A broken aid agency helps no one. Instead of throwing development projects at the military, the US should put effort into fixing the aid agency's problems.Glenn Zorpette, the executive editor of I.E.E.E. Spectrum, wrote a powerful op-ed
in the New York Times yesterday about the challenges the United States
Agency for International Development faces trying to provide
electricity. He focuses on the challenge of building a 105-megawatt
diesel power plant near Kabul. The plant is badly over budget, poorly
run, and too expensive to operate given the high cost of diesel fuel
(electricity imported from Uzbekistan is cheaper).
But, while Zorpette's critique of USAID's inability to run efficient contracts is perceptive, his solution is not:
What to do? Turn the projects over to the Army Corps of Engineers. It has performed better than U.S.A.I.D. on electrical projects in Afghanistan; it is less hobbled by politics; it has experienced engineers. It's critical that this happen soon, because the Corps can expect to be withdrawn with the rest of the Army, even if the timetable isn't set.
While this has the surface appeal of shifting resources to an agency that can "just get things done," and while Zorpette kind of briefly mentions the problems with militarizing aid, this still is a terrible idea. The phrase "hobbled by politics" leaps out, as if the DOD is not also hyper-aware of the politics of its operations (at least, within the U.S.) or as if there are no political issues within the governments of either the U.S. or Afghanistan to be considered when beginning a massive construction project. But in addition, on a very basic level, Zorpette is falling into the same trap that has the Defense Department running a $150 million program to develop small businesses: he is confusing expediency for effectiveness.
Zorpette believes it is the lack of electricity, and not, say, the behavior and strategy of the troops under the command of General Petraeus, that has stalled out the quest to "win hearts and minds" (which isn't even a U.S. goal anymore). You reach that conclusion if you have a very narrow focus on certain kinds of aid projects. You can also reach that conclusion if you labor under the mistaken impression that aid projects result in good counterinsurgency. They do not.