Sixteen months and $47 million into a $200 million community aid effort in Afghanistan, the U.S. Agency for International Development hasn't awarded a single grant.
Instead, the agency has spent the money on too many training conferences and may actually be causing more instability, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The program at issue is known as Stability in Key Areas, or SIKA.
"It's troubling that after 16 months, this program has not issued its first community grant. Rather, it has spent nearly $50 million — roughly a quarter of the total program budget — on conferences, overhead and workshops. This looks like bad value for U.S. taxpayers and the Afghan people," Special Inspector General John F. Sopko said of the report.
USAID contracted with two international development organizations for regional programs to identify sources of instability and target grants to deal with them.
The program was supposed to be an extension of Afghan government programs, but the agency didn't sign a formal agreement until nine months after signing its first contract.
The lack of a government agreement meant the contractors, AECOM Inc. and Development Alternatives Inc., couldn't make grants. Instead, they held endless training conferences that have left locals "fatigued" and disappointed, according to SIGAR.
Conference topics ranged from training to identify instability to improving personal and work skills. In one district, for instance, 26 farmers received communications training, according to the report.
In some areas, Afghan frustration has become downright dangerous.
"AECOM also reported that its facilitators and district staff in SIKA South are worried that the lengthy processes of project development and approval could expose them to physical risk from angry local representatives or constituents," SIGAR said.
Even so, USAID officials insisted their agency has made "significant progress," with more than 100 grants in process. But of the $47 million spent so far, less than 1 percent has gone to the grant process, which USAID itself deemed an "essential" part of the program.
The IG strongly disputed the claim of significant progress.
"Our findings demonstrate that the SIKA programs failed to achieve this objective," SIGAR said. "Nevertheless, nearly 16 months after signing the first SIKA contract, USAID extended three of the SIKA contracts and signed a new contract for the fourth program."
USAID disagreed with SIGAR's assessment and its recommendations that USAID update its contracts with a clearer implementation plan, saying the watchdog misunderstood the program's purpose.
But SIGAR noted its assessment was based on USAID's own guidance, and the agency "did not offer sound, fact-based reasoning for its concerns."