For Foreign Aid and Fighting Corruption, Less Is More

The US government learned many hard lessons from its military occupation of Iraq. With respect to corruption in security and reconstruction projects, one of the clearest lessons—emphasized by the 2013 final report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), among others—was that smaller, short-term projects were more effective, and less susceptible to massive and debilitating corruption, than big, long-term projects. Indeed, a month after publication of the SIGIR report, Paul Cooksey, the Deputy Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, testified to Congress that large amounts of money should not be injected into an unstable region without enough well-trained, experienced personnel to oversee it. The better strategy, he argued, was to use small projects that could be more tightly managed. For example, one battalion commander in Iraq mentioned that greenhouse and drip irrigation projects—which allowed farmers to use water more efficiently and grow vegetables year-round—were small enough to be easily monitored to completion. This may not be as grandiose as building massive infrastructure, but it can still have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

Yet despite the clarity and consistency of this message, it has not been heeded in Afghanistan. Continue reading

Why Did the U.S. Fail to Fight Corruption in Afghanistan Effectively?

The war in Afghanistan is already the longest conflict in United States history. Over the past fifteen years, the U.S. government has poured over $100 billion into the reconstruction effort—more than the Marshall Plan. In spite of this massive public investment, Afghanistan’s government is weak, its economy is moribund, and the Taliban remains an active threat in the region. Contributing to all of those problems is persistent, systemic corruption. This problem was highlighted recently by a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which  served as a harsh reminder not only that corruption in Afghanistan remains is daunting problem despite years of the reconstruction effort, but also that the U.S. has failed to address the problem, and has sometimes made it even worse. According to the SIGAR report, the U.S. failed to grasp the importance of combating corruption as part of a broader effort to improve security and stability, with policymakers and military leaders instead viewing anticorruption as a competing goal that had to be traded off against the seemingly more pressing security goals.

The SIGAR report is valuable in many ways, and its emphasis on viewing anticorruption and security as complementary rather than competing goals is welcome. (This corruption-insecurity link, and its relative neglect, have been emphasized by many other outside critics as well, most recently and prominently Sarah Chayes, who has argued that when government breaks down under the weight of corruption, people in those countries are pushed towards radicalization.) But the SIGAR report’s suggestion that the U.S. failed to adequately confront corruption in Afghanistan because leaders failed (until recently) to grasp this complementarity is not quite right.  Continue reading