$52bn of American aid and still Afghans are dying of starvation

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kabul on the rampant corruption that has left the country on its knees

The most extraordinary failure of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan is that the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars has had so little impact on the misery in which 30 million Afghans live. As President Barack Obama prepares this week to present a review of America's strategy in Afghanistan which is likely to focus on military progress, US officials, Afghan administrators, businessmen and aid workers insist that corruption is the greatest threat to the country's future.

In a series of interviews, they paint a picture of a country where $52bn (£33bn) in US aid since 2001 has made almost no impression on devastating poverty made worse by spreading violence and an economy dislocated by war. That enormous aid budget, two-thirds for security and one-third for economic, social and political development, has made little impact on 9 million living in absolute poverty, and another 5 million trying to survive on $43 (£27) a month. The remainder of the population often barely scrapes a living, having to choose between buying wood to keep warm and buying food.

Afghans see a racketeering élite as the main beneficiaries of international support and few of them are optimistic about anything changing. "Things look all right to foreigners but in fact people are dying of starvation in Kabul," says Abdul Qudus, a man in his forties with a deeply lined face, who sells second-hand clothes and shoes on a street corner in the capital. They are little more than rags, lying on display on the half-frozen mud.

"I buy and sell clothes for between 10 and 30 Afghanis (two to six cents) and even then there are people who are too poor to buy them," says Mr Qudus. "I myself am very poor and sometimes I don't eat so I can feed my children." He says he started selling second-hand clothes two years ago when he lost his job washing carpets.

The aid projects that are meant to help people like Mr Qudus may have little to do with his problems and may not even exist. Fake photographs are often the only evidence that companies have carried out expensive projects located in parts of Afghanistan too dangerous for donors to visit.

"I went to see a food processing plant in the east of the country which was meant to employ 250 women," says an Afghan who used to work for an American government aid organisation. "We had started the project and were paying for the equipment and the salaries. But all I found was a few people working on a vegetable plot the size of a small room."

When he complained he was told by a local official to keep his mouth shut. He said that "if I did not keep quiet there would be trouble on the road back to Jalalabad – in other words they would kill me."

US officials admit privately that the torrent of aid money that has poured into Afghanistan has stoked corruption and done ordinary Afghans little good. Afghanistan was identified as the third most corrupt country out of 178 in the world in a report released last week by Transparency International.

"The aid projects are too big, carried out in too short a time, and the places they are located in are too remote," says a diplomat. He recalled that he was unable to monitor a road construction project in Kunar province in the east, because he was not allowed to visit areas where he and his team could not be protected.

Afghan and Americans who have overseen aid projects agree that the "quick fix" approach has been disastrous. Schools are equipped with computers in districts where there is no electric power or fresh water.

The flood of money has had little success in reducing economic hardship. "It has all messed up into one big soup," says Karolina Olofsson, head of advocacy and communication for the Afghan NGO Integrity Watch Afghanistan. Aid organisations are judged by the amount of money they spend rather than any productive outcome, she says.

"The US has a highly capitalist approach and seeks to deliver aid through private companies," she says. "It does not like to use NGOs which its officials consider too idealistic."

Big contracts are given to large US companies that are used to a complicated bidding process, can produce appropriate paperwork, and are well connected in Washington. The problem is that much of Afghanistan is far too dangerous for these companies to carry out work themselves or monitor subcontractors.

In his office in Kabul, Hedayatullah Hafizy, owner of the Noor Taq-e-Zafar Construction Company, says that there is a simple reason why the work is so poor. He says: "Let us say the main US contractor has a contract worth $2.5m. He will take a 20 per cent administrative fee and find a subcontractor, who will subcontract to an Afghan company, which may subcontract again. At the end of the day only $1.4m may be there for building the project."

The progress of schemes is often monitored by photographs. In one small but typical case an Afghan company was paid to build and get running a tractor repair shop in the dangerous Oruzgan province. The contractor rented an existing tractor repair shop in Kandahar province for the day and hired local young men to look as if they were busily fixing engines in the shop. This was all photographed and the pictures emailed to the main contractor and the donor organisation, both of whom expressed satisfaction at what had been achieved. "There is no intention to provide a service," says Mr Hedayatullah, "just to make money".

There have been some successes. But, overall, aid has done surprisingly little for most Afghans. Yama Torabi, the co-director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, says it is not really possible to carry out development aid in areas of conflict where there is fighting – it might be better to stick to emergency relief.

This would be contrary to US military policy, pioneered in Iraq, whereby local US military commanders control substantial funds that can be used for aid projects through the so-called provincial reconstruction teams. But this militarisation of aid means that the Taliban target schools built on the orders of a US commander.

"People see schools built by the Americans as American property," says an Afghan who once worked for a US government agency. "They are frightened of sending their children there."

The US government policy of providing aid through large American private companies is proving a failure in Afghanistan as it did previously in Iraq.

As winter approaches, half of Afghans face not getting enough to eat, according to the US Famine Early Warning Systems Network. The best use of aid money may be to subsidise food prices and help save people like Mr Qudus, the old clothes seller, and his family from starving.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas