The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 15, 2014

U.S. goes high-tech to help oversee Afghan aid work

WASHINGTON — The main U.S. foreign assistance agency wants to step up use of smartphones, satellite imagery and GPS cameras to oversee tax-funded development projects in Afghanistan that aid workers no longer will be able to observe firsthand as American troops leave the country.

The U.S. Agency for International Development on Saturday began seeking bids on a monitoring project contract that could cost up to $170 million. The agency hopes the five-year project will allow aid work to continue in Afghanistan despite the troop drawdown and will satisfy lawmakers and others who have criticized the agency for weak monitoring.

Unless security improves significantly, Afghans hired by USAID contractors will increasingly be on the front line of overseeing the agency's largest single-country program.

"As the U.S. prepares to have a smaller military footprint, it could become increasingly challenging for us to do our direct monitoring and have U.S. employees on the ground looking at things," Mark Feierstein, associate administrator for USAID, said in an interview.

"We are going to try to do whatever oversight we can with USAID employees," Feierstein said. "If we conclude that even with the best technology we just can't have eyes and ears there, we just won't do the project."

Since 2001, USAID has spent $12 billion on development projects in Afghanistan. Millions more will pour into the country in the years ahead.

USAID-funded projects are monitored by aid workers, contractors, other U.S. government employees, USAID's internal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, the Afghan government and civil organizations, and the office of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The new contract aims to enhance oversight by combining these existing monitoring techniques with stepped up use of high-tech tools. USAID already has used them in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and certain areas of Colombia.

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