How to Help Afghanistan? Use the Diaspora

As Afghanistan convenes a new government it will need to ensure that development plans mobilize aid into action. Since 2001, “assistance” and “investment” have flowed to Afghanistan in varying guises and ever-increasing quantities. The structure and discourse of economic development prioritized quantity over quality, funneling donor funding and warm bodies into projects with little purpose or efficacy. The problem lies in the fact that Afghanistan’s best asset can also be its greatest vulnerability.

A New Plan For Afghanistan

Last December, President Ashraf Ghani introduced key reforms at the London Conference underscoring a legitimate need to better absorb donor funding. The focus has been to develop institutional capacity. Ghani’s ideas for fixing the government are echoed by NATO’s new objective, the recently-branded Resolute Support Mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Security Forces.

The issue facing such initiatives is specifically who trains, advises, and assists?

Leveraging The Diaspora

The Afghan diaspora remains one of the best resources for such forms of development beyond conventional remittances. The mass exodus of Afghans to America and Europe in the wake of the Soviet Invasion in 1979 depleted government agencies of their institutional memory. Many of them, particularly among the first generation, have the necessary professional experience to serve as advisors in the sectors that President Ghani wants to reform (customs, finance, mining, and security).

One of the confounding reasons cited by development agencies for not hiring from the diaspora was that its members didn’t have recent country experience. Understandably, Afghanistan has undergone drastic changes. But how can one really justify superseding an Afghan individual, who understands the local language and culture, and trained geologists in the mining sector in 1988, with a Norwegian geologist, fresh out of graduate school, who has no Afghanistan experience?

However, it is not that simple. There lies a conflict in harnessing talent within the diaspora while simultaneously controlling for self-interest. Arguably some of the worst cases of fraud, waste, and embezzlement have been linked to Afghans from the diaspora—one need look no further than the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and former-president Karzai’s own family.

Ensuring Accountability

The solution then becomes one of accountability. In the past, Karzai’s government and the international community have forsaken accountability for the appearance of economic growth and a semblance of governance—both artificial constructs whose frayed strings are still embarrassingly apparent. A bloated, artificial economy offered impressive statistics on GDP growth—12 percent in 2014—but with the reduction of international investment, the World Bank predicts only a 1.4 percent growth in 2015. With a severe dearth of internal revenue, donor funding still contributes to 98 percent of the GDP.

The current administration should make use of the diaspora, but thoroughly vet them. It should give people specific deliverables, monitor their performance, and exercise some form of taxation—no exemptions because of dual-citizenship claims. A mechanism similar to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction would serve the Afghan government well in the long run.

Economic development by definition may be focused on quantity, but when it comes to human resources, such as the diaspora, it should be about quality. In the past, Afghanistan threw open its doors to anyone with a registered 501(3C) organization or money to spend. Of far lesser consideration was what such people had to offer in terms of skill, capacity, or a genuine commitment to service.

Development is not rocket science by any measure. It is, however, an acute effort that requires a small, but competent group of professionals dedicated to public service and motivated by something greater than themselves. They exist. The challenge is mobilizing them.

Photo courtesy of author

Morwari Zafar, US


Morwari Zafar is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Oxford. She is an affiliate of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society and the Oxford Diasporas Programme, and a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Global and International Studies. Her research examines the contributions the Afghan-American diaspora made in producing expert knowledge for the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. She holds a MA in anthropology from George Washington University and a BA in English from the University of Puget Sound.

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