Allow me to share a short but frustrating story about our town generator.

I wish to tell you this not simply to unburden myself of a long-festering grievance but also with the hope that there may be some silver lining amongst it all.

Bear with me as I delve into a little history to put things into context. Since the birth of Musa Qal’eh, the local inhabitants have managed remarkably well without the miracle of electricity, adapting admirably to the scorching summer heat and the icy chill of winter.

In 1975, USAID commissioned the construction of a hydro-power plant in the neighbouring Kajaki district providing the people of Musa Qal’eh their first taste of electricity. The plant was destroyed by NATO airstrikes in 2001, rehabilitated by the British five years later, and now provides power to the district two days a week – although you can never really predict which days.

Sometime in 2008, USAID hauled a gigantic 850 KVA generator (about the size of a small truck) through the desert badlands into Musa Qal’eh – a mighty logistical feat at the time. It was a laudable effort to introduce reliable power to the district centre. Sadly, an escalation of fighting brought about an abrupt end to its service shortly after it was installed.

A year later, and with the dust settling, the District Stabilisation Team threw themselves back into the task with renewed vigour. A new network of power connections was built, extensive agreements hammered out with the local community, a plan drawn up for its policing, and a contract settled for supplying the thirsty beast with ten-thousand litres of fuel each month. A grand opening ceremony and obligatory ribbon-cutting announced to all that the lights had been turned back on (for the second time).

Five months into 2010, the generator ran out of diesel. Unsurprisingly, those responsible for the refuelling were nowhere to be found.

Just two weeks ago – some two and a half years since it was first installed – we tried to re-start the generator. We all watched with grim hope as the key turned and the monster whirred, smoked, shook and rumbled. Then fell silent. Dead. And never to be reawakened (or at least until we can find new parts from China). Sigh.

At some point in the future, I dearly hope that this story will be told as some mildly amusing historical anecdote. And that the pain will have been worth it. If there are any lessons to be gleaned, they might well include:

Afghan ownership is everything. Without endless consultation with the vast spectrum of people who miraculously appear out of the woodwork as ‘stakeholders’, such projects are doomed to failure. All too often they’re imposed upon the community, who resent or exploit the initiative, no matter how good an idea it might seem to be at the time.

Installing the infrastructure is the easy part. (And even then it’s not that simple!) Land use agreements, refuelling contracts, payment collections, security, maintenance, etc etc etc (ad infinitum)…the devil lies in the detail amidst the rush to build.

Its not just about the generator. Its easy to become consumed by the (very worthy) aim of providing electricity. But then – does the immense effort required move things closer to transition? How important is it for strengthening a fragile Government?

Power is political. (like everything in Musa Qal’eh). And the politics are made infinitely more complex whenever money, personalities, power and the international community are involved – much of which we foreigners are oblivious to.

There is no silver bullet. Transition of areas such as Musa Qal’eh to full Afghan control is going to take time and serious effort. And if there is one project which demonstrates just how difficult that might be to make happen, then its our town generator.