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U.S. looks to smartphones and satellites to monitor Afghan projects

Supervision of the massive U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan would be done remotely, a plan some call risky.

August 04, 2013|By Shashank Bengali
  • A U.S. soldier exits an armored vehicle in June in the Sabari district of Khowst province in Afghanistan. The American footprint in Afghanistan is rapidly diminishing after nearly 12 years of war.
A U.S. soldier exits an armored vehicle in June in the Sabari district of… (Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg )

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. military presence dwindles in Afghanistan, officials are finalizing a $200-million plan to use smartphones, GPS-enabled cameras and satellite imagery to monitor relief projects that will continue in areas deemed too remote or unsafe for Americans to visit.

The proposal underscores the rapidly diminishing American footprint in Afghanistan after nearly 12 years of war, and signals that more of the massive U.S. reconstruction effort there — long plagued by waste and weak oversight — will be monitored by Afghans, with U.S. officials forced to supervise from a distance.

Even as troops pull back, Obama administration officials say the United States must continue to finance development projects to bolster the Kabul government, whose budget remains almost entirely dependent on foreign aid. The U.S. Agency for International Development, which has poured more than $15 billion into Afghanistan since 2001, plans to spend billions more over the next decade on agriculture, energy, health, training and other programs carried out by American and Afghan contractors.

With most U.S. forces due to withdraw by the end of 2014, USAID monitors who once depended on troops to escort them around Afghanistan to conduct inspections now are confined to a few major cities. Soon, the United States will rely much more heavily on digital tools and Afghan contract workers to gather information about its projects.

It is a risky strategy, experts and watchdogs say, because USAID has been chastised for oversight failures in Afghanistan and has never used the technology to monitor projects on so grand a scale. The agency's draft proposal says the new tools will be used "across the entire portfolio" of its nearly 80 major development projects nationwide.

Agency officials describe the effort as a necessary part of the transition to a smaller military presence, especially with some in the Obama administration floating the possibility of the "zero option," leaving no American troops in Afghanistan past 2014.

The agency has contracted outside companies to monitor its programs for several years. In a few cases it has used photographs to gauge progress from afar — for example, viewing satellite images to measure crop yields following agricultural investments.

The new proposal is far more ambitious. USAID contractors would hire Afghan monitors to relay information about construction projects using smartphone applications, conduct text-message surveys about health and education efforts, crowd-source opinions about government services and use GPS-enabled cameras to verify activity sites.

"We have incorporated some of the most effective monitoring tools from our work in Afghanistan and around the world into the project," said Larry Sampler, acting assistant to the administrator in USAID's office of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs.

Although few question the need for robust oversight of billions of taxpayer dollars, many wonder about the ability of USAID contractors to quickly recruit and train enough Afghans to effectively monitor projects spread across all 34 provinces. The few companies that employ such methods have spent years building their teams in Afghanistan, experts said.

"They should have done something like this five years ago instead of coming in with a $200-million investment now," said one contractor with nearly a decade of experience in Afghanistan, who requested anonymity because his company bids for USAID projects. "They haven't been doing this kind of thing systematically. It's a huge portfolio to monitor and an extremely difficult place to work."

In a report last month, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an independent watchdog, said that though Afghan monitors might be better able than Americans to travel safely to project sites, it was "concerned that the practice may raise new issues such as vetting, accuracy, effectiveness and accountability."

The proposal comes as USAID, the State Department and the Pentagon face increasing pressure to improve tracking of Afghan relief and reconstruction spending, which has totaled nearly $100 billion since 2001. The Government Accountability Office in June 2012 reported "systematic weaknesses in USAID's oversight and monitoring of project and program performance in Afghanistan," but said the agency was taking steps to address the problems.

In September, USAID's inspector general found that the agency's Afghan monitoring program lacked basic guidelines and management plans for some projects, and was missing key data.

The expansion of remote monitoring also comes as the United States funnels more financial assistance directly to Afghan government ministries, meeting a demand set by President Hamid Karzai. Experts have voiced concern about corruption and a lack of capacity in the ministries, and warned that direct assistance to Kabul could lead to more U.S. funds being wasted.

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