A handful of things on USAID today. I was listening to CFR’s podcast with Charles North and Isobel Coleman on USAID’s involvement in Central Asia, particularly Pakistan. From the blurb on the page:
Currently, as North points out, USAID is required to maintain high standards of financial accountability that make it difficult for it to work with local NGOs. “So often we need to work through international organizations that provide that kind of accounting for their resources,” he says. But experts say this system of using contractors results in high overhead costs and large amounts of money being channeled back to donor countries. Coleman recommends that the U.S. Congress ease up on some of the accounting requirements. “It has to over time be able to get comfortable with losing money,” she says.
Congress, in itself, seems conflicted on that. On the one hand, you have the Kerry-Lugar bill:
The bill, which awaits President Barack Obama’s signature, would give Pakistan $1.5 billion annually over the next five years for democratic, economic and social development programs. It also allows ‘such sums as are necessary’ for military aid.
The US says the bill is aimed at alleviating poverty here and lessening the allure of militant groups in a country seen as crucial to the American fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in neighbouring Afghanistan.
And on the other you have the Franken amendment:
There were about 85 amendments proposed in this bill. One of those that has attracted a greater share of attention is Senator Al Franken’s S.Amdt. 2588: “To prohibit the use of funds for any Federal contract with Halliburton Company, KBR, Inc., any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, or any other contracting party if such contractor or a subcontractor at any tier under such contract requires that employees or independent contractors sign mandatory arbitration clauses regarding certain claims.” The Franken amendment passed: Yea-Nay Vote 68 – 30 with these Republican legislators voting “no.”
The amendment was prompted by this one who was gang-raped in Baghdad. The victim according to Mother Jones was “forced into mandatory binding arbitration, a private forum where Halliburton would hire the arbitrator, all the proceedings would be secret, and she’d have no right to appeal if she lost.” It took three years just to get the court to agree that she can sue.
Here’s why I think these two issues are related. If, as North indicates, the strictures for providing aid require the contracting out of such economic, democratic, and social programs (and to some degree military programs) to companies who can offer accounting procedures in line with congressional requirements, the financial and contractual relationships with such companies are deepened, even in the face of illegal activities by contractors while abroad. In its clippy, fantastic fashion, Jon Stewart picks apart the logic:
It’s like arguing from inside a box: if you can only work with companies that meet certain guidelines, but those companies fail in other ways, make those other ways irrelevant by stressing those certain guidelines, so everything fits nice and cleanly in the box. (Except for that pesky rape claim, allegations of fraud, human rights violations and also that murder charge that one time.)
It seems as though it’s easier to refrain from sanctioning companies who act extralegally than it is to pursue programs that might come in at a loss, as Coleman suggests, but who do not violate the rights of their employees or the people they aim to assist. Since the US is ramping up a new aid package for Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, I wonder if Franken will get his amendment through.
The US, by far the largest foreign donor to Afghanistan, has channelled about a fifth of its spending through USAid in recent years. Much of the rest of Washington’s aid has been devoted to military assistance and counter-narcotics schemes.
USAid’s Afghan budget has been doubled this year to $2.1bn, about half of which will be spent on programmes to promote better governance, with the rest divided between infrastructure, health, education and the expanded farm programme.
…Conscious of criticism that USAid has relied too much on private-sector contractors, Mr Frej pledged to raise the proportion of his budget allocated to the Afghan government from 5 per cent last year to 40 per cent by 2010, starting with a $236m grant to the ministry of health.
“We are absolutely shifting our programme to Afghanisation, engaging more Afghans in what we do,” he said.
“I think it’s important to reconnect with the Afghan government and the Afghan people.”
Edited to add: Reading this from my rss feeder, I don’t think I made my point as cleanly as I wanted to. Essentially, this is what I think. The US awards aid packages of a significant budget to several countries of interest to the US, and more besides. The Senate places restrictions on how that money is accounted for that basically mandates the awarding of contracts only to companies who can provide that accounting. Those companies frequently foster or further extralegal activity while completing the programs it was awarded aid for. And the completion of those programs is of importance, because we keep providing money to do them. But the requirements we place on the accounting of that money solidifies the dependence on companies who can account for it, and those companies contribute to the violation of US law. It results in a situation where the violation of law is given as much weight as auditing practices, which is ridiculous.
If Congress were less committed to reinforcing contracts with those existing companies as a result of the accounting strictures, perhaps such contractors would have less power to quell claims against them; and perhaps there would be fewer situations that would lead to such claims.
Renard Sexton over at FiveThirtyEight offers some numbers analysis of the prospect for a re-count in the Afghanistan election:
More invalidations and ordered recounts are likely on the way, particularly in Baghlan province, where ethnic electoral violence was at its worst on election day. Whether this recount can resurrect the Abdullah campaign is yet to be seen, as between 10 and 15 percent of the total votes are expected to be recounted. Just a few hundred thousand votes changing hands could drop Hamid Karzai’s total beneath the 50 percent plus one requirement for victory.
I doubt anyone in the West has a great confidence in this election process anyway, but should Karzai drop beneath the number for clear victory, it would beg the run-off, which it seems Karzai would win. Either way, things are left up in the air still, and it seems as thought the relative insecurity of this process would give some credence to calls for our continued involvement in Afghanistan. The Guardian reports that procedures are already being put in place for that run-off vote, which would take place in late October. One has to wonder whether Afghanistan will have a recognized new-term President by the end of the year, at this rate.
And of course the stage is still reeling from news of Galbraith and Eide’s differing opinions on how, exactly, the criticism of this process should be handled, I assume publicly. If the UN can’t agree, do we really expect democratic Afghanistan to?
Following Lindsey Graham (+Liberman, +McCain)’s public call for staying the course in Afghanistan yesterday, the WSJ also reports on Admiral Mullen’s address to the Senate Armed Forces Committee this week, which ties interestingly in with a picture of Mullen and Graham talking, presumably before that meeting.
Their support makes it easier for President Barack Obama to approve the plans of Gen. Stanley McChrystal — whom the Obama administration installed as the top American commander in Kabul — when he submits a formal request later this month for as many as 40,000 new troops, in addition to 62,000 now there. “A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces,” Adm. Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It’s very clear to me that we will need more resources.” Afghanistan has been wracked by unrelenting Taliban violence and growing political instability in the aftermath of last month’s disputed presidential election.
It’s rather like all the ducks are getting in a row to push Obama’s hand towards granting McChrystal’s probable request for troop increase. And yes, it does occur to me that the previous sentence is almost entirely weighed in hypothetical.
And whatever your view is, these photos from Slate depicting Ramadan around the world are not to be missing. There are truly some gorgeous images in there. When I was in college, we held a celebration for Eid al-Fitr every fall, and it’s important to me now that I understood better this part of a religious/cultural life I spend so much time educating myself about.
Yesterday the Project on Government Oversight released a ten-page open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding alleged abuses from US contractors to civilian personnel at the US Embassy in Kabul. Executive Director Danielle Brian writes:
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) initiated an investigation after nearly one-tenth of the U.S./ex-pat 6 guards individually contacted us to express concerns about and provide evidence of a pattern of blatant, longstanding violations of the security contract, and of a pervasive breakdown in the chain of command and guard force discipline and morale. This environment has resulted in chronic turnover by U.S./ex-pat guards. According to the State Department, “nearly 90% of the incumbent US/Expats left within the first six months of contract performance.”7 According to POGO sources, the U.S./ex-pat guard turnover may be as high as 100 percent annually. This untenable turnover prevents the guard force from developing team cohesion, and requires constant training for new replacement recruits. The guards have come to POGO because they say they believe strongly in the mission, but are concerned that many good guards are quitting out of frustration or being fired for refusing to participate in the misconduct, and that those responsible for the misconduct are not being held accountable.
This was followed by a letter to Patrick Kennedy at the US Department of State from Senator Clair McGaskill, where she asked (apparently again) for documents that would further the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight (within the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs)’s understanding of reported problems about contracted personnel in Afghanistan, specifically ArmorGroup North America, Inc.
The Guardian follows the story, which would be interesting enough even without the news that Blackwater’s contract has been extended and 14,000 more troops have been committed to Afghanistan. According to Jeremy Scahill, there are over 100,000 private contractors currently placed in Iraq and Afghanistan; this is twice as many American troops. The New York Times covers this as well.
On that note, I will likely be posting more infrequently over the next seven days as I participate in the traditional rite of passage of my people: the Southern wedding. Complete with Tennessee whiskey shots, familial recrimination, public disownings, and home-made cake. I’ll be back with the scars of accomplishment.