The revelations broadcast last night on CBS’ 60 Minutes about Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson’s alleged fabrications about how he founded his non-profit, the Central Asia Institute, in order to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and how much work his charity has actually done, have shocked many in the military who have been huge supporters of the work that Mortenson has done over the last decade-plus. It has also brought the thorny issue of aid and assistance in conflict zones into sharp relief, and raised questions about what kind of aid is necessary, and how a lack of follow-up on “completed” projects may doom some of them to irrelevance.
The whole thing reminded me of a conversation I recently had with Col. Bob Charette, director of the USMC’s Expeditionary Energy Office, who told me about something called the Nawa Renewable Energy Project that the Marines recently kickstarted in Helmand province that is being designed to both help the local community, and possibly help a local Afghan owned and operated business grow.
Started in mid-March, the project aims to provide 144 kWh/day of electrical power to the town by combining a 30kWh diesel generator with a solar array capable of 900 kW of battery storage.
It all started back in October when Marines sat down with the Nawa shura, USAID representatives and the local civil affairs team, and presented the locals with a plan to build a distributed hybrid power system which he hopes to have up and running in July. “The Afghans want it,” Charette told me, adding that “it’s actually being built by an Afghan renewable energy company … so its Afghan owned, operated and constructed.” The only thing the Marines did was to supply the upfront money Charette says, “all it was, was our funding through CERP—our support was fiscal support.” He describes the cost to the Marines as being “below $500,000.”
The plan as its being worked right now is to run power lines through the community that will allow resident to buy power as they need it, so they only have to pay for the service when they think they’ll be using the juice. “We’ve already approached other communities around Helmand” about expanding the program the Col. told me, and there are similar projects under consideration in the towns of Nad-e Ali, Now Zad, and Delaram.
Since the project is supposed to be completed by July, we’ll soon find out how successful the project is, and if this pay-as-you-go model for electricity generation at the local level is something that Afghan villagers want, and just as importantly, if the nascent Afghan businesses supporting it can sustain it over the long haul.