Afghanistan’s aspiring future teachers could be risking their lives even before setting foot in a classroom, according to a new watchdog report.
On Wednesday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported the results of its inspection of a teacher training facility in the town of Sheberghan that was constructed under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). In February 2009, USACE awarded Iraqi company Mercury Development a $2.9 million contract (later increased to $3.4 million) to build the Jawzjan Faculty of Higher Education at Sheberghan and two other teacher training facilities in northern Afghanistan.
More than four years later, the Sheberghan facility remains incomplete. Water, sewage, and electrical systems are unfinished. Electrical wiring glitches expose the building’s occupants to potential electrocution and fire hazards. The facility’s water supply also poses potential health risks because it may have been placed too close to a sewage system. The structural dangers at the facility are so serious that last month, before his office had completed the inspection report, Special Inspector General John Sopko sent an alert letter to USACE and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is now in charge of the facility, urging immediate corrective action.
Despite the incomplete construction and the health and safety hazards, Afghans are now using the Sheberghan facility. This is what SIGAR observed during a site visit last November:
During our inspection, we noticed that because of the lack of electricity, the halls and classrooms were dimly lit by natural light coming through the windows. In addition, it was cold and most faculty and students wore coats because the heating system was not operational. Further, because there was no running water, the bathroom facilities were locked and not accessible to faculty or students, requiring them to leave the school area to find toilet facilities.
The U.S. government has not yet turned the facility over to the Afghan government and is still responsible for its operation and maintenance. U.S. taxpayers will therefore have to bear the cost of compensating Afghans who are injured as a result of the substandard conditions.
SIGAR also found that USACE has yet again failed to hold its contractors accountable. SIGAR describes Mercury Development as having “abandoned” the project in November 2011. A second contractor, Zafarkhaliq Construction Company, took over in January 2012 and also failed to complete construction or resolve the health and safety issues. Yet USACE closed out the contracts, paid both companies ($3.1 million to Mercury; $130,000 to Zafarkhaliq), and released them from further contractual liability.
According to SIGAR, USACE had concerns about Mercury as early as July 2009. In dozens of letters it sent to Mercury over the next two years, USACE documented a multitude of problems arising during the construction of all three teacher training facilities: unsatisfactory performance, non-payment of subcontractors, inflating the number of workers on site, unauthorized purchase of supplies from Iran, safety violations, and inadequate oversight. SIGAR has given USACE 90 days to respond to a list of questions about the decision to release Mercury and Zafarkhaliq from their contractual obligations, including whether disciplinary action was or will be taken against the contracting officer(s) responsible for making the decision.
This is the third time in recent memory that SIGAR has called out USACE for letting contractors walk away from incomplete or botched construction projects in Afghanistan. Last October, SIGAR reported that USACE paid DynCorp International almost $71 million for an incomplete, structurally unsound Afghan Army garrison in Kunduz Province. And in April, SIGAR reported that USACE took possession of a $5 million waste incineration system at Forward Operating Base Salerno without requiring the contractor to fix a number of significant defects.
Image from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.