The U.S. government has spent roughly $1 billion in two years to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan, but a new audit says there's no clear link between that spending and improvements in Afghan women's lives.
The Department of Defense (DoD), the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) "do not clearly demonstrate the outcomes of U.S. efforts or the link between those efforts and reported improvements made in the lives and treatment of Afghan women," the 50-page audit, released on Thursday, says.
"We acknowledge that doing impact assessment is not easy," John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, told BuzzFeed News. "But if you're going to be spending billions in taxpayer dollars, you need to be able to show a return on investment."
The office of the Special Investigator for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reviewed internal data and public reports detailing spending on women's programming by DoD, the State Department and USAID from 2011-2013. DoD spent nearly $5 million on women in the two-year period covered by the audit, while State spent nearly $62 million and USAID spent $850 million.
But none of the agencies knew where, exactly, all that funding ended up. DoD's initial list of spending overlooked another $5 million the department spent building a center for women's economic empowerment, and an unspecified amount spent on U.S. employees who serve as gender advisors to the Afghan interior ministry.
"With DoD, they couldn't identify everything they were doing, but for what they could identify, they could tell us exactly what they spent," Sopko said.
But USAID, in all 15 of the programs it claims benefitted Afghan women, couldn't explain how much was spent on women's issues, how many women benefited, or what the impact of the spending was, according to the audit.
That's largely because of a new, global approach at USAID and the State Department to spending money on women's issues. Instead of creating stand-alone programs to benefit women, the agency "integrates" or "mainstreams" women's issues into its broader programs. The idea is to make sure that general programming takes women's needs into consideration, even if a new project isn't specifically created for women.
But the audit found that USAID in Afghanistan couldn't evaluate how any of the "integrated" programs actually affect women's lives, nor could it separate out how much of those programs' budgets was actually spent on programming addressing women's needs.
"If you are going to identify these as programs for women, you should be able to tell us how much you're spending on that," Sopko said.
Without separating that funding, USAID "could exaggerate the amount of funding the agency actually spent on women's efforts," the audit said.
None of this was news to Samira Hamidi. Hamidi, the former director of the Afghan Women's Network, said she was not surprised by the audit.
"Not at all. I have been saying this since 2011 that the programs the U.S. government is designing and the money they are sending through USAID and other sources [is] not helping women rights in Afghanistan," Hamidi told BuzzFeed News by telephone from Kabul. "That's why I say I'm glad it's on the record….They don't care what people from the outside talk [say]. I really hope it makes a kind of difference, gives a different overview to the different US institutions who are aiming to support women for the future."
But Manizha Naderi, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, felt differently. She has been working with the State Department directly since 2009. The department funds the women's shelters, family gathering centers and children's support centers that Women for Afghan Women runs. Naderi said her organization has always been subject to clear monitoring and evaluation.
"I can't speak for USAID because we haven't gotten USAID money," she said, but working with the State Department "is a different experience than what the SIGAR audit is saying."
In a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News, Larry Sampler, assistant to the administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, said USAID "closely tracks" money integrated into general programs. Sampler's statement also said the agency tracks the impact of those funds. USAID declined to provide further details on either point.
"If this is your stated course of action, that you will be moving forward with mainstreaming gender as part of everything in the future," Sopko said, "you do need to have some kind of mechanism to ensure that those stated goals for women are in fact being addressed."
A letter from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, issued in reply to and published with the audit, detailed many general improvements for women in Afghanistan, including school enrollments, healthcare improvements, the creation of a network of domestic violence shelters, and funding for women-owned businesses.
But the auditors found no evidence linking those improvements directly to U.S. spending and, in several places, called reports claiming to make links "anecdotal."
"There is no clear indication of the source or reliability of many of the statistics cited by State and USAID, or that the improvements cited were the result of the hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent on programs intended to benefit Afghan women," the audit said.
The audit recommended that both State and USAID improve their evaluation of gender programming. The Kabul embassy letter said its current systems "provide sufficient information" on funding streams and their impact.
But Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (D-MA), the co-chair of the Afghan Woman's Caucus, disagreed.
"The SIGAR report raises legitimate questions about how the State Department, DOD and USAID measure the effectiveness of their programs," she said in a statement released today. "The report indicates a need for improved transparency and tracking methods. American taxpayers deserve to know that their dollars are being spent effectively."
The financial oversight challenges in Afghanistan aren't unique to spending on women.
"This is a systemic-wide problem with the reconstruction effort," Sopko said. "They don't know where they're spending their money for the most part."
Funding for women's issues in Afghanistan is slated to increase next year. USAID earlier this year announced a $216-million, five-year program to empower women 18-30 as leaders. It's the biggest women's empowerment program in the agency's history.
The Department of Defense, meanwhile, will spend $25 million next year recruiting women for Afghanistan's security forces.
It's still unclear how the agencies will track the impact of future funding, the auditing agency said.