Beyond Good Intentions in Afghanistan

 

By Sayed Aziz Azimi

August 17, 2012

Washington, D.C.

 

A flurry of documents that crossed my desk in recent weeks got me thinking about our approach to Afghan reconstruction. These documents included the latest quarterly report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a 184-page overview of U.S. foreign assistance provided primarily by the U.S. departments of state and defense, plus subsequent articles on this report from newspapers across the country. In this same period I received a brief note from my Kabul office confirming that Technologists, Inc. had just completed its 50th project in Afghanistan.

 

Unlike previous news accounts that looked at alleged waste and corruption, the latest coverage focused on a new problem—a growing “expectations gap” between what the United States is promising the Afghan people and what its contractors are delivering. The SIGAR report identified projects that will be delivered too late to have any impact before foreign troops depart Afghanistan, projects not being used for their intended purposes, and projects too complicated for the Afghan end-users to maintain. And that is just for the completed projects; some estimate that more than half of all projects begun in Afghanistan by all donors will never be completed at all. For work funded directly by the Afghan government, the percentage of unfinished projects may be even higher.

 

Putting aside the SIGAR report, I called up a list of Ti’s 50 completed projects, which includes numerous military barracks, police stations, border crossing facilities, medical clinics, roads and bridges, and power plants all over Afghanistan. I was proud to see that my company has delivered every single project we began, that the facilities we built are being used as planned, and that they are making a real contribution to Afghanistan’s security and economic development. As a contractor with more than eight years of experience in Afghanistan, I feel qualified to offer my thoughts on how we can improve Afghan reconstruction in the years ahead and how we can apply the lessons learned in Afghanistan to our current and future assistance in other countries.

 

What Went Wrong

The United States and other international donors went into Afghanistan with the best of intentions, but as anyone who has worked in the developing world can tell you, good intentions are not enough. They must be connected to sound and quantifiable goals and objectives that begin with the end in mind while advancing a society’s vision and aspirations; a well thought-out plan of action based on good design specifications, sound management; and thorough execution. Unfortunately, the rush to reconstruct Afghanistan violated many basic tenets of successful decision making.

 

Among the first things we did wrong was to import ideas that did not fit the local environment, culture, needs, and capacity. We built structures and programs designed by people who had never visited Afghanistan, let alone consulted with the people who would live and work in these facilities. In one of the news stories I read, U.S. inspectors faulted Afghan border police for keeping chickens in what was supposed to be a well house. Apparently whoever designed the remote outpost had no idea that the men living there might need a place to keep their chickens, and so never supplied one.

 

Second, we built far too many facilities in Afghanistan with developed-world standards of comfort and convenience beyond the expectations—or needs—of local end users. We gave them Western-style plumbing, showers, and heating and electrical systems that were much more complicated than they needed to be, and which the occupants cannot maintain. Searching for a permanent water reservoir, we drilled wells so deep we hit salt water in places where a less expensive shallow would have worked better. We installed diesel generators in remote areas where a few cheap solar panels, hydropower, or wind generation would have sufficed.

 

Third, we awarded too many projects to low bidders or to large conglomerates with no experience working in Afghanistan who turned out to be unqualified to complete the jobs. The result has been either shoddy construction, the unfinished projects one sees in so many places today, or projects with large cost overruns.

 

Fourth, we did not make sufficient use of locally available supplies and building materials. We now have hundreds of facilities across the country that have to fly in expensive spare parts whenever something breaks down. We did not think through the local capacity to operate and maintain our complicated systems and technology. In too many cases, we built things quickly, turned them over to Afghans, and moved on to the next project.

 

Perhaps our biggest failure in Afghanistan, however, is one of public relations. We have done a terrible job in communicating to the Afghan people what we have built for them, and how these new facilities will help them improve their lives. At the ribbon-cutting ceremonies I attend, one always sees representatives of the donors, contractors, and end-users, but I almost never see local community leaders and village elders, to say nothing of ordinary citizens.

 

A Time for Rethinking

Stories about poor design and unfinished projects make for compelling reading but fail to reflect the real progress that has been made in many parts of Afghanistan. It serves little purpose to blame individual donors or contractors when we should be pointing fingers at the entire system. The time has come for a serious rethinking of what we should have sought to accomplish in Afghanistan or wherever the next major reconstruction effort may be.

 

Let us start, however, by acknowledging what went right as we try to fix what went wrong. I can point to numerous projects that have increased local land values, improved security, and enabled people to set about improving their lives. The key characteristics of these projects were a well-defined objective with cultural relevance, local buy-in, flexible contracting, and a serious effort at capacity building.

 

By cultural relevance I mean that the projects in question responded to what the Afghan end-users considered to be their needs and delivered something they wanted to own and use. This then facilitates local buy-in, when owners take possession not only of a physical building but of the functions that building serves, such as industrial parks, customs collections, police training, or court houses. One of the most important things we can do to enhance the legitimacy of the Afghan government is to help its officials remove obstacles that prevent the private sector from delivering services that local citizens want so desperately—clean water, electrical power, good roads. In this respect we cannot, for example, consider a power plant in Kandahar “completed” just because the construction is done. The project is not completed until that plant is delivering electricity to customers—and collecting regular payments from them. This insures the sustainability of what we built and protects the investment made by the donors—two key measures of project-delivery success.

 

I also think allowing contractors more flexibility in completing projects would address some of the concerns in the SIGAR report. Especially in a contingency environment like Afghanistan, we need to allow sufficient time to complete projects and must sometimes adjust schedules based on facts on the ground. All projects must have a local manufacturing component not only to save time and money but to develop native industries in Afghanistan. I fear that in the case of Afghanistan, we have completely missed the opportunity to allow market forces to respond to the requirements driven by billions of dollars of construction that could have—and should have—created a thriving local manufacturing capacity.

 

Every project must budget adequately for O&M training for the end users. We will turn over hundreds of well-built facilities to the Afghan security services in the next two years. We need to work now to develop Afghan capacity to run power plants and wastewater treatment systems, to repair vehicles, to keep the Internet and phone lines operational, to fix anything that can possibly need fixing—all done by Afghans ready to assume responsibility for what others have been doing for them for the past ten years.

 

The Color of Money

Back in 2008, former U.S. general David H. Petraeus recommended that his field commanders in Iraq “employ money as a weapon system.” I could not agree more with the general. Every dollar we spend in Afghanistan encourages Afghans to pull their own cash reserves from under the proverbial mattress and invest them in the formal economy. Perhaps the greatest underreported story about Afghanistan is how much money the Afghans have saved over the past 30 years—and how eager they are today to launch new businesses, create jobs, and generate new wealth.

 

Rethinking our reconstruction assistance will help us get current projects back on schedule and launch new projects that are a better fit for local conditions and culture. If we do this right, we can recast the “expectations gap” not as the difference between what we promise and what we deliver, but as the true, enduring value of what we deliver that far exceeds what we promise.

 

 

Sayed Aziz Azimi is president and chief executive officer of Technologists, Inc., an international engineering and management consulting company that works primarily in challenging and remote environments.