The U.S. foreign aid agency spent nearly one-quarter of its $203 million budget for promoting stability in Afghanistan without issuing a single community grant as the program was designed to do, according to a watchdog report released on Monday.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko found that the U.S. Agency for International Development spent almost $50 million of its Stability in Key Areas (SIKA) funding on workshops and training sessions instead of projects that would directly address instability in the region.
“It’s troubling that after 16 months, this program has not issued its first community grant,” Sopko said in a statement on Monday. “This looks like bad value for U.S. taxpayers and the Afghan people.”
Sarah Wines, who is USAID’s acting mission director for Afghanistan, said in a response to the report that the findings showed a “fundamental misunderstanding of SIKA’s purpose” and that the awarding of grants in and of itself is not the most important element of the program.
Wines suggested that training and workshops are necessary to ensure that the agency is awarding money through the proper channels. She said that “the quality of the engagements with communities and district entities are far more important than the total number of grants awarded.”
Sopko found that USAID also did not provide contractors with a clear understanding of their obligations or enforce the terms of their agreements. He recommended that the mission director modify contracts for the program to better articulate the plans behind those agreements.
The agency largely concurred with that suggestion in its response to the findings.
Sopko also determined that USAID has veered from the so-called Kandahar Model, which lays out the standards for SIKA contracting. He recommended that the agency follow those guidelines more strictly.
Wines disagreed with Sopko’s interpretation of the model, saying the agency needs flexibility to adjust for local conditions. “A bottom-up, community-based approach combined with flexibility at the local level is the essence of the Kandahar Model, and mandating a strict adherence to any one particular approach would be contradictory to the model and inhibit progress in developing grants,” she said.
Sopko also said USAID should require documented proof that Afghan officials concur with SIKA initiatives. Wines said the agency already requires such agreements, but the inspector general noted that those understandings are not always formalized in writing.
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