Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP file photo

USAID Faulted for Lax Oversight of Afghan Land Reforms

SIGAR found that $41.2 million contract lacked vital information.

U.S. efforts to help displaced Afghans returning home to claim land in their war-torn country suffer from gaps in information vital to decisions on fairness and resource allocation, a watchdog found.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which spent $96.7 million from 2004 through 2014 to reform a land administration system beset by corruption and skyrocketing prices, did not fully measure progress in its Land Reform in Afghanistan (LARA) program, said a report released early on Thursday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

After awarding the contract to Tetra Tech ARD in January 2011, USAID “did not provide documentation for oversight it should have performed from September 2013 through November 2014,” SIGAR found. “Because USAID did not fully measure LARA's performance during or after implementation, the agency cannot fully establish whether LARA achieved its goals and objectives, or what impact the $41.2 million program had on improving land administration in Afghanistan.”

About half of personal and communal conflicts in Afghanistan involve land, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Private citizens and many current and former members of the Afghan government, including judges, ministers, and parliamentarians, have stolen public and private land, or have been involved in facilitating corruption and fraud in the land titling process,” SIGAR said. As much as 60 percent of corruption in the county’s Judiciary is related to land ownership, and the locally maintained records are poorly archived, damaged, incomplete or susceptible to forgery.

USAID’s program is also faced with the presence of “hundreds of thousands who have not been able to reclaim their land [and] have resorted to squatting on the outskirts of urban areas in informal settlements unrecognized by the government.”

During its audit of the contract, SIGAR found that Tetra Tech ARD completed eight of nine contract deliverables but its team was unable to rely on the agency’s contract files due to “the agency’s poor record keeping and had to seek additional information from Tetra Tech ARD. When asked, USAID did not have an explanation for why documents were missing from its contract files,” the report said. “Therefore, SIGAR questions how the agency was able to determine that the three LARA deliverables were completed when it closed out the contract.”

Achievements that have been made under the LARA program “are at risk and funds spent on the program may end up being wasted because USAID did not assess the sustainability of key elements …in areas key to transitioning ownership to the Afghan government,” SIGAR concluded. With no new U.S. programs planned, future progress depends on the Afghan government, a situation USAID did not fully analyze, the report said.

SIGAR recommended that USAID conduct a final sustainability assessment to determine whether the government, using its Arazi Land Records Management System, is positioned for forward progress.

USAID Mission Director Herbert Smith did not agree that missing documents meant his agency had omitted evaluations. He argued that the Arazi system is generating its own revenues, has 34 field offices and has contributed to a “decrease in land-grabbing.” A new law passed in December might also improve the situation, he said.

SIGAR agreed to soften some of its language.