Somewhere someone’s holding a gun to Grover’s head. Right now thugs in velour tracksuits are slowly filling up Oscar’s trashcan with water. Bulldozers are idling just outside Mr. Hooper’s Store. That’s what I’m telling myself in order to understand the latest effort by the Sesame Workshop to export the Muppets. Either that, or the Sesame Workshop gladly jumped on board the Absurdistan Express (last stop…2014!) in order to bring the Sesame Street to this country.
I’ve already written about the coming of Bagch-e-SimSim (the title of Sesame Street’s Afghanistan export) on my own blog in a post where I ramble even more than usual. And before you get all Mark Ames-y on me, please understand that I have much love for the Muppets and Sesame Street. I sincerely hope that they’re around forever. What I’m taking exception to is how the show is being done here in Afghanistan.
And, in true blogger fashion, I’m taking the microcosm of Sesame Street and drawing the larger conclusion that it’s a perfect illustration of the macrocosmic mess that is the Great Afghan Experiment. So what follows is the first in a four-part series explaining why Bagch-e-SimSim is just another in a string of really bad ideas.
Reason #1: Lack of existing infrastructure nearly guarantees failure.
This portion is being brought to you by the letters “e,” “t,” the words “electricity” and “television,” and the number 305,000,000.
“Teachers here in Afghanistan will discover that Sesame Street can help children start school well prepared,” said the US ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker. “Perhaps most importantly, it shows children the world around them.”
With all due respect to the ambassador, he must be talking about those new magic TVs that don’t need something as silly as electricity to make the picture box work. Because if he’s not, and I’m pretty sure he isn’t, it’s really hard to watch TV without electricity.
Hey, kids, anyone wanna take a guess what Afghanistan doesn’t have enough of, besides Starbucks?
Ah-yup…electricity…it’s a continuing problem, lack of electricity, despite the best efforts (and lots of dollars) of ISAF and foreign donors.
Case in point: a $100 million diesel-fueled power plant that was supposed to be built swiftly to deliver electricity to more than 500,000 residents of Kabul, the country’s largest city. The plant’s costs tripled to $305 million as construction lagged a year behind schedule, and now it often sits idle because the Afghans were able to import cheaper power from a neighboring country before the plant came online.
And that’s in Kabul. Another story from 2009 by Bilal Sarwary referenced the then-recent commencement of greater electricity accessibility in Kabul, but for only a small portion of the city:
All of these changes have been brought about by a deal struck earlier this year between the Afghan finance ministry and the government of neighbouring Uzbekistan.
A handful of Kabul’s districts now enjoy 20 hours of electricity every day following a four- year project to build a high-voltage line between the two countries.
Sidebar: Black & Veatch, the corporation responsible for that $205 million cost overrun was severely punished – with another $266 million no-bid contract to provide more power for Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
Beyond Kabul, access to electricity is more problematic. This is true even in Kandahar, another major hub of both economic activity and foreign development aid. Complicating decisions about electricity delivery in Kandahar was the fact that what the military wanted to accomplish short-term in support of COIN was in direct conflict with what USAID wanted to accomplish long term. From a story posted in April of 2010:
Convinced that expanding the electricity supply will build popular support for the Afghan government and sap the Taliban’s influence, some officers want to spend $200 million over the next few months to buy more generators and millions of gallons of diesel fuel. Although they acknowledge that the project will be costly and inefficient, they say President Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011 has increased pressure to demonstrate rapid results in their counterinsurgency efforts, even if it means embracing less-than-ideal solutions to provide basic public services.
“This is not about development — it’s about counterinsurgency,” said a U.S military official at the NATO headquarters in Kandahar, advocating rapid action to help Afghan officials boost the power supply. “If we don’t give them more fuel, we’ll lose a very narrow window of opportunity.”
U.S. diplomats and reconstruction specialists, who do not face the same looming drawdown, have opposed the military’s plan because of concerns that the Afghan government will not be able to afford the fuel to sustain the generators. Mindful of several troubled development programs over the past eight years, they want the United States to focus on initiatives that Afghans can maintain over the long term.
“Proposals to buy generators and diesel fuel for Kandahar would be expensive, unsustainable and unlikely to have the counterinsurgency impact desired,” Eikenberry wrote in a cable to the State Department in Washington this month.
Then in July of that same year, after General David Petraeus took over from McChrystal, this from Wired’s Danger Room:
According to the Washington Post in April, Petraeus, as commander of U.S. Central Command, backed Eikenberry and Holbrooke. But now that he’s commander of the war, the bottom paragraphs of a New York Times piece yesterday slipped in a reference to Petraeus siding with the generator surge. What’s up with that?
According to a source close to Petraeus who asked for anonymity, the bureaucratic baby got split. Or, rather, everyone’s getting the solution they favor, and no longer do the State Department and the military view their favored solutions as mutually exclusive. Generators first, but dam refurbishment to follow.
“The generators are a bridge to the ultimate increase of power generation by the Kajaki Dam generating station,” the source says, as “the infrastructure built and refurbished to support the generators also enables eventual transmission of power produced at the dam.” Accordingly, State, USAID and the military are all on board, “so there is true civilian-military unity of effort on this project.”
Unfortunately, all of this electricity generation capacity hinges on the completion of the Kajaki project, which, as of Jon Boone’s report in December of 2011, is very much in doubt.
In adding a third turbine to the hydroelectric station at Kajaki, one of the most delayed aid projects in history would finally be completed. US engineers constructed a power plant in the 1970s with two turbines but left a space for a third.
Three years after the British delivered it, the £3m turbine remains packed up and its future in doubt as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) ponders whether installing it makes financial or strategic sense.
With the USAID budget slashed from $4bn in 2010 to $2bn this year, and the US Congress calling for further reductions, the US military and USAid are currently discussing what it describes as a “cost analysis and best-case scenario for implementation of work at Kajaki dam given funding and time restrictions”.
Although the third turbine would raise the output of the dam from 32 megawatt to 48, even that is not a huge amount of power for a region enjoying fast economic growth.
… even with three turbines, the plant would not meet the surging electricity demand from the two key regional cities of Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, which is currently relying for much of its electricity needs on giant diesel generators provided by the US army, which are hugely expensive to operate.
The rest of the country is in even worse shape, according to the Asia Foundation’s 2011 survey:
On the other hand, fewer than one in five respondents in the South East (14%) and East (19%) and less than a third in the North East (31%), West (29%), South West (28%) say that the supply of electricity in their area is good despite government efforts to increase the supply from neighboring countries such as Tajikistan and Iran. The majority of respondents in the Central/Kabul region (57%) say their local electricity supply is good and at least a third say the same in the Central/Hazarajat (44%) and North West (36%). A much higher proportion of residents of urban areas (66%) report satisfaction concerning the supply of electricity than residents of rural areas (26%).
Granted, that’s an opinion survey, and as a point of full disclosure I have some issues with how it gets used. But as with all things metric in Afghanistan, it’s nearly impossible to track down viable facts and figures. This, for example, comes from USAID’s own website.
Access to electricity in rural areas is very limited; some estimates put it at 7% of the total Afghanistan population. (There are no reliable estimates of rural electricity coverage; some anecdotal evidence, including personal conversation (April 16, 2007) with Mr. Ghulam Rabbani, Director General, DABM, indicates such coverage from all sources as over 70%.) Sources of power, except for those villages in the close proximity of the grid, are micro hydro power, private diesel generation, candles, batteries, solar lanterns, and hurricane lamps for light, and biomass for cooking.
I’m guessing that this information was put together a few years ago, and likely has changed since then. Given the sometimes fickle nature of organizations to update web pages, sometimes a link to current reports can be useful. That particular link leads to a page that declares “No Data Currently Available !!” Magical: the organization responsible for the oversight of electrical generation in Afghanistan has no data available for public consumption.
As a subset of the electrical issue, there’s also the problem of television access.
Adding to such concerns are surveys that show fewer than half of all Afghans own a television and a little over 40 percent of the population watches either Tolo or its Pashto-language equivalent, Lemar, in a typical week.
From the Asia Foundation Survey mentioned earlier:
Less than half of respondents (42%) report that they own a TV but this is the case for around four fifths (81%) of urban respondents compared to a third (32%) in rural areas.
On the other hand, the proportion of respondents who own a television set has risen steadily (from 37% in 2007 to 38% in 2008, 41% in 2009 and 2010 and 42% in 2011).
The majority (59%) say they do not watch television programs while 41% say that they do. Television viewership is much higher in urban (81%) than rural (31%) areas. This is consistent with much higher levels of television ownership and access to electricity supply in urban areas.
The Count: “1 problem with Bagch-e-Simsim. Ha ha ha.”
What’d we learn today, kids?
Here’s the macro application to Afghanistan of the Sesame Street/Bagch-e-SimSim micro model:
This lack of understanding what basic infrastructure might be needed in order to support a project is fairly common in development and reconstruction work here in Afghanistan. In the rush to show results, any results, NATO, the Department of State, USAID, and the government of Afghanistan are keen to show things in as shiny a light as they possibly can. They tend to do things that will “brief well,” rather than establish something that might be viable beyond 2014.
The reason that a project like Bagch-e-SimSim gets so much traction is the photo op: what better way to show how quickly Afghanistan is progressing toward peace and prosperity than with instantly recognizable children’s characters?
You can parade all the Taliban you want to for pressers on reconciliation, but a shot of Grover with the ambassador? That’s a visual that will stick with us for a while.
Next: Reason #2 – significant challenges in the educational system.