Permissible Arms

A collection of related unrelated things

Posted in afghanistan, pakistan, us politics, us senate, usaid by Karaka on 20 October 2009

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:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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.

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