The workers of the NGO Voice for Humanity (VFH) have brought a different kind of aid to Afghanistan. Travelling six hours on donkeys and horses to the most remote parts of the Afghan countryside, their mission – righteous and idealistic – was to deliver what they thought was an invaluable literacy tool for Afghanis. These are customized digital audio players – 65,800 of them – which function like the iPod and are filled with public service messages about human rights, health and Afghanistan’s electoral process. Pink for the women, silver for the men.
Through this route the staff of VFH – a non-profit humanitarian aid agency – say that it has successfully trained tribal chiefs and other community leaders in Afghanistan to listen to the audio players and then pass them on to individuals and families.
This is just a small part of a massive information offensive co-ordinated by the Pentagon and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to improve the image of the US in the Muslim world. A number of public relations companies have been brought into the fold to fashion the messages and make sure they reach the widest audience.
One of them – the Washington DC-based Rendon Group – is a consulting firm with close ties to the Bush Administration. The Pentagon has awarded Rendon more than $56 million in contracts since 11 September 2001 as part of a coordinated effort to disseminate positive press about America and its military in the developing world. Like similar contracts awarded to The Lincoln Group in Iraq, these contracts call for ‘tracking foreign reporters’ and push (and sometimes pay) news outlets worldwide to run articles and segments favourable to US interests. One of its contracts is to influence Puerto Rico not to close a US Navy base where several training accidents have resulted in accidental bombings of civilian neighbourhoods. To distribute the pseudo-iPods in Afghanistan, VFH received funding from US Government outlets including USAID. Its $8.3 million contract required it to ‘promote democracy’ in Afghanistan before the 2004 Presidential election in addition to doing similar work in Nigeria.
In Kabul, VFH supervisor Abdul Wakil is a true believer. He recalls that, after the device was played at a wedding in front of 500 women in Logar province, many of the women had the courage to register to vote. Wakil claims VFH is now lobbying to receive more grants for its work.
But its critics say millions of US taxpayer dollars have been squandered on an ineffective and laughable project that throws trendy technology at serious international issues, when radio programming would have reached more people. The propriety of the US Government distributing ‘public service messages’ about an election in which it openly backed one candidate has also been questioned.
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