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A Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks

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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