UNDP in Afghanistan: Don’t Throw the Bridges Out With the Bathwater

USA Today reported this morning on some USAID-funded projects that, shall we say, did not go so well. From reading the article, though, one might be forgiven for assuming that the UN had simply “wasted” all the U.S. taxpayer dollars that went to Afghanistan, throwing them away on building “shoddy” bridges and incomplete buildings.

Well, that might make a nice Fox News talking point, to conveniently demonize the whole UN system, but the reality is a little more complex, as it always is with construction in conflict zones. First, nobody — including nobody at the UN — is denying that certain UN employees engaged in inexcusable corruption, or in misbehavior that resulted in such unusable construction projects. Furthermore, the UN Development Program (UNDP) is not at all trying to cover up these improprieties; rather, it has fully supported investigation and appropriate actions in response.

But even this goes beyond the central point: when the “quick impact” reconstruction projects at issue began in Afghanistan in 2003, it was USAID that approached UNDP. Since then, UNDP has successfully implemented projects using USAID and U.S. State Department contributions of over $300 million, with not a complaint from either side. The vast majority of the bridges, buildings, hospitals, and other infrastructure projects that UNDP supervised have been created without a hitch. These projects have benefitted the Afghan people that they serviced, as well as the thousands for whom they have provided gainful employment, which was really the implicit point of the whole program to begin with. And thanks to UNDP’s organizational assistance, Afghans were able to vote in the country’s historic free elections — as they will again this August, in the presidential and provincial elections that UNDP is also helping to prepare for.

Flawed construction projects that used USAID funding — or any funding, for that matter — are unacceptable. UNDP officials will have to take these allegations seriously and investigate them fully. But even a few bad apples (or bridges) are not reason enough to demean an organization that has done more for the Afghan people than most Americans probably realize.

(image of UN Office for Project Services construction project in Afghanistan)