Afghan book programme suspected of fraud
The Foreign Ministry has launched an investigation into a high-profile Danish textbook project in Afghanistan on the suspicion of fraud.
The project is responsible for the printing of nearly 12 million textbooks this year and has helped fund over 200 million books since 2005. According to ministry documents obtained by Information newspaper, the programme has already been independently audited three times.
"It is high time that the Afghan textbook project is properly investigated," development consultant Henrik Ravn told Information. Ravn has been sent to the Afghan Ministry of Education (MoE) to examine the programme along with advisers from the Foreign Ministry's aid organisation, Danida. Indications are that there have been shady deals both inside the MoE during the allocation of printing jobs and during the print runs themselves.
Among the issues being examined is the fact that Danish-funded orders for millions of books always go to the same printer – Baheer Computer and Printing Company in Kabul. Just once, in 2011, during an earlier audit of the program, was another company given a small part of the order.
Auditors concluded at that time that there was no favouritism being shown. In 2012, Baheer Printing was once again awarded the entire contract.
The company has been so sure that the work was coming its way that in 2009 and 2012 they printed 90 percent of the millions of schoolbooks before the contacts were even signed. When international inspectors arrived at the printer to inspect the books, they had already been printed and packaged.
"It is very strange that Baheer Computer and Printing Company gets all the orders, especially when you consider how many problems there have been with the quality of their work," said Ravn.
The list of complaints about the quality is long: books being glued rather than sewn, covers made of paper rather than cardboard, poor paper and photo quality and books that simply fall apart. In many cases, fewer books were delivered than were agreed upon.
“Poor quality books create a two-fold advantage for the printer,” said Ravn. “They are cheaper to make, thus boosting profits, and, when they fall apart, more books have to be ordered.”
Baheer Printing has been outsourcing the job to printers as far away as Indonesia, which is known as the cheapest place in the world to print books due to low wages paid to employees and the large newspaper printing companies willing to take on the work at bargain rates.
A 2009 audit suggested that the Foreign Ministry could simply deal with the companies in Jakarta directly and drop Baheer as the middleman. Auditors suspected that employees of the MoE were in cahoots with Baheer Printing.
"As long as this company has influence in the MoE, they will continue to win contracts and print abroad and the local industry will not benefit from the work,” read the report.
Despite the criticisms, money from Denmark and the US continued to pour into Baheer’s coffers.
Liv Østergaard, the first secretary at the Danish Embassy in Kabul, could not explain why Baheer Printing continued to win contract after contract despite the many problems and allegations.
"I cannot answer why Baheer Printing gets the vast majority of orders,” she told Information. "The MoE is responsible for the bidding process, not us."
She said that if there were quality issues, they would be revealed at the next audit.
Earlier this year, the World Bank said that the procurement process at the MoE was 'moderately unsatisfactory'. In the spring, that assessment was upgraded to ‘moderately satisfactory ', which Østergaard attributed to the Danish consultant's efforts.
The head of Baheer printing, Sher Baz Kaminzada, has yet to comment on the allegations against his company, and the development minister, Christian Friis Bach (Radikale), who oversees the project, is on holiday.