U.S. report finds abuses in program paying extra money to Afghan government workers

Tuesday, November 9, 2010; A15

Remember the recent story that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff was carrying a bag from Iran containing packets of $1 million or more in Euro bills several times a year to buy influence in the presidential palace?

What would you think if it turns out that the United States has not only supplied its own millions in salary supplements to employees in Karzai's office since 2005, but also that those payments will continue through March? Oh, and that some of the money will be going directly to support the office of that same Karzai chief of staff, Omar Dawoodzai?

Just days after Karzai publicly admitted that he was receiving "bags of money" from Iran as well as funds from the United States to cover expenses of his presidential office, a report by the U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) disclosed that since 2005, Washington had supplied $6.6 million in salary supplements to employees in Karzai's office.

Overall, based on data SIGAR gathered in February, its report said U.S. agencies working in Afghanistan "were providing more than $1 million in monthly salary payments to 900 Afghan government employees and technical advisers in 16 ministries and government offices."

The two largest recipients of those U.S. funds at that time were the Afghan Ministry of Education - where 413 people got salary support - and Karzai's office of the president, where 103 got additional pay. Since 2008, 50 members of the 71 employees at the Afghan Government Media Information Center, who handle press affairs for the Karzai government, got salary support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) - and more recently, the U.S. Embassy public affairs section. The remaining 21 are paid by other countries.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which provides most of these funds, paid about $19 million from January 2007 to January 2010.

Remember also that while those 900 Afghan civilian officials were getting U.S. salary supplements, the Pentagon has been paying billions more in salaries for Afghanistan's security forces, including the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.

The SIGAR report, dated Oct. 29, also illustrates the haphazard nature by which the United States, the World Bank and other donors distributed about $45 million in salary support to 6,600 Afghan employees and technical advisers over the past years, with clearly mixed results. http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/audits/SIGAR%20Audit-11-5.pdf

The report carries one cautionary note: "Neither the Afghan government nor international donors can account for the total number of government employees and technical advisers or identify how much recipients are paid in large part due to a general lack of transparency over that support."

Salary-support programs were justified as needed "to attract and retain skilled professionals" to run the government, though only in the short term, according to the report, "while civil service and other public administrative reforms take root." In that process, donor agencies did not coordinate their activities, and not surprisingly, a series of negative events took place.

For example, various U.S. agency programs paying Afghan employees, even the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and USAID officials in Washington "lack visibility" over who received what funds, the report noted.

When SIGAR investigators found that U.S. agencies were supplementing salaries of 265 gardeners, cooks, cleaners, drivers, security personnel and dorm mothers under the program, 240 were dropped, according to the report.

When USAID in 2008 took its first inventory of its salary support, the agency discovered that it was aiding Afghan "policymakers such as ministers and senior presidential advisers in violation of its own policies," the report says. Such payments can only be made with exceptions approved by the appropriate AID assistant administrator, and approval had not been given. That exception was eventually provided, but it runs only through March.

In addition, the Afghan government has come to rely on the salary support from donors for critical employees, and the higher pay involved cannot be sustained when donor money ends. The funds have always been outside the Kabul regime's own planning and budgeting process, and as a result they have undermined the goals of "building [Afghan] government capacity and fiscal sustainability in the long term," according to the SIGAR report.

For example, the United States was paying supplements to the salaries of the top officials in the High Office of Oversight, set up to conduct anti-corruption investigations. When USAID announced that it was ending salary support to that office in March 2010, six of 10 acting department heads receiving the supplements left shortly thereafter, according to the report.

Pay scales for Afghan recipients have varied widely. The United States, for example, gave supplements from $1,500 to $4,300 to people in Karzai's office whose monthly salaries were $200. A high-ranking official got a monthly USAID supplement of $5,000, although his government salary was $2,000, and he also had a $1,400 hospitality allowance. SIGAR found that a special adviser to the Afghan National Security Council received a $4,000 monthly supplement, and a similar adviser in Karzai's chief of staff's office got $800 a month. A spokesman for one government office got $4,600 a month and a spokesman for another ministry got $1,800.

Karzai has even accused the program of encouraging corruption, and the report offers some support for the charge.

Members of the Afghan government, including those in parliament, Karzai's office and military commanders, have sought to get salary support for positions they control, and in turn they appointed people to those slots "in exchange for money or favors," the report says.

In one case, the official responsible for certifying salary support in an Afghan government office "approved his own salary supplement," the report says. In another case, "We found one senior official in President Karzai's office who kept his $5,000 monthly supplement when he left his position to assume a senior position at a ministry that was not part of the USAID program."

Changes are underway. Funds are being channeled through Afghan government agencies, made part of the budget and paid through electronic payroll systems. In addition, USAID has worked with Afghanistan's Ministry of Finance to decide on which positions in Karzai's office and the High Office of Oversight would receive supplements. Based on their contribution to inter-ministry coordination of policy, nonpolitical roles and ranking below minister or deputy minister, 200 requested positions were cut to 57, according to the report.

SIGAR listed 10 other recommendations to improve the program. It noted in commenting on the current situation that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul now requires U.S. agencies to provide that any supplemental salaries paid to Afghan government employees "fit within the standardized salary scale developed as a result of our recommendations."

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