Another shadow falls over the field of COINdinista dreams, as the Guardian has reported that many schools and clinics built by the British in Helmand Province can’t be maintained by the Afghan government and will have to be closed.
Schools and health centres built by the British in Afghanistan as part of the military‘s counter-insurgency strategy are being forced to close down because President Karzai’s government cannot afford to pay for them, the Guardian has learned.
Tim Foxley over at Afghan Hindsight has done a solid post on this already…take the time to read it. Then come back here, because, per usual, Tim’s taking the professional high road, while I, per usual, feel compelled to overlay what is a genuine tragedy for the children of Helmand with a nice veneer of snark and mockery.
It’s my coping mechanism.
“Of course we built too much,” said one official. “We didn’t think about how the Afghans would pay for it. But it was understandable. Nobody is blaming the military. We wanted to show them what we could do for them, but without regard for sustainability.”
There is nothing, I repeat nothing, at all understandable about this. The only time this sort of “build it now, worry about it later” approach works is when your name is Ray Kinsella, and you’re the main character in a book by W. P. Kinsella, and some day you’re going to be played by Kevin Costner and because it’s the real world James Earl Jones is going to play some made up dude instead of J. D. Salinger, who was the guy that James Earl Jones plays in the movie. Great book, good movie…just would’ve been better with Salinger.
So yeah, that’s the only time that approach to building stuff works.
However, back when these schools were being built, to be fair, there was a voice whispering down from the heavens, and it was the voice of COIN, and what worked in Tal Afar by God was going to work here:
With the assistance of the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International
Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives, efforts to reestablish municipal and
economic systems began in earnest. These initiatives included providing essential
services (water, electricity, sewage, and trash collection), education projects, police
stations, parks, and reconstruction efforts. A legal claims process and compensation
program to address local grievances for damages was also established.
See? Education projects! That’s something we should do! Because King David and Boy Wonder Nagl said so! Have you ever tried to eat soup with a knife? It’s hard! So they know stuff! Let’s do that! It was one of the pillars of COIN wisdom…just build stuff, any stuff, and we win.
Of course education projects have met with varying degrees of success here in Afghanistan.
But the clinic remains an unfinished shell, one of 96 U.S.-financed clinics and schools that a New Jersey-based company was supposed to build by September 2004.
To date, nine clinics and two schools have been completed and passed inspection, according to the company.
The company, the Louis Berger Group, says progress has been slowed by the requirement to use Afghan construction companies, forcing it to hunt, sometimes vainly, for those that can work fast and to high standards. A design flaw is also forcing it to replace or strengthen the roofs of 89 of the buildings.
Fortunately, LBG had a really great explanation for that.
“If you play just the numbers game, we’re going to look bad, no doubt about it,” said Thomas Nicastro, a Louis Berger vice president. “But if you look at this as a development issue, then you have an understanding of what we’re trying to do.”
A whistleblower lawsuit was the basis for the federal government’s fraud case against the Louis Berger Group that settled today for $69.3 million — the largest recovery in a case involving war-zone contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Louis Berger has agreed to pay $46.5 million to settle the whistleblower case, $4.1 to settle other contractual disputes and $18.7 million for a criminal fine.
“Louis Berger manipulated its accounting system and overhead rate to steal millions from the federal government – money that was supposed to be used to rebuild Afghanistan,” said Peter W Chatfield, a Washington, DC, attorney with Phillips & Cohen, which represented the whistleblower. “The government never would have uncovered this sophisticated scheme without an insider such as our client, Harold Salomon, who had the knowledge and the integrity to stop the fraud.”
Since that time, LBG no longer is contracted to work on USAID projects in Afghanistan, but that hasn’t stopped USAID Afghanistan from listing LBG under its “Partners” on the USAID website.
Building them is hard, checking on them harder
Even when education projects do get started, there’s still the issue of checking on them regularly and effectively, a problem one PRT solved by flying over schools to determine the progress and quality of construction. I tried to see this as a positive thing, I really did.
Safer rooftop inspection: Rather than risking the safety of those doing this inspection who might be forced to climb up on a rickety Afghan ladder, now you can just see the roof from the air. And, if you’ve brought along that ACOG for your M4, pointing that out the window will bring that rooftop into crystal clear focus.
Giving Blackhawk crews something else to do: It’s a fact that UH-60 pilots and their crews get tired of shuttling troops and supplies to areas where there’s fighting going on with the insurgents. This way, that helicopter, instead of supporting that kinetic stuff, gets to be used for a wonderful photo opportunity for the folks back home.
Less chance of interacting with the local population: Let’s face it — the less time ISAF spends dealing directly with the people in that area, the better off they’ll be. If we actually get out of the helicopter and spend time on the ground with them, we run the very real risk of them understanding what ISAF is doing here, and then what would we do with all that extra support from the local population? That, and they smell weird.
Less time on the road means more time for Xbox: Call of Duty isn’t going to play itself, and by cutting down on the amount of time you’re spending traveling to a project site, you get the chance to build more cohesion with your fellow ISAF soldiers.
Gives locals a chance to see more helicopters: There’s nothing quite like the sound of helicopters far above them to instill confidence in the local population that ISAF is willing, ready, and able to protect them from the Taliban. If this had been conducted on the ground, then they would have only seen the faces of soldiers and airmen, running the risk that Afghans might see ISAF as being made up of people, rather than mighty, impersonal machines.
Doubles as a show of force for local insurgency: Being on the ground just shows the insurgents that you’re one of those weak-willed people who just want to get to know the villagers around that school. By flying overhead in a helicopter and pointing M4s out the windows, you let the Taliban, Haqqani, and everyone else who’s down there know exactly who’s in charge on the ground: it’s the guy in the air.
Eliminates troublesome questioning of local contractor: We’ve all been there — having to use an interpreter, listening to all of the reasons why the school’s interior construction is behind schedule, and putting him on the spot by actually checking on his work. But by just flying over the school, you manage to eliminate all of that. The contractor’s happier, you’re happier, and at the end of the day, he still gets paid. I mean, how important is the inside of that school, anyway? You just need to make sure it at least looks like a school, right?
There’s more, there really is, and not just from me. But I’m getting away from the original subject of this post: the British building too many schools.
Sir Richard Stagg, the UK’s ambassador in Afghanistan, told the Guardian the overbuilding had been caused by a desire to show the Afghans “we were serious” about helping them.
“With the best of intentions, between the period of 2003-2008 we developed a very expansive view of how we could help Afghanistan, and many countries invested a lot in that mission. We focused on the physical and visible rather than the human capital which would manage the country in the longer term.
“The challenge for Afghanistan now is not a lack of roads and school buildings. It is a lack of capacity in its governmental structures in particular to run the country.”
See? We meant well…and that’s good enough, right?
Unfortunately, Sir Stagg (there’s a Narnia joke or two in here somewhere) misses the key point: the issue is not whether the Afghan people have all the roads and school buildings they need. The issue is whether they have all the roads and school buildings that they can afford. Which, given the fact that in 2008-2009 47% of Afganistan’s GDP was from foreign aid, they can’t afford what they already have, and the international community is going to be footing the bill for Afghanistan for a long time to come.
Pop quiz, hotshot…what would you do?
Not to get too big for my intellectual britches, but at the heart of this is a conceptual failure: development organizations, civil or military, see a school as defined by a building, and not by personnel. Rather than investing in the building of structures, aid agencies in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) would have been better served by investing in teachers, books, and simple tents to keep the sun away. This picture from Bamyan illustrates this point perfectly:
The building’s unusable because there’s no electricity, but they’re still holding a class. Granted, it’s Bamyan, which has generally been better off (post-Taliban) than the rest of the country, but the point is still valid: education has little or nothing whatsoever to do with a structure.
What would have worked in many places would be a simple tent surrounded by a wall. Wall’s aren’t expensive, neither are tents, and you don’t have to spend nearly as much money maintaining a wall. Why a wall? Because many places in Afghanistan are nothing like Bamyan, and girls (and boys) sitting outside run a very real risk of being harmed by those opposed to education.
But a tent’s not useful in the wintertime, you say. You’re right, it’s not, and that would be a challenge in those parts of the country where it’s just not safe to spend hours in a non-heated structure. But we’re talking about Helmand here, not Jaghori — if you lose three to four months out of the year (and that’s assuming no one knows how to heat a tent…somehow I’m guessing that knowledge is available), you’ve still got the potential for school outside of that same window.
Is it ideal? Not at all, but if a student goes from zero to 180+ days of school a year, I’d call that an improvement.
Before you start that wall or drop off that tent, you make sure a) that a school meets that community’s need, and b) that there’s going to be teachers to support it. That might not mean you have someone with a teaching degree, or even better than a fifth grade education. But, you still resolve several issues with that approach: basic literacy, a paid teaching position, and meeting a need in a manner that stands a much better chance of being sustained long term.
First horse, then the cart
COIN and its implementation in Afghanistan was based around the idea that if you just threw enough money and projects at the problem, the insurgency would just go away. That didn’t work on a variety of levels, and what’s being reported out of Helmand illustrates one of the reasons why: what the Afghan people see is that the foreigners can build stuff, but their own Afghan government can’t keep that stuff up and running. This builds resentment that’s only going to resolve itself poorly.
“Clear, hold, build” only works if there’s an endstate, or a mechanism for the effective transitioning of what you’ve built to a legitimate government. It fails if you’re not simultaneously developing that government’s capacity to maintain all the neat stuff you’ve just built.
Education projects in Afghanistan (like most other places) are yet another example of going about the process backwards: instead of ensuring that there would be a teacher, or supplies, or even students, the Brits (and the Americans) went ahead and just followed the Field of Dreams approach.
Great movie, awful development template.
Until next, you stay sunny, Afghanistan!
- British-built schools in Afghanistan may be forced to close (telegraph.co.uk)
- Afghan schools and clinics built by British military forced to close (guardian.co.uk)