KABUL, Afghanistan — An American aid project in Afghanistan that was billed as the world’s biggest program ever designed purely for female empowerment has been a failure and a waste of taxpayers’ money, the head of a government watchdog agency has charged.
The project by the United States Agency for International Development, which was named Promote, was originally budgeted at $280 million and was supposed to help 75,000 Afghan women get jobs, promotions, apprenticeships and internships.
Three years later, one of the few concrete results cited in a study of the project released on Thursday by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction was the promotion of 55 women to better jobs. But the report said it was unclear whether the program could even be credited for those promotions.
“We can’t find any good data that they’re helping any women,” said John L. Sopko, the head of the watchdog agency, which was established by Congress to monitor American spending in Afghanistan.
“And then we start hearing from women’s groups in Afghanistan, from everybody from Rula Ghani on down, that this program is poorly designed and oversold,” he said in an interview on Tuesday, referring to Afghanistan’s first lady. Ms. Ghani complained in a 2016 interview with the agency that much of the money for the program would go to administrative costs and American contractors rather than to Afghan women.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction has repeatedly criticized American aid projects in Afghanistan as wasteful and poorly conceived.
The new report expressed concern that three contractors’ security and overhead costs accounted for 18 percent of the $89 million disbursed so far, five years after USAID announced it was introducing Promote.
“This is a classic example of hubris and mendacity,” said Mr. Sopko, a former prosecutor who was appointed as the special inspector general by President Barack Obama in 2012 and has remained under the Trump administration.
“Raj Shah and his people at USAID oversold it, lied to the taxpayer and the American and Afghan people about what we could accomplish,” Mr. Sopko said, referring to the USAID administrator when Promote was started. “The hubris is they thought we could do all this and help all these people when the Afghan economy was in the tank,” Mr. Sopko said. “To me, this is Exhibit A in what’s wrong with reconstruction in Afghanistan.”
Rajiv Shah was the administrator of USAID when Promote was launched and called it “the largest single investment USAID has ever made in its history in the future of women and girls anywhere in the world.” He left the agency in 2015.
“Working in conflict settings to help girls go to school and bring health care to vulnerable women is absolutely essential,” Mr. Shah said in response to Mr. Sopko’s remarks. “For roughly 2 percent of the cost of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government made investments in the health of women and children, in education, in governance, and in improving the economy — and those investments made an undeniable and positive difference in the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans.”
In addition to the American funding that eventually totaled $280 million, Mr. Shah said USAID hoped to persuade other countries to contribute and bring total funding to $416 million over five years.
Five years later, the agency’s report said, not a single other country has donated. Mr. Sopko recalled going to a meeting of European ambassadors in Kabul and asking, “Can you tell me how you guys are supporting the Promote program?” Their answer, he said, was “What program?”
As the years went by, the report said, USAID continually changed Promote’s stated goals, making evaluations look less pessimistic. A leadership initiative that was meant to train women to land better jobs was originally aimed at reaching 12,500. But that target was reduced to 1,824.
Even so, the agency said that USAID had failed to evaluate the program effectively. With $89 million of the original $280 million spent so far, it needed to “conduct a new sustainability analysis for the program,” it said.
In a written response to the report, USAID agreed that it would carry out a sustainability analysis. Asked for comment, the agency repeated remarks it made in a formal response to the inspector’s report.
The report cited a letter from USAID saying that the program had “directly benefited 50,000 Afghan women with the training and support they need to engage in advocacy for women’s issues, enter the work force and start their own businesses.”
It added that Promote had helped women “raise their voices and contribute to the peace and prosperity of their country.”
Mr. Sopko said that USAID’s claims for the program were not backed up by any measurable data, such as actual jobs, other than training and internships. And even those were not evaluated to show how often training had led to jobs.
In some cases, attendance at a single gender empowerment class was counted as a woman benefiting. One target was to help 20 women find leadership positions in the Civil Service. None have so far, according to the report.
Mr. Sopko said, “I feel sorry for the poor Afghan women, who are saying, ‘Where’s my private sector job? Where’s my government job?’”
An earlier version of this article misstated when Rajiv Shah left USAID. He left the agency in 2015, not after the Obama administration ended.