Reconstruction in Afghanistan

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has done a good job of uncovering corruption in US spending. And his speech to Cornell University on Tuesday also does a solid job of cutting through the bluster of US press releases and claims made for more than $100 billion in aid spent in Afghanistan. It also raises broader points that should be of concern to anyone working in development.

SIGAR has seen too many reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan that entail dubious, unverifiable, misleadingly precise, or irrelevant data and metrics. Placing more credence and confidence in them than they deserve, or misreading their implications, creates an enormous risk of wasted work and money, and of failure to achieve our reconstruction objectives.

The late guru of total-quality management, Doctor W. Edwards Deming, warned about this tendency. He was writing about “deadly diseases [that] afflict most companies in the Western world,” but the applicability is broader. One of the top five deadly diseases, Deming said, is “running a company on visible figures alone (counting the money). . . . the most important figures one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.”9 His point was that some empirical measures may mislead, and some vital elements of success, like leadership, morale, and pride, may be difficult or impossible to measure.

Three dubious claims are then put under the microscope.

  • life expectancy (at birth) has increased from 42 to 62 – there’s probably not enough data to know
  • the country has 8.35 million students – but what about fake schools and the fact that children are only removed from roll after three years absent?
  • Afghan national security forces number 328,805 personnel – in one spot check 23% of individuals could not be verified by official ID info

In short, in raises questions that all development agencies struggle with – notably the relationships between inputs and outputs.

The full speech is here

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