The Soybeans for Agricultural Renewal in Afghanistan Initiative (SARAI) was a project pitched and run by the the American Soybean Association with USDA funding. What Sopko found during a March visit to Afghanistan was enough to give him serious pause. “I understand that Afghanistan’s operating environment poses daunting challenges for reconstruction and development programs, and that any project in the country is bound to meet its fair share of difficulties,” Sopko wrote in a June letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “However, what is troubling about this particular project is that it appears that many of these problems could reasonably have been foreseen and, therefore, possibly avoided.”
Those problems appear to be legion, according to the letter to Vilsack. Among the most troubling is the fact that long before the SARAI project began in 2010, evidence existed that the crop would fail in the area where planting was set occur. “Scientific research conducted for the UK Department for International Development between 2005 and 2008 concluded that soybeans were inappropriate for conditions and farming practices in northern Afghanistan, where the program was implemented,” Sopko wrote.
but it got some money to US farmers so it’s all good. This, of course, is not a one-time thing:
Harris listed the income farmers made on a hectare of land from different crops, after the costs of seed, fertilizer, labor, and taxes were subtracted. Poppy, of course, was the most lucrative. But the closest competitor was a surprise to everyone in the room. It was cotton.
A USAID representative at the meeting reported Harris’s comments to agency officials. An hour later, AID sent an e-mail to Newman asserting that cotton was not a viable substitute for poppy because a government-run cotton gin in the nearby city of Lashkar Gah had lost $3 million in 2008.
Harris soon spotted the problem: In converting expenses per kilogram to pounds, Donohoe had multiplied by 2.2 instead of dividing. And then Harris found another error: Donohoe had based his calculations on the world price for ginned lint cotton, not unginned seed cotton, which was how the gin compensated farmers — a mistake that had inflated costs by a factor of three.
Finally AID raised the Bumpers Amendment, a law that forbids the use of U.S. funds to help foreign cotton producers. (It was designed to protect King Cotton.) Once again Harris had a rejoinder. The amendment, he insisted, prohibits only activities that impact American exporters.
“You cannot tell me that Afghan cotton is going to have any significant impact on U.S. exports,” he argued.
The one organization that had money for such projects was USAID. A million dollars was a rounding error in the overall USAID budget. But by then Harris knew there was no way the agency would help the gin.
“Everything was there to make it work except for a basic understanding of agriculture by AID’s supposed experts,” he grumbled upon his return to Georgia. “They cost us a huge opportunity.”
This sounds crazy–Afghanis knew about growing cotton, it worked well in Afghanistan, it was a product in demand, and wouldn’t have needed large subsidies–until you notice that no one in the US was going to make any money out of it. Then it makes sense. I’ve talked about this before, the only reason many people in the US support international aid is because they can make money off it. This is just another example.