Wednesday, March 7, 2007

what a joke: Afghan Aid; almost all spent then pulled the plug; and joke is on the taxpayer; how many more flawed projects!

Flawed aid program funded newspaper that most Afghans couldn't read: audit
March 07, 2007

A Canadian program to teach Afghanistan women about journalism and the law was a misguided bust that wound up breaking Afghan media ownership rules, says a newly released audit.

Ottawa aid officials pulled the plug on the flawed effort run by Vancouver's Institute for Media Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) - but not before almost $3 million was spent, says the document obtained under Access to Information.

It's one of the first glimpses offered into an aid injection that the Conservative government has tried to cast in glowing terms. Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week announced another $200 million in funding on top of the $1 billion already committed to Afghanistan over 10 years.

The money is being used for hundreds of reconstruction and training projects, from well drilling to new schools.

But those asking questions about results achieved for money spent have for months hit a bureaucratic stonewall. It has only cracked with the release by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) of thousands of pages of audits.

Evaluators found the media project lacked even the most basic managerial oversight on the ground, while financial reports were spotty or non-existent.

Strong, detailed monitoring was essential "because of the extreme under-development of Afghanistan and its institutions," says the audit. "This was seriously lacking in all project sites."

Especially puzzling was the 2004 launch of a now defunct monthly newspaper in the capital of Kabul, the report says. Its purpose was in part to train female reporters and educate women about politics and other issues.

Trouble is, most Afghan women can't read. The United Nations estimates that almost 80 per cent of girls and women are illiterate.

"A newspaper is not the most effective means of communication to reach the average Afghanistan citizen," says the audit dated Sept. 2005. "The paper will not be sustainable when project funding ends."

Moreover, the newspaper's reliance on IMPACS for its survival breached Afghan media law on foreign ownership, said the audit.

Indeed, the publication has since folded, says Nancy Bennett, who took over as IMPACS executive director last fall in part to respond to the audit's findings.

"It's messy. There's no doubt about it," she said in an interview Tuesday. "Senior management of IMPACS just wasn't present enough on the ground."

Problems included a lack of staff with international experience, Bennett explained. There were also major security challenges and the financial chaos of dealing in a cash-only society where receipts are frequently missing.

Alternative expense-tracking methods were needed, she said.

"Those mechanisms were not put in place. And that comes back again to the lack of real oversight from here. I think there was an assumption made (by ex-IMPACS management) that things are going to work there the way they do here. It doesn't."

The organization has since pulled out of Afghanistan because of safety risks and the need to build more internal scope for dealing with overseas projects, Bennett said.

Asked to explain the audit's findings, a CIDA spokesman said no one was available.

"A briefing is not a possibility at this time," said Greg Scott. In an e-mail, he said that IMPACS was the first media development group trying to put women's voices on community radio.

"It was an ambitious project at the time, and IMPACS was able to produce some results."

That said, the group failed to provide the training and support needed to make those stations self-sufficient over time, Scott said.

"Given that the conditions for achieving lasting results were not present, CIDA decided that it would not continue to fund this kind of project."

Evaluators tried to track how well $2.1 million provided by CIDA was spent for a 22-month project that started in October 2003.

The rest of the $2.7 million in total CIDA funds was previously used to start two radio stations. They offered women, especially in rural areas, a rare chance to be trained and heard in a repressively male-dominated culture.

Phase II of the IMPACS project was to build on that success.

Among its main goals:

-Establish up to six more radio stations in rural areas.

-Create a monthly media law bulletin.

-Provide election coverage training.

-Organize exchange opportunities for Afghan women with media outlets in South Asia.

IMPACS failed outright or in part to deliver on almost every objective, says the audit. There was some training provided but no international exchanges or media law bulletins.

On the bright side, Afghan women are still running six community radio stations with help from local donations, Bennett said.

"The work continues. They're building on what was done in Phase II and setting up an Internet resources centre.

"It's great. They're doing this on their own steam."