Jim Yardley Spends a Year in Afghanistan
I spent last year working for US Treasury as an advisor to the Internal Audit Department in the Ministry of Finance of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The World Bank started work with internal audit in 2008 and I was sent to assist.
I worked primarily in Kabul, although I made one trip Kandahar. I lived in the US embassy compound – variously referred to as the world’s most exclusive gated community, a glorified medium security prison, and, in my opinion, an assisted living facility. My personal space was a hooch, an 8’ by 14’ container with a bed and a bathroom. It wasn’t much, but it was home.
The Ministry of Finance is located in old Kabul about 8 miles from the US embassy compound. The daily commute would take from 20 minutes to 2 hours, depending on traffic. The drive required passing through a minimum of five military checkpoints. I was allowed to travel in a US embassy vehicle only; the vehicles were Land Cruisers with bulletproof windows (that could never be opened) and reinforced blast-proof doors (that could barely be opened) driven by Afghans who worked for the embassy. The drivers became good friends. I was totally dependent on them for my security when travelling about the city.
People in Kabul speak Dari; there is no word for audit in Dari. There is a word for investigation, as in police investigation. For an Afghan the concept of an audit is difficult to separate from the concept of a criminal investigation. The internal auditors understood that an audit should not be an investigation but were not sure what audit should be. I did not understand the situation and practicalities of Afghanistan but understood what audit could be. I shared ideas about process auditing and internal controls; they shared an understanding of the environment. Together we created the possible.
The specific objective of my assistance was to develop internal audit departments in other ministries. The process began by developing a team in the Ministry of Finance who could perform adequate audits. This team would train others to achieve the same level of competence. When I left, this was happening.
The good news is that the internal auditors embraced new concepts, were quick to learn, and were fully able to adopt new procedures and produce quality reports. The bad news is that there was no will in government to act on the audit reports. This was a mixed blessing; if the audit reports had produced results, the auditors may have been in danger. As it is, there are no consequences to the reports, so the auditors are able to expose problems safely.
The internal audit departments in the ministries were interesting places. Salaries for Afghan government personnel do not provide a living wage. Most government employees try to “supplement” their low salaries by accepting “tips” for providing better service. Because internal auditors have no opportunity to collect tips, internal auditing is not the career of choice for civil servants. In fact, it is a punishment assigned to those who refuse to go along with illegal activities. Teaching ethics to this group was unnecessary.
The group that I worked with were from all Afghan ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras. All were probably suffering from traumatic stress; the strain of living with one’s family in Kabul is extreme. I was able to return to the relative safety of the embassy each evening; my team never received a similar break.
I left with feeling of hope for Afghanistan. The average Afghan wants the same for his or her family as I do for mine. Mostly, they are good people caught in a horrible situation.