During a February 2011 visit to Pakistan, where U.S. foreign aid totaled $1.8 billion last year, I asked to tour the completed projects funded by U.S. taxpayers. When the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) could not point me to a single completed project, I asked for an accounting of where that foreign-aid money went. No one could tell me.
As debt rises, incomes fall and lawmakers dial back the spigot of domestic spending, U.S. foreign aid money continues to flow freely, to the tune of nearly $40 billion a year in 149 countries. With very little oversight, billions of dollars are turned over each year with no central repository or easy mechanism for tracking progress, completion or even location of projects. Try asking for a spreadsheet of projects in a single country. I did. The folks on the ground could not provide one. It took weeks of official requests, phone calls and a congressional hearing to get a list.
Despite questions of widespread waste, fraud and abuse of foreign-aid dollars, President Obama last week called for hundreds of millions of dollars in increased aid. Meanwhile, recent audits by the USAID Office of Inspector General (OIG) have revealed a pattern of poor management from Haiti to Iraq to Pakistan. I see no reason to believe additional aid dollars called for by Mr. Obama to the Middle East and North Africa will be spent any more judiciously.
Upon visiting Haiti, I found that aid administrators could not answer the most basic questions about where aid money had been spent. My concerns about accountability for U.S. foreign aid dollars led me to hold an oversight hearing earlier this month.
The hearing, combined with audit reports from the OIG, demonstrated that vast amounts of U.S. aid money is being spent with little documentation or verification of quantifiable results. Although we hear claims of schools that have been built, no one can produce photographs of a finished school. We’ve spent money on physical infrastructure, but we have been shown no evidence the infrastructure was completed. There is simply no process to credibly verify whether aid efforts are resulting in real outcomes or just wild distortions.
In Haiti, for example, an audit revealed that grantees have constructed far fewer shelters than required following the January 2010 earthquake. By June 30, 2010, just 6 percent of the target had been reached. The OIG found that completed shelters varied greatly in terms of quality and price, and some shelters did not meet minimum standards. Because the grants did not include requirements for mechanized rubble removal, only about 5 percent of the rubble had been removed 11 months after the quake. The United States spent $1.2 billion in Haiti in 2010 but cannot produce documentation of what was accomplished with that money.
In Pakistan, where the U.S. has authorized $7.5 billion in assistance over five years, an audit revealed “significant vulnerabilities that could result in waste or misuse of U.S. Government resources.” More than 250 weaknesses were identified in the potential recipients’ ability to properly manage funds. The audit revealed that USAID/Pakistan did not correct those vulnerabilities before distributing hundreds of millions of aid dollars.
An audit report on aid to Iraq revealed similar questions. The audit found anomalies in signatures submitted as evidence of payments to beneficiaries. In one case, 262,482 people reportedly had benefited from the purchase of medical supplies meant to treat just 100 victims of a specific attack. Even as weaknesses were identified in Iraq, USAID was slow to implement the changes recommended in the audit.
Until we can certify and demonstrate that each and every precious dollar is dealt with in a responsible way, the president should not be asking for more money. Meanwhile, we must prioritize accountability and transparency in the administration of U.S. aid dollars abroad. At a minimum, USAID should be able to provide basic information about each aid project, including the benefiting country, estimated costs, percentage of completion, a photo of the completed project and final cost figures. Furthermore, information about overhead costs for administration of aid and identification of third-party entities or partners should also be made public in a timely fashion.
It is not enough to cut spending at home. In an age of austerity, we must also more closely monitor how our money is spent abroad.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz is a Utah Republican.
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