Returning to the subject of Liz Boatman’s recent post about the importance of ethics training in engineering, consider the following scenario. A major construction project worth hundreds of millions of dollars is in the planning stages. The project, if it is carried out, will be paid for with federal funds. In deciding whether or not to proceed with a particular option, do you (a) rely on a report produced by a firm that stands to earn tens of millions of dollars if a certain option is selected or (b) carry out an independent inquiry to determine the best course of action? The correct answer should be obvious, but USAID, facing a similar decision during rebuilding efforts in war-torn Afghanistan, inexplicably went with option (a). It’s not surprising what happened next.
In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum, executive editor Glenn Zorpette reports on the failure of the U.S. to modernize Afghanistan’s electrical infrastructure despite spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on the effort over the last eight years. The centerpiece of his article is the Tarakhil power plant outside of Kabul. Tarakhil is a large diesel-fueled generator that was constructed between 2006 and 2010 under the direction of USAID. Massively over budget and years behind schedule when completed, it currently generates virtually no electricity. Why not? It turns out, diesel power plants are extremely expensive to operate, especially when the fuel must be transported through the mountains of Afghanistan. If Tarakhil were to operate at full capacity, its annual costs would be about one third of Afghanistan’s total tax revenue. Although cheaper options like hydroelectric generation would have made infinitely more sense economically, USAID opted for diesel largely because it was backed by a study carried out by engineering firm Black & Veatch. The problem: Black & Veatch, as the primary contractor for the project, was to earn a fixed percentage of the total project cost as profit, as dictated by the terms of their “cost-plus” contract with USAID. In other words, the more expensive the better, at least for Black & Veatch’s bottom line. Had USAID conducted their own study, they almost certainly would have gone with a cheaper electricity source.
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