The lumpy carpet syndrome

When Alan Mulally became boss of an ailing Ford Motor Company in 2006 one of the first things he did was demand that his executives own up to their failures. He asked managers to colour-code their progress reports—ranging from green for good to red for trouble. At one early meeting he expressed astonishment at being confronted by a sea of green, even though the company had lost several billion dollars in the previous year. Ford’s recovery began only when he got his managers to admit that things weren’t entirely green. (Fail often, fail well)

The sea of green is the lumpy carpet syndrome. It is common and particularly true when donors are the source of revenue.

Over $750 million has been spent on elections in Afghanistan, over the past 12 years. Not one has been credible. Almost two thirds of the money has been spent on building the voters register. There still is no voters register in the country.

This figure barely registers in the waste the Office of the Inspector General has exposed.

And yet the reports from the offices responsible for these projects read of glowing success. The difference is the lumpy carpet. Anything that looks bad is hidden. After all, no-one wants to spoil their prospects for promotion.

If someone tries to expose the waste, then it’s time to shoot the messenger.

More at:
Fail often, fail well
SIGAR Quarterly Reports to Congress
If it’s broken, IT can’t fix it

Afghanistan – what happens after 2014?

It’s a question that comes up often.

A comprehensive report prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) covers the issues and outlines the challenges.

It doesn’t say that when you throw money at a problem, often the result is an expensive problem plus corruption. To date America has contributed $68 billion, and the rest of the world another $25 billion. In 2005, the first time it was surveyed, Afghanistan was 117 out of 159 on Transparency International’s corruption index. By 2011 it was 180 out of 183.

The CRS report mentions the challenge that is corruption and it indicates that there are government institutions dedicated to eradicating malaise, but fails to mention the election fraud that occurred in the 2009 presidential election. It does mention the fraud in the 2010 parliamentary election, which the beneficiary of the 2009 election fraud objected to. Apparently he resented that his techniques had been so effectively copied.

Until the corruption is sorted out, legitimate businesses won’t want to invest in Afghanistan.

Of course, the illegitimate businesses love Afghanistan. It’s the World’s biggest producer of poppy.

Mention is made of the need to develop the economy. Donor aid represents 95% of the country’s GDP. The best case scenario predicts a 13% decline. The worst case scenario has the GDP falling by 41 percent. At a recent conference in Tokyo, the donors pledged $16 billion over four years. That won’t help until the corruption is sorted out. Proof, if it’s needed, can be seen in the way South Africa’s economy has slid down Africa’s financial rankings, matching it’s decline on the corruption index ranking.

In the agreement signed between America and Afghanistan on May 2, 2012, under the heading of Economic and Social Development, the United States commits to:

help strengthen Afghanistan’s economic foundation and support sustainable development and self-sufficiency, particularly in the areas of: licit agricultural production; transportation, trade, transit, water, and energy infrastructure; fostering responsible management of natural resources; and building a strong financial system, which is needed to sustain private investment.

Perhaps we can send Deloitte to repeat their success with Kabul Bank.

Transport is also an important challenge. Let’s hope that there’s more commitment to that than in 2010 when the lone Department of Transport attache was tearing out his remaining strands of hair.

A lot of people are pessimistic about Afghanistan’s future after 2014. It’s not easy to contradict them.

More at:
CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX 2011
Corruption Perceptions Index 2005
The United States’ “New Silk Road” Strategy: What is it? Where is it Headed?
Afghanistan Beyond the Fog of Nation Building: Giving Economic Strategy a Chance
U.S. Strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan
Economic Transition in Afghanistan: How to Soften a Hard Landing
Next Steps in the War in Afghanistan?
Pakistan termed biggest stakeholder in post-2014 Afghanistan
Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy
Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance
Afghanistan: U.S. Rule of Law and Justice Sector Assistance
United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: Background and Policy Issues
Afghanistan Opium Survey 2011
ENDURING STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF AFGHANISTAN
Pakistan – U.S. Relations
Afghanistan aid: Donors pledge $16bn at Tokyo meeting
U.S. advisers saw early signs of trouble at Afghan Bank

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The hand that feeds

Making things worse

People from the developed world, trying to impose their values on developing countries, have no idea how much damage they sometimes do.

Let’s take the example of biometrics. In developing countries bureaucracy and corruption are the bane of ones existence.

In Kabul registering a vehicle, or simply replacing a stolen licence disk, can take months, standing in queues and paying bribes, often required because there is no formal mechanism to prove who you are.

There is no social security number. No utility invoices. No birth register. To prove who one is requires authentication from people who can prove who they are, usually government employees, who unless they are friends require payment. Even when one official accepts the authentication, another won’t, so yet another person has to attest. It can run to hundreds of dollars.

Afghanistan has been putting together its National Identity Card (NID) for a number of years, doing it properly. The Afghan government started in 2006 after they had agreed with the international donors that Afghanistan needed a reliable voters register. Biometric identification was seen as the cornerstone of ensuring the system was reliable.

Then the US military who had been providing some technical guidance to the Afghan government started trying to take ownership. In an article in the New Yorker, the vice admiral in charge of obtaining the biometric data from Afghan detainees claimed that he was helping to:

issue identity cards, with biometric data such as fingerprints, to every person in the country over the age of fifteen.

He linked the NID to an ambition to hold the Taliban accountable while protecting the innocent from false accusations using his project.

The biometric identity card project in the UK was cancelled in 2010, shortly after the Tory government came to power, wasting the £294 million that had already been spent. Worse yet, the government lost between £500 million and £1.2 billion in annual efficiency savings that the system would have generated.

The London School of Economics produced a report in 2005 warning the government that unless the increased efficiency benefits to members of the public and government were highlighted, there would be a backlash against the system. The Labour government took no notice, promoting the system’s ability to track down criminals and terrorists. Voters reacted, believing that it was in intrusion on privacy, and the Tories used that as a tool to win votes.

In a recent article in the Economist, the emphasis is on how this is an effective weapon against the insurgents. It quotes Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group based in San Francisco that keeps a watch on how digital technology encroaches on civil freedoms, who questions the quality of the data. She fears that scans done quickly in the field, or by inexperienced technicians, could lead to cases of mistaken identity.

Digital technology does not encroach. People encroach. Biometric data acquisition is fraught with problems. That’s why the Afghan government specified technologies that prevent inept and inexperienced operators from compromising data quality. An inexperienced (or careless) person just takes a little longer to do the job.

Ms Lynch’s comment also shows no understanding of the mechanics. If biometric data is bad, it very rarely matches to the wrong person, it just makes it difficult to match to the right person.

And in the meantime this interfering lawyer, who has certainly never been to Afghanistan is preventing the Afghans from improving their lives.

Perhaps after she’s spent a bit of time standing in the queues at the licensing department in Kabul she’d have a better understanding of what’s important to Afghans.

More at:
The eyes have it
WAR BY OTHER MEANS