Kabul under fire for alleged misuse of pandemic aid

A UNICEF worker helps an internally displaced girl put on a face mask at a makeshift camp, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (Reuters)
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Updated 26 June 2020

Kabul under fire for alleged misuse of pandemic aid

  • MPs join chorus of complaints amid claims of fraud, waste

KABUL: The Afghan government is facing mounting criticism over alleged misuse of international funding to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Following the virus outbreak, Afghanistan received emergency assistance totalling €117 million ($131 million) from the EU, along with $100.4 million from the World Bank and $40 million from the Asian Development Bank.

However, Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA) on Wednesday accused the Afghan government of trying to “monopolize” funds from foreign donors to combat COVID-19 — a move it claimed would deepen mistrust between the government and the public.

“Monopolization in spending the aid creates severe vulnerabilities and removes trust,” said Sayed Ekram Afzali, head of the IWA.

Complaints of mismanagement and embezzlement by government officials in Kabul and other provinces have been increasing since March, leading to protests in many parts of the country.

Delayed salary payments to doctors, shortages of protective gear for the medical staff treating coronavirus patients, and a lack of oxygen, sanitizers and masks at hospitals has led to widespread criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.

A senior official at the Afghan Health Ministry told Arab News on Wednesday that hundreds of thousands of dollars were squandered by three deputy ministers and the heads of two departments, including one in charge of procurement.

The three deputy ministers and two department heads resigned recently, along with Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz, amid accusations of mismanagement and graft.

The ministry official, who requested anonymity, said that there have also been reports of ventilators going missing.

On Tuesday, the attorney general’s office said that prosecutors arrested the manager of a Health Ministry warehouse following claims that he was paid $80,000 by a firm to sell protective gear donated by international community at a cheaper price.

Local media reports on the disappearance of ventilators and the squandering of funds prompted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to order an official investigation on Monday.

“The government will act against those who have misused the resources in fighting coronavirus,” he said.

Finance Ministry spokesman Shamrooz Khan Masjedi told Arab News that anyone with evidence of state and foreign aid being misused should contact the authorities.

“Those found guilty will be dealt on the basis of law in such a pressing time,” he said.

The Finance Ministry, which handles foreign aid, has been viewed as a main source of corruption in Afghanistan. Two former ministers, one in office until only a few months ago, left the country following accusations of graft.

The latest wave of concern follows Ghani’s request to the International Monetary Fund for a loan of $229 million.

After the fund approved the loan, protests erupted in the Afghan Parliament, with claims the money would be squandered because many lawmakers acted without accountability.

Parliament finally backed off and approved the loan after a lengthy debate and the senate’s intervention. 

Ghani argued that the loan will stabilize the country’s budget, which has been hit by revenue shortfall owing to the virus lockdown. However, some lawmakers and analysts fear a lack of transparency in government spending and procurement could leave room for fraud.

Torek Farhadi, a former government adviser who previously served on the IMF’s executive board, said that Kabul “is unable to give a full inventory of what it has received from international aid.”

He added: “It has received a lot and has squandered a lot.”

Farhadi said that corruption “is tolerated at the highest levels of government, and that is why some MPs oppose money being in the hands of this government.”

Lawmaker Zal Mohammad Zalmai told Arab News: “When poor coronavirus patients go to hospital, they find no medicine, no oxygen and a shortage of necessary resources. We in the parliament have the right to be skeptical of the government’s intention. 

“There is no audit, transparency or accountability.”  

The UN in Afghanistan earlier in June also voiced concern over corruption, saying: “Sustained and effective efforts in fighting corruption in Afghanistan remain critical for the country’s future.”

“Anti-corruption efforts and integrity reforms” should be key priorities of Afghan leaders, Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for Afghanistan, said. 

“Addressing the coronavirus crisis and building a peaceful, healthy and prosperous Afghanistan requires integrity and accountability — fundamental principles for the future of any nation,” she said. 

Muslim woman accuses McDonald's franchisee of discrimination

Updated 19 min 42 sec ago

Muslim woman accuses McDonald's franchisee of discrimination

  • The general manager prohibited Powell from praying in a quiet spot at the airport
  • He told her to to pray in a dirty stock room instead

SILVER SPRING: A Muslim woman who worked for a McDonald’s franchisee in Maryland claims managers and co-workers sexually harassed her and subjected her to religious discrimination after she converted to Islam.
Diamond Powell, 28, of Baltimore, sued her former employer, Susdewitt Management LLC of Lanham, Maryland, on Thursday with the backing of attorneys from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group.
The Morgan State University graduate was Christian in 2016 when she started working for the company, which operated two McDonald’s locations at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Powell converted to Islam in February 2017 and began wearing a hijab, a religious head covering, to work.
A manager told her to “take that hoodie off” her head while another manager told her, “You don’t have to wait for God to wake up for you to pray,” Powell’s federal lawsuit alleges.
Powell has a religious belief that she must pray five times a day at prescribed times. A general manager initially granted Powell’s request to take short prayer breaks during her shifts, according to her lawsuit.
“Her prayer breaks lasted no longer than a typical bathroom break,” the suit says.
But the general manager prohibited Powell from praying in a quiet spot at the airport and instead told her to pray in a dirty stock room, the lawsuit alleges. After Powell continued praying outside the restaurant, the general manager eventually revoked her request to take a prayer break, saying, “God will understand,” according to the lawsuit.
“By doing so, the general manager forced Powell to choose between continuing her employment with McDonald’s or sacrificing her sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the suit says.
Powell resigned from the job in April 2018. Her suit accuses Susdewitt Management of violating the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Susdewitt Management owner Isaac Green disputed the lawsuit’s “characterizations” but said the company is reviewing Powell’s allegations and will “respond accordingly.”
“We pride ourselves on our diverse workforce, and we have policies in place to provide a welcoming workplace and to respect the accommodations employees may need for religious reasons,” Green said in a statement provided by a McDonald’s corporate spokeswoman.
The suit also claims Powell was sexually harassed at work, with several managers and co-workers asking her if she was a virgin and a shift manager making sexually explicit remarks.
“No Muslim woman should ever, ever experience what I went through, and I hope this lawsuit will help other Muslim women,” Powell said Thursday during an online news conference with her attorneys.
Zainab Chaudry, director of CAIR's Maryland office, said the group has seen an uptick in the number of incidents in which Muslims have experienced hostile work environments because of their faith.
“Unfortunately, this disturbing case is a glaring reminder of the challenges that Muslim employees often face within the workplace,” she said.