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Hope not enough to finish schools

Second of two parts

Denied an education during the Taliban's rule, so many Afghan girls returned to school when the regime fell in 2001 that thousands had to study in tents because there weren't enough classrooms.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, had a solution: In 2002 it launched a project to build hundreds of schools, like the School of Hope in the Afghan capital.

Still under construction, the two-story building has 20 classrooms that will accommodate 600 girls. There's a separate latrine with sinks and toilets, and the compound is protected by a high wall and guardhouse.

But the School of Hope, built with nearly $400,000 in U.S. taxpayer money, is not without flaws.

The underside of the concrete stairwell is so low that a tall girl could crack her head as she walks through the lobby. The doors are made of a thin plywood prone to warping. Sizable cracks have appeared in the latrines. And the roof lacks gutters.

The school is certainly an improvement over the nearby tents and bombed-out buildings where 1,400 boys and girls now study. But it shows some of the challenges facing USAID in its push to build the schools and scores of health clinics, a hugely ambitious project that has consumed more than $81-million and taken far longer than planned.

Work has been slowed by a robust insurgency, soaring construction costs, a harsh climate and forbidding terrain that left some contractors, like Maryland-based CHF International, struggling to build schools on remote mountainsides. Quality also suffered under pressure to finish schools quickly, especially in the runup to the 2004 U.S. election.

"In the United States, it takes you the better part of a year and a half to build a school, assuming you have everything ready to go," said John Chromy, who oversaw CHF's Afghan field operations. "USAID and us and everybody else thought we were going to build schools in Afghanistan in 11 months. A lot of us had to have our heads examined on that one."

Political pressures

In 2002, USAID gave the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey consulting firm, a $300-million contract to oversee reconstruction of Afghanistan, including schools and health care centers.

"It didn't go very well at all," said Marshall Perry, a former Berger project manager.

A Coloradoan who came from the private sector, Perry concedes he was "a bit naive'' about working in a onetime terrorist haven that the Bush administration hoped to transform into a model of democracy.

"They had money to build more than 500 schools and clinics and decided to put them not based on the needs of the country, but in regions we wanted to pacify," Perry said. "There were schools in locations so dangerous I couldn't send Westerners out to the site. Then you have construction deadlines set according to the political situation in the states."

Nonetheless, work proceeded, albeit with major problems.

"Louis Berger designed a roofing system that was almost impossible to build in the field - you had to use cranes on site to lift trusses up to the roof," Perry said. The company came up with a lighter roofing system, but inexperienced Afghan workers were unable to install it properly.

The roofs "tilted, and once they tilted, they fell apart," he said.

Of the 105 schools and clinics Louis Berger built, roofs had to be replaced on about 50. Five schools were in such bad shape they had to be totally redone.

By March 2004, USAID was so unhappy with Berger's progress that it contracted with CHF International, which had experience in Afghanistan, and four other nonprofit organizations to build the remaining 670 or so schools and clinics. The target date: September 2004.

U.S. and Afghan presidential elections were coming up that fall, "so the marching orders were to get everything built by September," said Chromy of CHF.

"Everybody knew that was impossible, and there was a bit of wink-wink in signing those agreements. But it was important to have schools with girls' facilities, so everybody in good faith said, 'We'll go forward as fast as we can and let the elections take care of themselves.' "

USAID originally asked CHF to construct several schools near the Pakistan border, but they were in "places never secure enough to actually go up and do the building," Chromy said. Other sites were in such steep locales that "nobody in their right mind except rich people in California" would consider them.

"We went out, took satellite photos, transmitted them back to Kabul and said, 'Are you sure you want to build here?' But USAID told us, the Ministry of Education said to do it, so we're going to do it. The thinking was, we're helping the government of Afghanistan respond to its people."

CHF received roughly $12-million to build 60 schools and health centers. As usual, it hired Afghans to do the construction, but had trouble recruiting good workers willing to go to remote, dangerous areas.

Moreover, the weather in many places turned so cold by November that it was impossible to pour concrete. As a result, CHF and its four partners finished only nine of the schools and clinics by the 2004 deadline.

USAID extended the completion date to August 2005, and work resumed in the spring. But with so many projects under way, CHF had to pay more for capable Afghan contractors. And the cost of steel and cement had soared more than 40 percent.

By August, "it was clear it was going to be tough to get everything finished, particularly in the mountains, before the next winter set in, " Chromy said. "USAID was on our case all the time. They said, 'We've got to get this done,' and we said, 'There's only so much we can do in this kind of setting.' "

CHF put in $270,000 of its own money to hire more workers and speed construction. Any schools that weren't done by winter would be finished the next spring, it assured USAID.

But the agency decided to transfer CHF's 50 unfinished buildings to the International Organization for Migration. In the end, CHF completed 10 schools and clinics, and nearly finished 26 more.

"We were disappointed because our organization prides itself on filling all our contracts on time and within budget," Chromy said. "The schools program was our nemesis. We've done a lot of great stuff in Afghanistan, but the schools program was tough, tough."

Money still flows

More than two years behind schedule, USAID's schools and clinics program is still plugging along. The agency's inspector general found that while weather and other factors contributed to the delays, USAID also "agreed to overly ambitious targets considering the environment in Afghanistan.''

Most of the remaining work has fallen to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, which is finishing schools started by others as well as its own projects, including the School of Hope for Girls.

Ghulam Hazra, chief engineer for the Afghan Ministry of Education, said, "the quality of IOM's work is very poor," a charge testily refuted by IOM's representatives.

'A little bit ugly'

"The standards of workmanship are quite different,'' said Neil Campbell, who monitors the School of Hope construction. "(Afghan) tools and technology are 50 years behind ours. You can't take these guys from the 14th century to the 21st century overnight. It (the school) might be a little bit ugly, but it's still strong. It's going to be a lot better for the children than sitting in a tent or field."

Actual construction of the school is being done by an Afghan company, whose on-site supervisor, Aimal Khoran, agrees that the overall quality is good. There were problems, however, with IOM's design, he said.

As initially planned, the doors were 8.5 feet high - so tall they might have buckled under the weight. Khoran's company shrunk the doors by almost 2 feet and added a transom.

The stairwell, on the other hand, was originally so low that the Afghan contractor lowered part of the lobby to create more space under the stairwell.

As for the gutter-less roof, "that's a problem,'' Khoran acknowledged.

Campbell said gutters were not included in plans because they could fill with snow and drop off. "It's a maintenance issue,'' he said. "Once the gutters fall off, the Afghans aren't going to maintain them.''

The U.S. government will pay IOM $390,000 for the school, of which $290,000 is going to the Afghan construction company, according to Khoran. He makes $500 a month; his 20 workers earn between $3.50 and $10 a day, depending on their skills.

Any problems with the school will be addressed before it is handed over to the Ministry of Education, IOM said.

"This school is just one of many I've built for USAID, and I do not believe for a minute that we are squandering taxpayers' money," Campbell said. "These buildings will all be standing in 100 years and there will be four generations of children educated in them.''

As for the Louis Berger Group, the company that originally had such trouble building good schools, its missteps haven't hurt it.

USAID recently awarded Berger and another U.S. company a contract to rebuild Afghan roads, power and sewer systems. The amount? $1.4-billion.

Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.