These are tough times for science and technology journalists, who, if they still have jobs, rarely have the time and travel budgets required for in-depth reporting. But some journalists are still managing to produce tough, labor-intensive, on-the-ground investigations of vitally important topics. One standout is my long-time friend Glenn Zorpette of IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Six years ago Glenn traveled to Iraq and came back with a disturbing series, "Re-engineering Iraq", on how the U.S. and its allies were wasting billions on efforts to give Iraqis a steady supply of electricity. Zorpette has now followed up that report, a finalist for a National Magazine Award, with an even more alarming investigation of bungled attempts to electrify Afghanistan. Glenn spent three weeks in Afghanistan reporting "Re-engineering Afghanistan", published in the October issue of Spectrum. He shows that, at a time when millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, our government is squandering tens of billions of our tax dollars overseas.
Providing Iraq and Afghanistan with reliable electricity, Zorpette notes, has long been viewed as crucial to the reconstruction of these nations. The goal is to "stimulate economic activity and create jobs; to make life more comfortable and secure; to give people a more attractive alternative to the typically medieval societies imposed by insurgents. And last, but certainly not least, to win the allegiance of citizens and build their confidence in fledgling government institutions and officials who are all too often bungling or corrupt. Or both."
Far from learning from its mistakes in Iraq, Zorpette charges, the U.S. is repeating them in Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent an estimated $55 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan over the past decade, but "as in Iraq, much of that money has been wasted or badly spent, particularly in the electrical sector." Zorpette identifies several key problems that have thwarted Afghan electrification projects. The country suffers from a "crippling deficiency of homegrown engineers," and the Afghan national electric utility "is unable to collect enough revenue to sustain its own operations and it has trouble simply keeping records consistently."
Furthermore, the contracting methodology of U.S. development agencies "does nothing to discourage overspending and inefficiency." Zorpette reserves his harshest criticism for USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is "the dominant development organization in Afghanistan." Zorpette contends that USAID has "made major missteps in every significant electrical construction project it has undertaken in the country."
One such project is a diesel plant built in Tarakhil, a village near Kabul. According to Zorpette, the Bush administration decided to build the plant in 2006 to boost the re-election prospects of President Hamid Karzai. Construction of the plant, by the firm Black & Veatch, cost more than $300 million, and yet since its completion over a year ago the plant "has hardly been used," Zorpette notes. "The main reason is that its diesel fuel must be imported by truck at great cost. This past April the electricity generated at the Tarakhil plant cost around 42 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to engineers and development specialists interviewed in Afghanistan."
In comparison, electricity can be piped in from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan at 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. Instead of being impressed by the Tarakhil plant, Afghans started mocking it as "Karzai's winter coat." "In a war zone," Zorpette writes, "the rules of logic sometimes seem suspended. Still, it is hard to understand why anyone thought it was a good idea to build, in a wretchedly poor country, a plant that would consume vast quantities of extraordinarily costly diesel fuel."
The Tarakhil plant is just one of many boondoggles that Zorpette uncovers. He concludes: "As a reporter, I have over the years dug up the occasional isolated and carefully concealed incident suggesting incompetence or wrongdoing. But I've never reported on anything quite like USAID in Afghanistan, where the examples of ineptitude, poor decisions, and apparent impropriety sometimes seemed to come swarming at me like targets in a video game." What makes this editorial aside especially poignant is that Zorpette was in favor of the U.S. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he thought would benefit those countries as well as U.S. security.
I don't know any other journalist with the combination of technical know-how (Zorpette has an electrical engineering degree), writing chops, physical courage and dogged determination needed to produce work such as "Re-engineering Iraq" and "Re-engineering Afghanistan." I hope Zorpette's articles receive the attention they deserve from the public, government officials and other journalists.
Photo of Glenn Zorpette (second from right) in Iraq courtesy of IEEE Spectrum