The international community's need for a fast success story -- and lots of available money -- has led to an invasion of gold-digging consultants and aid workers.

By Susanne Koebl
Published March 30, 2005 5:08PM (EST)

Standing at the bazaar on Flower Street in the Afghan capital city of Kabul, Ramazan Bachardoust is wearing a traditional Perahan wa Tonban, a long-sleeved Afghan shirt and white cotton pants with a French flannel jacket to ward off the chill.

The 43-year-old completed his doctorate in law in Paris, where he lived and won academic awards for his publications about diplomacy in the South Asian region. Bachardoust was as happy as "refugees living Paris can be" -- in other words, unhappy -- and he eventually moved back to Afghanistan. There, President Hamid Karzai named him minister of planning, making him the chief supervisor to the aid organizations currently operating in Afghanistan. Given that the economy here is highly dependent on the work of so-called non-government organizations (NGOs), who are allegedly here working for the country's welfare, it's an important post. But in reality, Bachardoust found, many relief organizations are here for an entirely different reason: to turn a profit.

Bachardoust is not alone in his suspicions. Many Afghans see the international aid scene as taking advantage of the post-war gold mine of aid contracts -- many of which are worth millions of dollars and provide aid workers with high-paying jobs.

"Where are the billions for the Afghans?" asks Abduh Waleh, editor-in-chief of the Kabul Times newspaper. "Where is all the money from the international community going to" the outraged traditional newspaper Anis asks?

Already, donor nations have pumped at least $4 billion into the war-torn country. With the exception of Iraq, that's more money than is being invested in any other crisis region. Meanwhile, Kabul is packed with foreigners, who tear through the streets in four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers. But three years after the United States toppled the Taliban, even some of the most basic accoutrements of modern life still have not been provided to most Afghans. Electricity is still only available for a few hours each day if at all. The sewers don't work and even in the best neighborhoods, water only occasionally flows from the taps. With few exceptions, the streets have remained little more than a patchwork of pot holes.

But, in the villa-filled Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, generators buzz night and day to produce electricity and deliver water. Here, where the foreign aid workers reside, houses now rent for an average of $8,000 per month.

Planning Minister Bachardoust wanted to know how the NGOs were actually spending the money allocated to them -- how much for the rents and salaries, for their cars and how much they were actually using for their projects. He demanded that the organizations open their books to the government, but few were prepared to do so. Only 437 out of a total of 2,355 organizations obliged his request. Then Bachardoust threatened, somewhat overzealously, to close their offices in December. President Hamid Karzai stopped him. He didn't want a fight with the NGOs or with representatives of the countries that back them. After all, they were collectively planning to invest $15 billion through 2009 for Afghanistan's reconstruction -- in many cases through the very organizations the planning minister had so sharply attacked, among them American, Japanese and European. Some of Germany and Britain's most important NGOs also got a tongue-lashing.

A novice to politics, an angered Bouchardoust resigned from his ministry post, returned his company car and left the president's palace. When he speaks, his French-accented voice is tinged with anger. "It's a corrupt system that helps the rich."

The $1,000 men

Yet the question still remains: Where is all the money going in Afghanistan? And how much of it is actually reaching the people it is intended for?

Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries, with annual per-capita income of just $200. Foreigners here, though, earn far better: Hundreds of consulting firms are competing for huge projects, and the number of active consultants here is estimated to be at least 3,000. "Suddenly there were more consultants than flies and dogs in this city," says an employee of the U.S. embassy, who has worked in Kabul for two years. One German diplomat here estimates that at least a quarter of U.S. relief aid is spent on foreign experts alone.

William Strong, a 67-year-old Californian recently succeeded in landing one of these lucrative jobs -- his is worth $30 million. For decades, Strong has made the rounds of almost all of the world's crisis regions. Now he's living together with a dozen international co-workers in a $12,000-a-month villa in the northern part of Kabul. Working for a company called Emerging Markets Group, he has been given the task by the Afghan government of surveying the country's land and clarifying property ownership.

"This is a huge market," a rapturous Strong says before complaining that it's hard to find people who are "more interested in their job than money."

Only five minutes away, in a brick villa in Wazir Akbar Khan, is Emerging Market's main competitor, BearingPoint. The global consulting firm's Afghanistan budget alone is over $100 million. The company's chief executive here, Ed Elrahal, has succeeded in placing 70 of his company's consultants in the government. Yet even after three years of ongoing consultations through an army of experts, the country still has few functioning ministries or even a sufficient number of Afghans capable of establishing them.

Elrahal's employees aren't allowed to talk to the press and in the few cases where they are, they can only do so under strict supervision. Nevertheless, one of the company's employees in the Finance Ministry explains why he is working here -- anonymously, of course. In Kabul, he earns the same amount he would in far more dangerous Iraq -- a daily rate plus a supplement of 50 percent for hardship and danger pay. But he refuses to disclose the amount -- "It's a company secret," he says. But those with experience here know that the day rate for the American development agency USAID, which operates globally, is $840.

Until recently, few politicians in Kabul had any idea about the shocking amounts that are being spent for their consultants. The so-called $1,000 men were everywhere, hired by donor institutions like the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. Recently, a list of salaries surfaced, causing a medium-sized political earthquake in the government. An employee of the British consulting firm Crown Agents, for example, received $207,000 for his 180-day placement in the Aid Coordination Office, plus expenses. Another submitted a bill for $242,000 for 241 days -- 10 times as much as the Afghan minister responsible for running the ministry earns in a year.

During the time of the interim government, more than 100 such experts worked for ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani. Today, he has little positive to say about them: Only 10 percent were "first class," 35 percent were "tolerable," and the rest were "absolutely awful." His successor, Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi now wants to conduct an audit to determine whether the consultants are really useful to the government.

One person well-versed on this issue works in the U.S. Embassy; he is one of the few insiders here who has access to the actual figures and details of the reconstruction effort. Officially, he's not allowed to talk to the media because what he has to say doesn't fit in with the success story his PR department wants to sell.

Just under a year ago, he says the U.S. Embassy received an order from Washington: "The mission was: Make a miracle happen. Rebuild Afghanistan and do it overnight." Within three months, by June 2004, the country was supposed to be filled with 700 medical clinics and schools, and power plants and water supplies were supposed to be running again. Even Patrick Fine, who heads the powerful USAid in Afghanistan, today says it was a "crazy plan." The experienced development aid worker is responsible for coordinating American reconstruction efforts here.

Since then, everyone here has been working under enormous pressure to deliver the desired targets, the embassy employee says. It's also had catastrophic consequences: "We get bad quality, we're far too expensive and we attract the wrong people -- there are too many gold-diggers." They need to stop the absurd program, he said. Instead of building schools and clinics and blanketing the country with money, it would be better to train people so that they have the skills to build schools and clinics themselves. "Otherwise, we're not going to leave anything behind here but buildings that will soon fall apart again."

Playing the game of survival

Engineer Mohammed Abrar knows the construction scene here well. He's a heavyset man with a full gray beard, and he's an agile businessman. In Najib's Cement Store in Kabul's Karte Parwan neighborhood, he orders steel and stone for his construction sites. Unlike many, the 50-year-old actually did once study carpentry -- most of the "engineers" in Afghanistan are only given that title because at some point in their lives they did something at a construction site. After 23 years of war there are hardly any specialists -- and anyone who wants to get hold of a commission from an international development agency just pretends to be an expert.

Abrar also builds for the foreigners and he knows the tricks of the trade. He says it's kind of like a snowball effect: the big donors like USAID award their contracts to international NGOs who then pass the projects on to an Afghan NGO -- which in turn often hands it on to yet more groups. Abrar claims that each organization keeps a 5 to 20 percent cut of the contract value of each project.

Currently, the agencies pay between $80,000 and $100,000 for a hospital ward and up to $145,000 for a school. On average, those prices are one-third higher than the going local rates, Abrar claims. Many of the construction companies also operate as charitable aid organizations, which earns them sympathy points with donors and enables them to import all types of goods from abroad without paying any customs charges.

Abrar instructs his worker to load the steel grating he's just bought onto a small truck. Then he shrugs his shoulders and explains: In the end, the construction projects are mostly given to those who charge the least and, for that reason, do the worst job. And it's almost impossible to establish any kind of inspection process in a country which, in many parts, has long been unstable. That's why the foreign agencies working here leave most of the so-called "monitoring" work to the Afghans, many of whom are themselves a part of the "system."

At the same time, Abrar doesn't see anything immoral about the system -- after all, this is a country without any revenues and everyone has to find a way to survive.

An oversight failure

The village of Au Khomari is located in eastern Afghanistan, one hour by car on a dirt road beyond the provincial capital of Ghazni at the foot of a mountain range. Here you won't find any electricity or television, and the 110 Hazara families, who make their living by farming, are just happy to have survived the hard winter with meagre supplies of wheat, apples and salted meat.

Nevertheless, the small village has still somehow managed to get on the radar of international organizations as one of the communities worthy of receiving support. The Japanese pledged to build a two-story girl's school complete with a pitched roof, and the Americans promised a medical clinic. What happened afterward can be attributed to the system: the school was built, but the second floor is still missing.

Zahir Ahmed Djan, spokesmen for Au Khomari's local council of elders, believes the village has been "deceived." At the opening celebration for the school, the Japanese came, he says, and they smiled a lot, but they obviously had no idea what exactly they had commissioned and what they actually got. None of the sponsors spoke directly to village residents -- only to the participating aid organizations. "And they then cashed in," says Ahmed Djan, pouring a cup of tea and offering a few sweet almonds.

Things hardly went any better with the promised clinic. Construction began in the autumn two years ago. Since then, the construction firm has changed and part of the complex had to be torn down because the materials used were too cheap. Now the carpenters have suspended their work yet again.

In most instances, it's not a lack of funding which is hindering success. Germany alone is investing

Hayfa just arrived in Afghanistan a few days ago, and she says she has been surprised as she inspects the "effect" the organization's projects have had. Take, for example, a women's project in Kandahar. More than

The company was a total success -- at least until it abruptly closed at the end of 2003. A number of disappointed women have been left behind in Kandahar. German Ambassador Reinald Steck inaugurated the dormitory in December and turned it over to the city. But not a single student lives there, says Rangina Hamidi, 28, an Afghan-American who is one of the few aid workers still persevering in Kandahar. To cap it all off, the United Nations is now planning to build a second women's dormitory next to the German one, she explains. This comes despite the fact that in the city, which is dominated by conservative men, there are only 20 female students at the university here -- and every single one of them lives with relatives.

The U.S. embassy employee takes a last sip of coffee -- he has to go back to the office. He's one of those who believes it is still possible to turn over a new leaf here in Afghanistan. Perhaps what is needed, he says, are others who aren't just here to earn vast sums of money and produce successful numbers for politicians but are also willing to go to every last corner of the country if need be.

Perhaps also people like enthusiastic ex-minister Bachardoust. Right now the attorney is looking for a new job. He says his dream career would be to lead the anti-corruption authority.

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Susanne Koebl

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