USAID: High-quality photos could turn the tide in Afghanistan

An Afghan man carries an injured boy to a hospital in November after two roadside bombs struck Jalalabad, east of Kabul (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File) An Afghan man carries an injured boy to a hospital in November after two roadside bombs struck Jalalabad, east of Kabul (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

Things are not going swimmingly for U.S. development efforts in Afghanistan as Washington heads to an American troop pullout that, depending on whether a post-2014 security agreement can be hammered out, may leave as many as 10,000 troops — or none at all.

There have been all those unfortunate and persistent inspector general reports of waste, corruption and badly built infrastructure projects. The news reports and photos have been uniformly bad, souring  the national mood for more assistance.

All this led Congress last month to slash the Afghan assistance effort by about 50 percent, to $1.1 billion from $2.1 billion. The U.S. Agency for International Development plans to get out of the business of building roads, dams and such and go smaller, USAID ‘s Afghanistan projects head, Larry Sampler, told our colleague Karen DeYoung.

So, what to do about such misperceptions — not just here but also in Afghanistan?

Maybe get your own photographer to take spectacular pictures?

So on Monday, USAID put out a request for bids on a 90-day “trial” contract, with a possible extension to one year, for someone to take “timely, attractive visual images” of USAID projects, because such images “are a key element of any modern social media.”

Here’s the problem, USAID said in the solicitation: “In Afghanistan, negative images flood both social and conventional media with little counter. This makes fresh, regularly updated photographs of USAID work . . . critical for effective social media messaging.”

They wanted really “professional-quality” shots for their Afghanistan public outreach program, especially for the “mission website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and Flickr photograph feed,” we’re told, since most Afghans apparently spend their days on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. USAID’s efforts have been impressive, “particularly in health and education,” the announcement said, “yet the overwhelming majority of pictures recording that effort are negative or at least to some extent misleading.”

Why? Because the pros working for the media produce “high-quality images” of the Afghan aid effort, we’re told, and “news photographs by their very nature focus on the negative.” USAID is simply “unable to compete . . . because of lack of skill and security limitations,” limitations likely to increase without U.S. troop support, possibly keeping photographers pinned down in Kabul.

One of the qualifications listed was an ability to do “unlimited travel in country,” where you won’t find many Americans. That’s where some Photoshop skills could help get some Americans into those spectacular photos.

Sure, it may be dangerous at times, but hey, you don’t have to build the Potemkin village, just photograph it.

Who knows? Sounds as if your breathtaking photos just might turn around the war.

Or maybe not.

After we inquired about the cost, an agency spokesman sent an e-mail saying that the solicitation “was to help inform Afghans” about the agency’s projects but that it “did not appropriately articulate that purpose and is being reevaluated.”

It appears the solicitation has been taken down, but you can find it here.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.

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Al Kamen · February 11, 2014

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