How US Can Boost Progress in Developing Afghanistan's Energy Sector

    Afghanistan’s continuing struggle for an efficient energy sector and the United States’ efforts to help the country meet its electricity demand have prompted debate between two U.S. experts, with one calling for a change of hands on who handles U.S.-funded power projects in the Asian country and the other arguing that political pressures, not federal agencies, are to blame for slow progress in Afghanistan’s energy sector development.

    Glenn Zorpette, of the IEEE Spectrum magazine, argues in an opinion piece in The New York Times that the U.S. Agency for International Development should turn over a power project it is implementing in Afghanistan to the Army Corps of Engineers, explaining that USAID has been ineffective in implementing the project.

    “Yes, a transfer of responsibility would upset the delicate war-zone power balance between the State and Defense Departments. And the military isn’t supposed to do long-term development overseas,” Zorpette writes. “But weigh those objections against the record: U.S.A.I.D.’s performance in Afghanistan’s electrical sector has been so poor for so long that we can expect many millions of dollars to be wasted unless the administration acts now to give a vast new project a better chance of succeeding before only the aid agency is left in Afghanistan to struggle with the job.”

    Connie Veillette, of the Center for Global Development, agrees with Zorpette that the power project is “troubled.” But she did not agree with his recommended solution. 

    “The problem isn’t USAID per se, although the agency may lack the capacity to run large infrastructure projects in conflict areas. The problem is that political imperatives consistently trump development objectives,” Veillette says in a blog.

    Veillette also recognizes that the Army Corps is shielded from such political pressures.

    “But that does not mean that the Army Corps should do development. USAID may not be an infrastructure agency, but the Army Corps isn’t a development agency,” she says.

    “A better remedy would be to free USAID to pursue the type of development that fits the country and U.S. foreign policy objectives without micromanagement from State, Congress, or even President Karzai,” Veillette writes. “(I’m not rejecting country ownership, but development agencies need to be free to reject projects that are either unsound, not viable, or better-suited to other domestic or international actors.)”

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    About the author

    • Ivy Mungcal

      As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.