect and negatively received by many of the locals.

What is happening to IRD now has come at a terrible price to US policy abroad. The result? So much for once noble mission statements and visions for a better world. So much for not making the US look like just another self-serving agent for the status quo, to the great delight of our detractors

What am I talking about?  And why am I, of all people, talking about it?  It is a little strange, I admit, but I believe I have some basis to be doing it.  I worked for IRD for 7 years, 6 of which I spent working on a pilot project in journalism that was very extraordinary and very effective. The work done by the Afghan journalists and technical staff we helped to train became an example for other Afghan journalists, and changed the way reporting was done in that country, at least a little.  We were different from other US funded projects in that our journalism project spoke directly to the Afghan people using methods of communication that resonated with them. Our reports were about the good things that the international community was doing in their country, were accurately presented and went out to Afghans, not to bureaucrats in DC.

I can tell stories of positive and lasting change that was a direct result of the innovative approaches we took. Even reluctant Afghan government officials gave us unusual favor and embraced our methodology, even though it ran against the cult of personalities and hierarchies of an ancient culture like Afghanistan’s.  We made a real difference, and we made it with a relatively small budget, which was perhaps why not even IRD took us seriously.  Their only focus was on the objectives of USAID, objectives that were often strange, and therefore, unwelcomed by most Afghans.  What started out as noble intentions quickly became mostly about the money.

USAID planned and tried to implement ambitious projects that were almost always nearly impossible. They threw the big bucks into such things. In the end this strategy only increased the rate of corruption on all levels and invited sabotage and misdirection.  USAID often preferred massive Infrastructure projects over nation building and helping to establish a more stable society. Helping Afghans to get past their dark past and dare to believe in a brighter future was too difficult, so we built them roads where they did not want them and schools with no teachers instead.  Unfortunately, the enemy used all of it to make us look foolish in the eyes of the people

Unfortunately, many ex pats on USAID funded projects were more interested in how they could keep their cushy jobs, almost always paying in the six figures, than they were in actually helping Afghan development. They followed orders, even when those orders made no sense. They facilitated burn rates for spending tax payer dollars that would make the average tax payer weep. They did not want to hear about what could make the project more effective, and they almost always had a fear of the funder that is anathema to a democracy. An attitude of personal gain at the expense of common sense and real progress brought about unwillingness to challenge bad policies. Going with the flow became the status quo. Wrong doing was often ignored or covered up and many Afghans began to realize that they too, should try to grab what they could while they could.  If someone had the audacity to suggest programmatic change that was more effective because it better reflected Afghan interests and norms and might bring real progress, and dared to suggest that USAID should be informed of such a possibility, they were often ostracized or treated with benevolent bewilderment, then slowly let go of.  Many good people were thrown under the bus for fear of offending USAID and losing its money.

The well intentioned original mission of helping stabilize Afghanistan went south, along with the reputation of the United States of America. Once welcomed and trusted implicitly by most Afghans, the US became just another intruder. As a result of the big budgets and the baser human instincts they fostered, US interests in places like Afghanistan were not furthered, and, perhaps even worse, the US was seen by many Afghans as hypocritical, self- serving and hapless.

IRD may have to pay for the misuse of federal funds in Afghanistan, but who will pay for the loss of trust, honor and truly effective policies that comes with such wrong doing? Who will pay for the fact that our foreign policy is in many ways crippled by our often ill-fated largess and real change is impeded by the almighty dollar? Who will restore the loss of US reputation in a world that needs so much help?


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