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An Afghan local national construction worker checks a window and flyscreen in a newly constructed building. (Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

Tailoring U.S. foreign aid programs to produce stability in Afghanistan has been an uphill slog. Lawmakers and auditors have repeatedly complained that gains have been small while costs have been high. So in December 2011, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) started a new $203 million program to strengthen local authorities and distribute aid quickly through provincial governments, in hopes of meeting urgent needs.

A year and a half and nearly $50 million later, however, the program has awarded only a few grants and has so far spent most of the funds — at least $47 million — on overhead and meeting costs, activities of the sort that Washington specializes in. One USAID contractor said some of its employees expressed worry that the drawn-out grant process could “expose them to physical risk from angry local representatives or constituents,” according to a new Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report on the program.

The Stability in Key Areas program’s work to date has mostly consisted of training sessions, planning workshops, and communications tutelage for farmers, youths, women, and others. But it has yet to award funding for road graveling, dams, wells, canal construction, and other development assistance that auditors said USAID promised it would undertake to reduce poverty and improve Afghani lives.

One training session provided guidance to local government staff in a district known as Pusht-e Rod on how to conduct press interviews and “to bridge and spin” answers to the media, according to a quarterly report by one of USAID’s contractors. In the first three months of this year alone, one of USAID’s principal contractors — AECOM International Development — held 73 workshops or training sessions, many related to planning for grants.

In statement released with the report on July 29, Special Inspector General John F. Sopko called the findings “troubling.” He said “this looks like bad value for U.S. taxpayers and the Afghan people.” The report complained that auditors had no way to assess if these planning meetings are worthwhile until grant projects get off the ground.

As of July 1, USAID officials reported the program had 119 local community grants underway and paid out $285,194 in grant money. But this accounts for less than 1 percent of the $46.5 million specifically set aside for this purpose. The program awarded no grants at all in its first sixteen months, a delay that USAID blamed mostly on difficulties reaching a written agreement on the program with the Afghanistan government.

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The slow pace has caused some “district stakeholders” to accuse contractor staff of “incompetence or even deception,” Sopko’s report stated. Several Afghan participants said they felt fatigued from the seemingly never-ending planning workshops. The report warned that “such disappointment may actually result in further destabilization of the Afghan government” — the opposite of what the program was meant to accomplish.

Sopko’s report called it “disconcerting” that USAID didn’t secure the government’s agreement before launching the program. But in a July 18 letter to Sopko, Sarah Wines, USAID’s acting mission director, emphasized that grants are just one part of the program’s efforts to stabilize the country. Contract officials must first talk with community members, identify problems and build relationships between government authorities and community groups before giving out awards, she said.

She said that ensuring these talks are successful is more important than giving out a large number of grants. Wines added that areas with weak local governments require more time to talk, plan and address problems before project funding can be awarded.

USAID said in a statement July 29 that the program has approved nearly 200 grants for $5 million, and will begin to more quickly distribute money under these grants in the coming months.

USAID’s contracts for the program with AECOM, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in San Francisco, and with Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a longstanding USAID contractor headquartered in Bethesda, Md., state that grants are “essential to … achieving the overall strategy and expected results.”

SIGAR’s audit, conducted from February to July 2013, said the initial contracts, all awarded by April 2012, were supposed to last 18 months. But the delays caused USAID to extend three of them.

AECOM officials did not respond to a request for additional comment by deadline July 29.

DAI spokesman Steven O’Connor echoed Wines’ comments that in order for grant projects to be successful, the program must first build up local governments in challenging areas of Afghanistan — a process that does not happen overnight.

“It’s not like people are sitting around twiddling their thumbs,” O’Connor said. “To disparage training sessions and community sessions is not helpful.”

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