WASHINGTON — The federal agency charged with spending more than $1 billion in aid projects for Afghanistan abruptly canceled a contract proposal Thursday that would have paid photographers for "positive images" of its work there to counteract what it terms negative coverage by news organizations.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) requested proposals on Feb. 10. But after questions were asked about it Wednesday, the agency announced the proposal had been canceled.
The project was meant to "help inform Afghans about the assistance American taxpayers are providing," said a USAID official on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. But "the wording of the (request) did not appropriately articulate that purpose and is being re-evaluated."
The proposal was blasted by a good-government group as thinly veiled attempt at propaganda.
"USAID should instead be focusing on accomplishing mission goals, not glossy propaganda," said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan watchdog. "Waste, fraud, and poor performance have already resulted in billions being lost, let's not throw additional money down the drain."
The proposal did not state how much money USAID intended to pay contract photographers. It did spell out why it wanted their work, however.
"USAID is executing the most massive U.S. international assistance campaign ever, and the gains particularly in health and education have been impressive, yet the overwhelming majority of pictures recording that effort are negative, and at least to some extent misleading," the solicitation states. "This is because professional photographers working for news agencies are the prime source of high-quality images of USAID work in Afghanistan. News photographs by their very nature focus on the negative."
It also made clear that Afghans were not the only audience for the positive pictures. USAID sought also to influence American taxpayers' views of its work there, according to the proposal.
"The U.S. and Afghan publics require accurate, well-balanced information about USAID work abroad," the proposal says. "Currently, this requirement is not being met in Afghanistan."
Among the objectives for the program:
- "Counter negative visual images coming from Afghanistan with high-quality, positive images."
- "Aggressively distribute those positive images via USAID/Afghanistan-managed social media."
- Seek a long-term contract for a "continuous supply of field photographs to USAID ... for distribution on social media, to conventional media and directly to the U.S. public."
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has taken the agency to task for poor oversight of taxpayer money spent there. For instance, SIGAR reported in September that USAID had provided the Afghan Ministry of Health with more than $230 million with few controls on how it was spent.
"Despite financial management deficiencies at the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, USAID continues to provide millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in direct assistance with little assurance that the (ministry) is using these funds as intended," according to the SIGAR report.