By Rachel Premack

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko talked government programs and accountability with approximately 100 journalists at the annual IRE Conference in Philadelphia.

This inspector general’s job duties are not unlike that of an investigative journalist. Sopko leads an independent governmental department aimed at ensuring Afghan reconstruction programs are effective and free of fraud. Afghanistan reconstruction, Sopko said, has cost more than $110 billion since 2002 — more than all of the Marshall Plan intended to rebuild Europe after two world wars.

Sopko suggested questions for journalists to ask officials when looking for red flags in government programs:

  1. Is the program following the national strategy? Some programs in Afghanistan had no relation to strategic goals. Those are likely to fail as no one is invested or interested in them.
  2. Do the recipients of the program know or want it? The program will be a waste of money if locals do not want it. This question ensures that there is proper communication between the government and its citizens.
  3. Is the program coordinated with international partners, state governments, local organizations, etc.? This could ensure its sustainability and ability to survive and serve its purpose.
  4. What have been your program’s or agency’s top 10 successes, and why were they successes? What about failures? These questions illuminate what the agency believes to work or not.

Sopko said government agencies might describe positive trends — for instance, increased literacy or safety — without tying them to the taxpayer-funded programs. A red flag may be the inability to connect the program and community improvements.

Another way to reveal government fraud, Sopko said, is to simply be observant. Once, in Afghanistan, Sopko noticed the construction of a massive, elegant building. He asked locals what it was, but they were unsure.

He eventually got inside, discovering plastic-wrapped computers and equipment in a spacious facility that cost $38 million. The Afghans never used it; a clear waste of taxpayer money and poor planning.

“Make certain you get out there and kick the tires over,” Sopko said.

 

Rachel is a senior at the University of Michigan studying East Asian history. She is interning at the Workshop this summer and writes investigative news for The Michigan Daily, an editorially-independent student newspaper at U-M.