Afghanistan - The Shame of Reconstruction

11/16/2005 09:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

George W. Bush talks a lot about the US role in spreading democracy, but when it comes to action his Administration is more interested in bombing then building. Four years after the Taliban fled the country, Afghanistan’s civil society remains woefully under funded. Now, as the U.S. begins to withdraw its troops, the question is whether the fledgling democracy can survive.

As the occupation of Iraq deteriorates, the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan gets less and less attention. However, a recent New York Times article indicated that the US-funded rebuilding effort is far behind schedule. America has spent $1.3 billion on the Afghani infrastructure and, according to Professor Sakena Yacoobi, has little to show for it.

Yacoobi, head of the Afghan Institute of Learning, is one of the most famous women in her country and last year’s winner of the Gruber Foundation's 2004 International Women's Rights Prize for, “courageous vision and leadership in implementing quality education, human rights training, and safe healthcare for women and children in Afghanistan.” The professor’s Kabul-based organization is one of Afghanistan’s largest non-profits, serving more than 350,000 annually.

Yacoobi received her college education in the US. In 1991 she returned to Afghan refugee camps and began serving women and girls. After the Taliban seized power, they banned female education. This did not deter Yacoobi, who went underground and arranged for women and girls to be educated in private homes.

After the Taliban fell, Sakena Yacoobi again became a passionate public advocate for education. The problem she faced was that almost half of the Afghani schools had been destroyed by years of conflict. Despite the efforts of the US Agency for International Development, more than half of the 5 million children now going to school have no serviceable school building; they either meet in the open (weather permitting), in tents, or in primitive dwellings. There is also a critical shortage of teachers; the 60,000 trained personnel are less than half the number required. Books and materials are also in short supply.

The good news is that throughout most of Afghanistan, females are now allowed to go to school – a big deal, since only about one-quarter of Afghani women are literate, versus one-half of the men. The bad news, reported professor Yacoobi, is that in many rural areas there are no trained teachers for these girls. She observed that in many areas of Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalists insist that classes be segregated by gender, and that each group have a same-sex teacher. After years under Taliban restrictions there are, understandably, few Afghani women trained to take these assignments, so the country girls either receive instruction from semi-literate women or go without education.

The shame is that the US can fix this, but has not spent its money wisely. Of the $1.3 Billion allocated to reconstruction, roughly one-third was spent on the construction of one new highway from Kabul to Kandahar – at the expense of $1 million per mile. This left precious little money for reconstruction of the devastated Afghani infrastructure: clean water, electricity, telephone service, health clinics, and schools. Of the 7000 buildings that were used as schools before the reign of the Taliban, slightly more than half were usable in 2002.

The Bush Administration awarded huge contracts for Afghani reconstruction to American companies. The largest, $665 million, went to the Louis Berger Group; their contract calls for 98 new schools at an average of $174,000 per. Yet, thousands of Afghani schools remain to be constructed. The Administration’s effort is off by an order of magnitude and it is not hard to understand why.

According to Kavita Ramdas, executive director of the Global Fund for Women, one of Yacoobi’s funders, the Bush Administration ignored two tenets of effective international grant-making: they did not give money directly to locals and they ignored the power of women. The grants to The Berger Company and to other American groups, such as Bearing Point (formerly KPMG Pete Marwick), are illustrative of the Administration’s policy to bypass Afghanis. The Bearing Point contract was a $97 million consulting effort; it featured 50 foreign advisors, at $500,000 per year - $350,000 for living expenses and security. Ramdas and others point out that you get much more “bang for the buck” when you employee locals.

Both Yacoobi and Ramdas suggest that a better strategy to bolster the Afghani education system would be to start with teacher training (roughly $300 per teacher) and them provide additional skills that would help the male and female teachers work effectively with locals to refurbish or build schools.

George W. Bush talks big about democracy, but what his record shows is that he only understands military force and crony capitalism. This is the shame of the reconstruction; it wouldn’t cost the US very much to provide quality education for all the Afghani children. Sakena Yacoobi lamented, “If Afghanistan is to become a democracy, the people need to be educated.”