Interview: Journalist Claims USAID Over-estimated Schools Built in Afghanistan

By Alaphia Zoyab
Former Web Editor
March 28, 2010

680. That was the number that sent the French journalist Paul Moreira on the road to Kabul. At the 2008 Donors Conference in Paris, USAID made the claim that the organization had built 680 schools in Afghanistan. But it didn’t sound like the truth to Moreira, and he decided to check it out for himself.

Moreira’s documentary, Afghanistan: On the Dollar Trail is the result of his investigation into whether these schools were ever built. The film also contrasts the misery of ordinary Afghans with the lives of the corrupt political class, when Moreira stumbles upon the “Walt Disney” section of Kabul where people are building Cinderella-castle style homes.

Moreira has built a career from his investigative skills. In 1999 he launched an investigative show on Canal Plus TV and in 2006 founded his own TV company, the Paris-based Premières Lignes. His first investigative documentary about Iraq, Agony of a Nation, won Best Documentary at Festival International de Télévision de Monte-Carlo and Best Investigative Documentary at Festival International du Grand Reportage d’Actualité.

Why did you choose as the starting point of your film, the Donors Conference held in Paris in 2008 where nearly $21 billion was pledged to rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure and institutions? Did the claims made at the conference strike you as hollow?

I did not know exactly if I would use anything from the Donors conference in Paris. But I still went with a camera, just in case... I knew I wanted to go to the root of why the insurgency was gaining such momentum and support among the population. I knew money was definitely an issue. I suspected there would be a lot of spin going on too. I was right. Beyond what I could imagine.

There were 300 journalists, all separated from the conference by a security apparatus and a wall. We were all following the conference on an internal TV network. Everyone was there, agencies, TVs, papers... frustrated! No access. Then Hamid Karzai (Afghan President) and Bernard Kouchner (French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs) came out to announce a new injection of funds in the Aga Khan Hospital in Kabul (by the way, one of the only donor created institutions that works fine...). After the announcement, all the journalists were literally rushing towards Karzai, asking the question every one wanted to ask - Corruption, where is the money going? I remember Karzai was elbowing his way back to the other side of the wall. Due to the crowd of reporters around him he couldn’t and had to answer some of these questions before security guys reset a safety zone between him and the press.

Then there was the communication of USAID. The man responsible for Afghanistan was there, Mr Yates - soft spoken, good manners, very friendly. I did an interview with him and the only figures he gave me were on the number of schools USAID had help build anew or refurbish: 680 schools. I just told him I would do a reality check on that. "Vous êtes le bienvenu" (“You’re welcome”), he answered in a perfect French. But I never saw him again and I couldn’t get him in front of a camera once on the field - Especially after I discovered the schools were not easy to find.

How did you do your initial research on the money trail, and what were some of the early signs that you were getting that things were not quite right?

I have a friend, Ehsan Merangais, who runs an NGO in Kabul: Afghanistan Demain. He is a former fighter from Masood's ranks. We discussed the money issue and the many flaws in the rebuilding process. In his book Descent into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid underscores the lack of resources allocated to rebuilding the country. Money, or rather wrongful distribution of money, has been the first propaganda tool of the Taliban. People couldn't stand the Taliban and were happy to get rid of them. Yet, the occupation forces had to concentrate on winning the "hearts and minds”? Why?

What was the formal process for the funnelling of money into infrastructure and development projects in Afghanistan? What do you think was fundamentally wrong with it?

I cannot answer for the general process of donations. I can only comment on what I investigated on the field. Basically, there are two types of problems.

The corrupt local NGOs who divert donors’ money for their personal use. And also the expatriate structure that burns up a lot of resources before they get to the ones in real need. Then you have to know that during the first years, there were no banks and money was given in cash. Imagine bundles of cash kept in safes, carried in suitcases and given from hand to hand. Of course, it is tempting - for any human being, Afghan or Expatriate. Then, you have corporations, like private security companies, who feed off the war economy and they sometimes inflate their expenses. Then you have advisors. Afghans call them the “1000-dollars-a-day” men because that is their cost, between salary and security. I must say it is easier to get an interview with the Taliban than with some of those advisors (this is not a joke, I repeat: not a joke).

Following the money trail is a time-tested journalistic technique. Do you think this investigative technique isn’t being employed enough by the mainstream media?

In France, and maybe also in the United States, the model TV story on Afghanistan is an embed with "our boys". There isn't much of an interest to show the conflict through Afghan eyes. Of course, it is very different when you read the written press. The Kabul Bureau of The New York Times has done an outstanding job on uncovering corruption and drug lords. TV is very different. One of the difficulties is how to create a narrative form that is simple, dramatic and that can interest people without resorting to the fear factor.

Ahmed Rashid says in his book that UNICEF had set up nearly 4,600 schools across Afghanistan. Are these schools still functioning? Were you only investigating USAID’s claims on rebuilding schools?

I did not have the time to check on all the donors. So I concentrated on the USAID schools.

USAID made the claim at the Donors Conference that they had built 680 schools. How many did you find in Kabul, where you filmed? Why did you conclude that their claim of the schools being in rural areas is false?

My objective was to check on the USAID claim: 680 schools built in Afghanistan. OK, easy, show me one in Kabul. To tell you the truth, I was not expecting to find nothing. I was not expecting to find what I was able to film: little girls studying outside, 4 of them uncomfortably sitting on benches for two, without enough tables or a roof and with snow falling on them! I was amazed! It took two weeks for the USAID press officer to get me one address in Kabul. But the school was not built yet! There was this beautiful billboard showing a giant picture of what the school would look like in the future and then inside the school, again little girls studying in the cold. I couldn’t believe my eyes!

The Public Relations office of USAID then told me the schools were built in rural areas, not in Kabul. I have no reason not to believe them. But it is very difficult to check out on that type of claim with the security situation nowadays in Afghanistan. And one thing is for sure: there are needs in Kabul that are not met by donors’ money. I must stress the fact that girls going back to school, eagerly, determined to learn (even in the freezing cold) is one of the most moving and inspiring scenes I have had a chance to witness in my professional life. Sure the end of the Taliban oppression made that possible. But then there is this incoherent use of resources where warlords pocket huge amounts of dollars and children study in the freezing cold. This is unacceptable.

Your film shows the neighbourhood of Shirpur in Kabul where there is a construction boom in luxury villas and contrasts that with the extreme poverty of ordinary Afghans and the tents and bombed out shells of buildings in which Afghan children are studying. Who are the people who live in Shirpur? Do you think the $21 billion in aid is being siphoned off to build these villas?

This was the major shock of the film. Shirpur is under reported. Even in Ahmed Rashid's book, you don't get a sense of what is happening in this neighbourhood. It was such a surprise after seeing all theses children waiting for walls and roofs in their schools, for years, to witness the pace of construction in this "nouveau riche" area of Kabul. Construction workers were literally running with their wheel-barrows to build million dollar mansions as fast as possible. They were also pushing away the poor people who lived in mud huts in this area, sometimes with bulldozers smashing houses with people still inside. I witnessed Afghan fury in this old man who said he had survived fighting the Russians but was ready to die to defend his shabby home against those "thieves". The Commission on Human Rights, one of the only efficient counter-powers in Afghanistan, ran an investigation on Shirpur. What they found is appalling. Basically, Marshal Fahim (currently First Vice President) and Karzai distributed public land to cronies of the regime at a ridiculous cost. Fahim is the one who gave away most of the land. And when you look up at the list of names, you find sons of ministers, ministers themselves, journalists and warlords like [General Abdul Rashid] Dostom. Shirpur is a spoil of war.

Then there is the difficult question: How do you pay 500,000 USD to build a house when you get a government wage of 2,000 USD? I was not capable of answering that question. But of course, guesses are it can be diverted aid money or drug money.

What were the hazards of filming in Afghanistan?

Investigating Shirpur made both my fixers very tense. They told me it could be dangerous to get on warlord turf and annoy them. So I saved the most controversial filming for a second, short trip. Afghans fear Panjshir gangs as much as they fear the Taliban. And there are many guns for hire from what my fixers told me. So you have to be careful.

Kabul is relatively safe but you have to be careful whenever you are in the outskirts. Compared to Baghdad where I went five times, Kabul is ok. I remember Baghdad in November 2006, when I did an unembedded investigative documentary on militias. It was probably the most frustrating experience of my career. For security reasons I could not get access to half of what I wanted. I could hear militias shooting at each other outside the hotel but couldn't go out to film.

One of the problems with U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was that the CIA wanted to keep the warlords in charge outside Kabul. So they were paying them off because they were more interested in intelligence and military success against the Taliban rather than nation-building. Having spent time in Kabul, what structural changes would you recommend to international strategy which would make aid delivery more effective?

There are a lot of good people in Afghanistan. I found honest political men, like Ramazan Bashardost (former Planning Minister and current member of the National Assembly) and honest judges. The United States has to shift to something more geared towards social justice. That has to be the top priority. Oh, and also, stop lashing bombs on the civilians, that is bad for hearts and minds...

Photo above: Paul Moreira in Monte Carlo in 2007 receiving an award for his documentary on Iraq - "Agony of a Nation".

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