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Afghan Aid Faces Hurdles

Reconstruction effort is plagued by management failures, confused priorities and sheer need, although large projects are planned.

September 01, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — From this capital, Afghanistan looks like it's recovering fast from a generation of war.

Incoming flights are full of aid workers and entrepreneurs armed with laptops, eager to pitch reconstruction projects. So many people are talking on cell phones that the system is chronically overloaded. Where once there were only dingy kebab houses, restaurateurs are now serving Italian, Thai, Chinese and Indian dishes to the new dealmakers and administrators.

But the bustle in Kabul masks mounting troubles elsewhere in Afghanistan. So far, the reconstruction effort is showing only scattered progress.

In part, it has been hampered by mismanaged projects, confused priorities and plain theft, aid officials and experts say. And in part, it is slowed by sheer need in a country that is struggling to emerge from a generation of war.

Overall, roughly half of the $4.5 billion in promised foreign aid grants has been spent, but the money has bought little more than a mirage of success, they say.

While plans for new hotels, clinics and even a new city are winning approval and initial funding -- attracting entrepreneurs and others -- many schools are closing for lack of money and farmers are struggling as war-damaged irrigation systems remain in disrepair. Many Afghans lack basic services such as clean water and sewer systems.

Such problems threaten to destabilize the interim government of President Hamid Karzai and undermine goodwill toward the United States following its overthrow of the oppressive Taliban regime in 2001. And as Iraq draws attention and money away, time to get things right is running out, experts warn.

"Our biggest fear is that this opportunity will be lost because pressures for the appearance of success, particularly internationally, will lead to money being spent in the wrong way, on the wrong kinds of investments," said Paul O'Brien, advocacy coordinator for the U.S.-based aid agency CARE International. "What we need is long-term, sustainable benefit for Afghan people so that we help to create an environment where they can rebuild their country."

The U.S. has paid $60 million to build schools, provide textbooks and train teachers. However, Afghanistan's cash-poor government is responsible for paying the teachers -- and it doesn't have the money. Teachers are quitting and schools closing because warlords who helped the U.S. military during the 2001 war -- and received money and weapons in return -- are resisting Karzai's order to hand over an estimated $800 million in annual tax revenue.

"We have to worry about our priorities if we can't find enough money to pay teachers $100 a month," said Paul Barker, CARE's director in Afghanistan.

In March, Washington agreed to give $35 million in financing and political risk insurance to Hyatt International to construct a five-star hotel where the legions of entrepreneurs and aid officials can stay when they visit Kabul.

Yet the city's estimated 3 million people live without such basics as a sewer system, and there is no plan to build one.

The Afghan government has borrowed $3.4 million from the Asian Development Bank to prepare the ground for a $400-million city of at least 750,000 people, to be built on disputed government land in semi-desert territory northeast of Kabul. Yet it doesn't know if any donors or investors will pay to complete the city or if there will be enough clean water and jobs for residents. When crews tried to drill test wells recently, militia members who claim the land is theirs opened fire. About 1,600 foreign and local aid agencies are working in Afghanistan, more than three times the number under the Taliban. But the government finds it difficult to weed out the bad from the good.

It shut down the Peace Humanitarian Agency in July and arrested its Afghan head on suspicion that the organization, which claimed to be based in the Netherlands, was ripping off aid money, said Abdul Qayom, who heads the office overseeing nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. It's difficult to know how many may be stealing, he said.

"There are some 'Mafia' NGOs that have heard on the news there is so much opportunity in Afghanistan because of all the donations, so they have just showed up," Qayom said. "Our policy in the government of Afghanistan is that whoever comes can have registration.

"It's not easy for us to prove the identity of any NGO until it is implementing a project," he added. "There are only 18 people in this department, including maids and office boys."

Reconstruction Minister Amin Farhang is investing a lot of faith in the promise of private capital. He is enthusiastic about a $2-billion farming and forestry project proposed by Permanente Corp., a new company headed by a Los Angeles entrepreneur, Marc Seidner.

Seidner and his mainly Afghan American partners say that over the next decade they can transform vast dust-blown wastelands into rich forests, chicken and turkey farms and fruit and nut orchards that could generate about $6 billion a year.

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