We may be illiterate, but we are not stupid

Clare Lockhart in Prospect Magazine June 2008 issue 147 (pay firewall):

We would like to tell you the story of $150m going up in smoke,” said the young villager. “We heard on the radio that there was going to be a reconstruction programme in our region to help us rebuild our houses after coming back from exile, and we were very pleased.”

This was the summer of 2002. The village was in a remote part of Bamiyan province, in Afghanistan’s central highlands, and several hours’ drive from the provincial capital—utterly cut off from the world. UN agencies and NGOs were rushing to provide “quick impact” projects to help Afghan citizens in the aftermath of war. $150m could have transformed the lives of the inhabitants of villages like this one.

But it was not to be, as the young man explained. “After many months, very little had happened. We may be illiterate, but we are not stupid.

So we went to find out what was going on. And this is what we discovered: the money was received by an agency in Geneva, who took 20 per cent and subcontracted the job to another agency in Washington DC, who also took 20 per cent. Again it was subcontracted and another 20 per cent was taken; and this happened again when the money arrived in Kabul. By this time there was very little money left; but enough for someone to buy wood in western Iran and have it shipped by a shipping cartel owned by a provincial governor at five times the cost of regular transportation. Eventually some wooden beams reached our villages. But the beams were too large and heavy for the mud walls that we can build. So all we could do was chop them up and use them for firewood.”

My current work is about how we can make aid more transparent, so that this kind of thing does not happen.

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