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AFGHANISTAN: A Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks

At the outset, the Louis Berger Group Inc., failed to provide adequate oversight and USAID officials were unable to identify the location projects in the field. Officials at contracting companies and nonprofit groups complain that they were directed to build at sites that turned out to be sheer mountain slopes, a dry riverbed and even a graveyard.

by Joe Stephens and David B. OttawayThe Washington Post
November 20th, 2005

 

MADRASAH, Afghanistan On a humid morning, scores of women and wailing babies crowded into the dirt courtyard of a private home a day's journey north of Kabul. They squeezed into a sliver of shade against a mud wall, the only refuge from the intense sun on a summer day when the temperature reached 120 degrees. Across the courtyard, inside a canvas lean-to, a doctor vaccinated infants atop a dusty plastic cooler.

A veiled woman named Tela squatted in the sun, lifting her black robe to create a bit of shade for her 9-month-old daughter, Shoghla, dehydrated from severe diarrhea.

"I have been here one hour and still I am waiting," said Tela, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "It is very, very crowded. We don't have anywhere to sit."

Next door, a large U.S.-financed health clinic, a brand-new building of concrete and steel, sat empty and locked.

"They should finish that clinic and we should be there," she said. "There would be a lot of places to sit over there."

The clinic in Madrasah is not just a building. It is part of a remote battleground in the war on terror, an attempt to win hearts and minds in the nation that was once al Qaeda's stronghold.

In September 2002, nearly a year after an American-led coalition deposed the Taliban, the United States launched what would become an aggressive effort to build or refurbish as many as 1,000 schools and clinics by the end of 2004, documents show. However, design flaws and construction errors caused the initiative to fall far short.

By September 2004, congressional figures show that the effort's centerpiece -- a $73 million U.S. Agency for International Development program -- had produced only 100 finished projects, most of them refurbishments of existing buildings. As of the beginning of this month, only about 40 more had been finished and turned over to the Afghan government.

Internal documents and more than 100 interviews in Washington and Kabul revealed a chain of mistakes and misjudgments: The U.S. effort was poorly conceived in a rush to show results before the Afghan presidential election in late 2004. The drive to construct earthquake-resistant, American-quality buildings in rustic villages led to culture clashes, delays and what a USAID official called "extraordinary costs." Afghans complained that the initial design for roofs made them too heavy to build in rural areas without a crane, and the corrected design made them too light to bear Afghan snows. Local workmen unfamiliar with U.S. construction methods sometimes produced shoddy work.

At the outset, USAID and its primary contractor, New Jersey-based Louis Berger Group Inc., failed to provide adequate oversight, documents state. Federal audits show that USAID officials in Kabul were unable to "identify the location of many Kabul-directed projects in the field." Officials at contracting companies and nonprofit groups complain that they were directed to build at sites that turned out to be sheer mountain slopes, a dry riverbed and even a graveyard.

Employees of a Maryland-based nonprofit relief agency hired to monitor construction quality demanded a $50,000 payoff from Afghan builders -- a scene captured in a clandestine videotape obtained by The Washington Post.

Last year, the head of the State Department's Afghanistan Reconstruction Group, Phillip Jackson "Jack" Bell, ended his tour at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul by delivering a blistering rebuke to USAID.

"The most important programs -- including roads, schools and clinics -- are in serious trouble," Bell wrote, according to a draft of his previously undisclosed memo. "The health program was well on its way to becoming a disaster."

Bell, now a senior Pentagon official, did not respond to requests for an interview. USAID declined to release a copy of the final memo but did not challenge the authenticity of the draft.

Afghan officials, contractors and citizens expressed anger about the delays, which have disappointed the rural Afghans who initially embraced international help.

The need is great. By the time the Taliban fell, decades of fighting had damaged or destroyed eight out of 10 Afghan schools, leaving half of all school-age children with no access to education. Four out of five adult women were illiterate. Health conditions ranked among the world's worst, with a life expectancy of 43 years. One in four babies died before turning 1.

"People need these clinics, and right now they are angry about it," said Azizullah Safar, a health director in northern Afghanistan. "People come to me and tell us, 'You cheated us. You took our land and there is no clinic.'

"Tell the Americans that the money they would otherwise be spending on their children and their schooling, that has been sent to the Afghan people-- it has been wasted."

USAID officials pointed out that working in Afghanistan is a difficult and perilous job. Some construction sites are in remote areas, where materials and skilled workers are scarce. Security is a constant concern, they said, noting that workers have been kidnapped and killed while the buildings have been rocketed and burned.

"We believe that we have accomplished a major feat by building or rebuilding as many schools and clinics for the Afghan people as we did, especially in the brief time that we did it," said USAID Administrator Andrew S. Natsios.

Federal auditors and others have misrepresented the program, Natsios added, stressing that his agency was not as far behind as the critics contend because the goal was to build or renovate only 533 buildings by late 2004.

Natsios also said USAID should get credit for 69 schools and clinics completed in an earlier program, as well as for renovating or building 1,100 individual classrooms and refurbishing 311 clinics under other programs. An additional 108 schools and clinics have been finished but have yet to pass final inspection, USAID said.

USAID declined to disclose the price of individual schools and clinics. The estimated cost for the Berger buildings averages $226,000 per site. Afghan officials said they initially expected a basic health clinic to cost $40,000 to $60,000, the amount that Afghan and European nonprofit groups had been spending.

Officials with the Berger Group said one reason the U.S.-style buildings cost more is that they were designed to be earthquake-resistant. Natsios said the recent deadly quake in neighboring Pakistan confirmed the wisdom of that decision.

Berger officials also said their progress lagged because USAID required the company to train Afghan contractors to do the work so the project would leave behind skilled craftsmen to help further rebuild the country.

"That we got [the buildings] done this quickly with this little amount of aggravation, I think this should be saluted," said Larry Walker, a Berger vice president. "We're very proud of our program. We expect quality problems, we expect delays."

But the lack of apparent progress has supplied ammunition to remnants of the Taliban and other U.S. opponents. Ramazan Bashardost, a former Afghan planning minister, was elected to parliament on a platform that included criticism of the schools-and-clinics program. In an interview, he complained that "the quality of work is not good. . . . It will be a disaster."

In a previously undisclosed May 2004 memo to USAID, Zalmay Khalilzad, then the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote that the construction delays had created problems "managing expectations" among the Afghan people. "These problems are now beginning to interfere with the credibility of the U.S.," he wrote.

Deflated expectations are apparent both in Kabul and the countryside, in such places as the northern village of Larkhabi. There, on a recent summer morning, scores of villagers had traveled by foot and donkey to a row of tiny shops where doctors had improvised a clinic. An ad hoc delivery room measured 9 by 15 feet, the dim space crammed with three military-style cots.

"There is no light, there is no electricity, there is no water to wash your hands," a pediatrician explained as he threaded through the throng.

Next door, an elaborate U.S.-funded clinic sat empty, awaiting work on its roof.

'Back-of-the-Envelope' Plan

On Sept. 20, 2002, USAID selected Berger, a privately held, global engineering firm, to lead the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan.

Berger's contract, now worth as much as $665 million, called for the company to build infrastructure that included dams, power plants and roads. For the school-and-clinic portion of the contract, USAID paid Berger for administration and oversight, and the company subcontracted on-site work to Afghan companies. Berger also hired nonprofit relief agencies to monitor construction.

Within months of the awarding of the contract, U.S. officials raised their sights from 420 to 1,000 schools and clinics by the end of 2004, an inspector general's report shows.

"The numbers of schools and clinics to be constructed were not determined through careful analysis," Patrick Fine, who then headed USAID's Afghanistan operation, wrote last year in a previously undisclosed memo. "Instead, they were based on back-of-the-envelope calculations outside USAID. . . .

"These target numbers gained traction in Washington and soon became the number that USAID was required to build. . . . The numbers had gained a life of their own."

In a charged political climate, expectations kept rising. As late as October 2003, a senior official for USAID -- the main conduit for American foreign aid -- told Congress the goal was 1,400 in three years.

The next month, Marshall F. Perry, a lanky and mustachioed American who had managed construction projects from Cambodia to Saudi Arabia, arrived in Afghanistan to work as Berger's manager for schools and clinics. His assessment: The program was in chaos.

"There were 158 [progress] reports coming in each month on 158 sites," Perry recalled over tea and cookies at his spacious house in a neighborhood of rocket-blasted homes in Kabul. "They would bring these reports in and tell them how bad the situation was in the field. . . . I knew the foundations on several of the buildings were insufficient. Reports were coming in that the cement was decaying. Reports were coming in that we were building on the wrong sites. . . .

"Louis Berger didn't have the staff to read the reports, let alone respond with site visits," Perry said. "I went to Louis Berger and said, 'We have a calamity.' "

Perry told Berger he needed 50 Afghan engineers to work in the field and a monitoring staff of 15 Westerners.

"It was taken to USAID and rejected out of hand," Perry said. "I cannot hold LBG responsible. One of their hands was tied behind their back."

He said USAID told others at Berger that the company was "not going to build an empire out here" and instead would have to make do with locals. He ended up with 30 engineers and seven or eight monitors.

Perry said he recommended halting construction until his crew could regroup, but was rebuffed by Berger. "I was told, 'We have to complete the buildings by 31 December. . . . Press ahead.' " Berger was under pressure from USAID, which in turn was under pressure from the Bush administration, he said.

"It was a political timeline," said Perry, who left Berger in 2004. "That has created all of the problems."

A Berger spokesman did not dispute Perry's account. In his memo, USAID's Fine confirmed that there was "intense pressure to get work underway immediately and to deliver finished schools prior to the scheduled June [2004] presidential election." The vote was later postponed until October.

'Extraordinary Costs'

As work rushed forward, quality became an issue.

In March 2004, a festive ribbon-cutting was held at a model U.S.-style health clinic in the leafy village of Qala-e-Qazi. Afghan and U.S. officials gathered at the squat building on a dirt road 30 miles north of Kabul.

A Berger news release reported that "a warm spring sun shone down on the gathering, on the clinic in its coat of new white paint and on the beautifully landscaped grounds." Children lined the entrance, wearing their "best clothes" and carrying bouquets.

Not everyone found reason to celebrate. Mirwais Habibi, a health adviser to the Afghan government who inspected the site that month, wrote that he was "surprised at the very low quality of workmanship" and the "use of low grade and sub-standard materials." Four months later, a Berger inspection report obtained by The Post shows, the clinic needed new eaves, gutters, doors, handrails, floor tiles, drywall and a ceiling.

Last summer, Post reporters made an unannounced visit to the 15-month-old clinic, which was filled with patients. Mold and mildew stained the ceiling. In one room, the ceiling had fallen. Paint inside and out had blistered and peeled off in sheets. Cracks crawled across exterior walls. In a side yard, two girls labored in vain to pump water from a new, U.S.-built well. Mohammed Saber, a clinic guard, said the pump had stopped working days earlier.

Saber blamed much of the damage on a water tank in the ceiling that had been leaking for months. If the tank were metal, like most in Afghanistan, the hole could be easily welded shut, he said. But this tank was plastic and no one knew how to fix it.

By May 2004, more problems were surfacing.

That month, USAID official Catherine Mallay asked a colleague in an internal e-mail: "Can you tell me which contractors/projects financed the work with the construction flaws . . . such as wall caving in when someone placed his hand on it, etc."

The work had been performed by Berger subcontractors, replied Charles Moseley, who oversaw USAID infrastructure development in Afghanistan. He cited several problems, including "the use of poor quality materials and failure to meet specifications such as in the use of steel rebar. . . . Such flaws are generally attributable to inexperienced workmen and poor construction supervision."

Moseley also cited "extraordinary costs," such as an eight-classroom school that cost $426,000.

In early 2004, USAID told Berger that it could finish work on the 105 schools and clinics it had started but that the agency had selected five nonprofit relief organizations to build the remainder. A diplomatic cable in July 2004 stressed that USAID "always had doubts about the ability of the single original contractor -- Louis Berger International -- to complete all schools and clinics on the former schedule."

That month, Jack Bell, the State Department official, wrote that design and construction difficulties had forced numerous changes to blueprints, slowing work and doubling the cost of a prototype Kabul school, which other documents placed at $688,000.

Berger recently said Bell's comments are "biased, laced with innuendos and unsubstantiated 'facts.' We have never maintained that there have not been problems in the Schools and Clinics Program."

In early 2004, USAID officials began looking for a less costly building design that they hoped would also be easier to construct in rural Afghanistan. Berger and a subcontractor, Afghan Global Services, began building two health facilities out of reinforced adobe blocks.

The building sites were not in dangerous areas that could prove difficult to oversee and inspect. In fact, one was in the center of Kabul, immediately behind the Afghan Ministry of Public Health. The plan was for Afghan government engineers to visit the site daily, according to a Berger memo obtained by The Post.

A Pakistani engineering firm certified that the design was earthquake-resistant. But as construction neared completion in December 2004, Berger's engineers reviewed the plans and concluded the buildings might not withstand severe earthquakes, common in the region.

Today, officials are debating what to do with the almost-complete buildings, on which U.S. taxpayers have already spent $324,000. One proposal, outlined in the memo, calls for razing both and rebuilding them from scratch. That would bring the total project cost to $731,000. A Berger official said, however, that the company hoped to retrofit the buildings, which would bring the total cost to $513,000.

Snows in Moqor

The drive to build earthquake-resistant buildings led to other, more widespread difficulties. For the U.S.-style schools and clinics, engineers had effectively designed "an above-ground bunker," said Perry, then Berger's program chief. "But it was so heavy, so complex to build, it was almost impossible to build it correctly."

The roof trusses themselves were "too heavy to be put in place by local labor without a crane," wrote Bell, the State Department official. "In many parts of the country, a crane could not be used because of terrain inaccessibility."

Berger, which contends that skilled workers would not have needed a crane, nonetheless introduced an advanced roof design that relied on complex but lightweight steel trusses. In December, Berger reported to USAID, "The quality of [Berger's] buildings that are being constructed for the Afghan people is of high quality and will be the safest building[s] in the villages."

About that time, the snows arrived in Moqor, a region traversed by nomads and camels 150 miles southwest of Kabul. There, a Berger subcontractor was putting the finishing touches on a school known as Seekatcha Nawroozi. As the snow mounted, the roof suddenly buckled.

On Jan. 2, an independent inspector on contract to USAID visited the unfinished school and found that the long, low concrete building had suffered a "total roof truss system failure," a Berger report said.

This summer, visitors to Moqor found the failed steel beams rusting in a tangle beside the roofless building.

Berger engineers concluded that the school had multiple defects: a design fault in the lightweight roof, poorly fabricated steel and shoddy construction by the local Afghan builder hired by Berger.

Zaid Haidary, whose company constructed the building under a subcontract with Berger, disagreed. He said Berger had used plans borrowed from California that were developed to stand up to earthquakes but not the weight of heavy snows. Building materials supplied by Berger also were "very cheap and bad," he said.

Inspectors discovered similar defects elsewhere. Berger is now replacing 22 roofs and strengthening 67 others, a process it acknowledges could cost millions of dollars. Berger and USAID are discussing how to cover the cost.

Horses Instead of Pupils

If Berger was having difficulties, so were the five nonprofit relief organizations that USAID had chosen to complete the program started by Berger.

Problem one: locating the construction sites.

"Sites didn't exist," said David Harbin, former head of the Kabul office of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which agreed to build or rehabilitate 60 schools and clinics for $4.6 million but later lowered the goal to 25. "You would go out and it supposedly was a refurbishment site and there was nothing there."

Expenses rose as the organization blew past deadline. Locals tied a contractor to a tree in a pay dispute, Harbin said. Another contractor absconded with $141,000 worth of materials.

"These schools and clinics, each one is a battle," Harbin said.

Another nonprofit group, working northeast of Kabul in the province of Nurestan, was in the midst of erecting a schoolhouse using local methods when an entire wing collapsed, reducing much of the structure to a jumble of fieldstones and splintered timber. An official at the nonprofit, the United Nations Office for Project Services, speculated that disgruntled locals pulled down the building. But others blamed shoddy construction.

Shelter For Life, a Wisconsin-based relief organization, is building 52 schools and clinics. Last spring, in the southern province of Kandahar, the organization had nearly completed a schoolhouse when an Afghan military commander took a liking to it and transformed it into a stable for his horses.

"They just basically came in and took over," explained William Billingsley, the charity's project director.

Shelter For Life officials said it took them weeks, with U.S. military help, to persuade the commander to vacate.

Billingsley, whose office in a bullet-pocked Kabul neighborhood is guarded by men with Kalashnikov rifles, noted other cultural absurdities. The USAID plan calls for schools that meet standards under the Americans With Disabilities Act. That means including extra-wide doors and wheelchair ramps, even in remote areas.

"You won't have any children who will be attending in wheelchairs -- it won't happen," said Gary Schanil of the Afghan office of Shelter For Life. "Any students that are in wheelchairs can't get there, anyway."

USAID officials said U.S. law now requires the agency to ensure that the schools and clinics it constructs are handicapped-accessible, regardless of location.

'What Went Wrong'

Within the government there have been sobering private reassessments about the effort.

In his October 2004 confidential memo, USAID's Fine answered the question of "What Went Wrong" with a sweeping indictment."The schools and clinics program has been marked by a series of missteps and miscalculations that resulted in a flawed business model, inadequate supervision and poor execution," wrote Fine, who at the time was the third head of USAID's Afghanistan program in a year.

"USAID did not, at the outset, have a quality assurance plan or adequate staff to monitor performance," Fine wrote.

He described the effort as "plagued" and wrote, "Poor program design lay at the heart of the problems that have dogged this program." Berger "had no track record for this kind of work," he wrote, and the nonprofit groups later hired to oversee some of the construction were expensive and ineffective. The agency's assumption that local builders could deliver quality work, he said, had been "proven to be incorrect."

In an October interview, Fine expressed surprise that The Post had obtained the memo and said his thinking had changed. Fine, now working on Africa for USAID, said he considered the reconstruction effort to have been "a highly successful program" that suffered from overly ambitious expectations.

The inspector general for USAID offered his assessment of the $73 million program in March.

"Only about half of the 1,000 buildings once envisioned as being completed by the end of 2004 will actually be completed, and it will take at least until August 2005 to complete the reduced number," the report said.

The reduced number in that program was 533. By Nov. 5, only 138 had been turned over to the Afghan government.





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