By U.S. Army Capt. Pat Birgy, Finance Officer, 734th Agribusiness Development Team
In my job as the Commander’s Emergency Response Program for the Iowa ADT, my job is to ensure that the projects we commit U.S. funds to are legitimate, sound and simply make sense. We get an abundance of project proposals from many sources, including the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, villagers and local businessmen. Many we can determine on face value if further consideration is warranted. With every project, regardless of cost, we have to maintain a level of “professional skepticism,” especially in Afghanistan, which was recently ranked second only to Somalia on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index.
One recent project that was small-scale in nature and initially considered a sensible cash-for-work project was a request to clean one of the canals in the Asadabad area. This was presented as a time-sensitive, urgent need. However, we still felt we should go out and assess the condition of the canal, and talk to the villagers along the canal to make sure the project made sense prior to funding the project.
What we found when we talked to Afghans who lived alongside the canal is that the canal had already been cleaned and wasn’t in need of further cleaning. Moreover, none of the villagers were ever made aware of a pending cash-for-work canal cleaning project that they would have ostensibly benefited from. As a result, we have put the project on hold and presented our findings to the provincial Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. This has spurred further discussion about why this project came to be presented to us and why we were told it was urgently needed.
This experience, which is not a unique one here, provides further validation of the old intelligence saying, “Trust, but verify.” Billions of dollars have been spent on efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, so one small canal project may not seem like much. But fiscal responsibility starts at the lowest possible level, and we feel like every penny of the taxpayer’s dollar should be properly spent here.