Gregory Howell is the Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Growth and Infrastructure at USAID’s Afghanistan Mission in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Traditionally, USAID Missions have managed development programs by segmenting activities into technical offices such as democracy and governance, economic growth, health, education, and infrastructure. Crossfertilization takes place occasionally, when mutual interests are identified; but meaningful collaboration is rare. The focus on mobile money in Afghanistan breaks out of the usual stovepipes, demonstrating how dynamic teams bringing expertise from different disciplines in partnership with host-country counterparts can contribute to a collective goal—even in a difficult operating environment.
Ten years after the introduction of mobile-phone technology to the country, more than half of all Afghans have mobile phones, and more than 80% have access to a mobile-phone network. But only 7% of Afghans have a bank account.
By leveraging the mobile-phone network to provide financial services to the unbanked, key public- and private-sector services can be improved to serve hundreds of thousands of women and men across the country. With mobile money, a teacher can receive her salary in full and on time in a remote district; a police officer can transfer funds to his family back in his home village; and a business woman can repay her microloan without having to spend valuable time away from her business. Once customers have registered for the service, they can visit a local mobile-money agent to withdraw actual cash that had been deposited in their mobile wallet. The agent serves as the ATM, exchanging mobile money for cash once the customer inputs a PIN number into the phone. Mobilemoney service provider bank accounts pool funds from all clients in at least four banks to diversify risk.
Mobile money can fundamentally transform the lives of Afghans, just as it has in Kenya, the Philippines, and a growing list of countries around the world. USAID’s strategic approach focuses on three main areas of intervention:
Read the full article in USAID’s Frontiers in Development Publication.
Jeanne Bourgault is President of the media development organization Internews.
A decade ago, Afghanistan was one of the most information-poor countries on the planet, where television was banned and its entire national media consisted of a single radio station used solely for propaganda purposes.
Today, one of the greatest success stories of Afghanistan is found in its media where hundreds of broadcast and print outlets operate each day, with a vibrant press corps whose numbers swell in the thousands.
Amid this burgeoning media scene, this week [April 8] saw an especially important milestone when the enormously popular radio program network, Salam Watandar (“Hello Countrymen”), became a fully independent, non-governmental Afghan organization.
First created in 2003 with funding from USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, Salam Watandar began as a small radio production service that provided content to a handful of independent provincial radio stations established by the nonprofit media development organization Internews. Since then, the network has grown to 47 radio stations broadcasting in 29 Afghan provinces with the capacity to reach over 10 million listeners. Through these partner stations, Salam Watandar broadcasts high-quality programs on current affairs, culture, social issues and sport, and has served as a strategic hub for mentoring and training its partner radio stations.
Most of these partner stations were also created by Internews with funding from USAID. Over the past decade, Internews has built and equipped 44 independent radio stations across Afghanistan. Forty of these are today part of Salam Watandar’s 47-station strong partner network.
Salam Watandar’s move to full Afghan ownership drew the support of USAID Mission Director to Afghanistan, Ken Yamashita, who attended a special ceremony to mark the transition.
Yamashita also had the opportunity to engage Afghan youths on Salam Watandar’s feature radio program Generation Hope. “The youth of Afghanistan, like the youth anywhere around the world are connected and have tremendous networks…it is our responsibility to make sure that [the youth] have better opportunities,” said Yamashita.
Salam Watandar Chief Editor Najibullah Amiri said that “with achieving independence there will be many challenges ahead, but this step allows the staff at Salam Watandar to take ownership- to feel this is now our radio.”
In the midst of the often challenging news coming from Afghanistan, one thing that Americans and Afghans can be enormously proud of is the fact that our work together helped to usher in a wave of new media outlets and the revitalization of Afghanistan’s journalism landscape.
Together, we have helped to build something that is a national asset. This week, one important part of that national asset became wholly Afghan. And that is a good news story in all senses of the phrase.
I first traveled to Afghanistan in the spring of 1993, when the civil war following the Soviet withdrawal was in full bloom. Over the next four years, as a humanitarian aid worker, I witnessed the systematic destruction of Afghanistan’s institutions, infrastructure, and social cohesion.
Since the Taliban were driven from power and al Qaeda were driven from Afghanistan, much of the country has undergone a dramatic transformation. In 2002, Afghanistan’s literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality statistics, as well as access to communications, electricity, and paved roads, were dismal. Ten years later Afghanistan has shown incredible gains in healthcare, education, and economic growth.
In 2002 there were only 50 kilometers of paved road in the entire country. Since then, USAID has built or rehabilitated over 1,800 kilometers of road connecting citizens to markets and to each other. Few Afghans had access to a working telephone in 2002, today 85 percent of the population are within a competitive and highly profitable mobile phone network that in the coming decade will revolutionize financial access in the way communications has the last decade. Economic growth of eight to ten percent on average per year has lifted millions of Afghans out of extreme poverty and bolstered the Afghan government’s gradual progress towards greater self-sufficiency. With USAID assistance in setting up a centralized collection system, Afghan government revenues have grown eight-fold from $200 million in 2002 to $1.65 billion. USAID’s work in the power sector has helped bring 24 hour electricity to Kabul and tripled access to electricity nationwide. Our work with DABS, the Afghan utility, has helped them increas their revenues from $39 million to $159 million in the last three years, substantially reducing the need for government subsidies.
Eight million children enrolled in school today, more than a third of whom are girls, compared with 900,000 boys and almost zero girls in 2001. USAID built or rehabilitated 680 schools contributing to these gains and helped train thousands of teachers. These investments in Afghanistan’s future will be paying dividends in the coming decades in Afghanistan by nurturing a trained workforce.
A decade ago, Afghanistan’s health system was shattered, leading to widespread malnutrition, infectious disease, and shockingly high infant and maternal mortality rates. Since 2002, USAID and other donors have invested in the Afghan Ministry of Public Health to build a low-cost, high-impact healthcare system. According to the Afghanistan Mortality Survey released last December, the radical expansion in health care access from six to sixty percent of the population has increased life expectancies 15 to 20 years in the last decade.
The gains for Afghanistan’s women have also been remarkable. From a form of draconian segregation that denied women access to even the most basic services or employment under the Taliban, women make up 27 percent of parliament and the national civil services.
Our new report, USAID in Afghanistan: Partnership, Progress, Perseverance, outlines these impacts and in a transparent and frank accounting of the roughly $12 billion in civilian assistance that USAID has implemented in Afghanistan to date.
But these gains are fragile. As our report also details, not all projects have been success stories, and many parts of Afghanistan remain insecure. The uncertainty among Afghans due to the ongoing insurgency, regional interference, the drawdown of ISAF forces, and poor governance is palpable.
We must cement the gains from this incredible investment, and make them sustainable. Over the last 18 months, USAID has been adjusting both our programming and our business model to ensure that our portfolio reflects the most cost‐effective priorities. Launched in fall 2010, the Accountable Assistance for Afghanistan (A3) initiative ensures there are proper procedures to protect assistance dollars from being diverted from their development purpose through extortion or corruption.
While we can’t be sure that the historic gains made since 2001 will overcome the myriad of challenges facing Afghans today, we can be certain that without sustained effort to bring economic and political stability to Afghanistan, their darkest days may not be behind them.
Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.
This week we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the U.S. – Afghan Women’s Council (USAWC). Created during the Bush Administration, the Council has stimulated an extraordinary array of public-private partnerships to elevate the status of Afghan women and girls. As I listened to commemorative remarks by Secretary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush, I recalled my own visit to Afghanistan in December 2011.
While in Kabul, I had the enormous pleasure of speaking with a group of female students and recent university graduates currently working in USAID-supported internships. These women are among the first generation of girls who were educated in post-Taliban Afghanistan; many of them represented the astonishing 25% of Kabul University female graduates.
Similarly inspiring was my visit to the American University of Afghanistan (AUAf), where a beautiful campus hosts a student body that is approximately 22% female, enrolled in undergraduate programs such as Business, IT, and Political Science. There’s also been a dramatic increase in female enrollment. While the Senior class is only 6% female, the Freshman class is over half. Even more heartening is the 36% of women now enrolled in a college prep program.
The American University of Afghanistan is one of many critical efforts USAID has proudly supported as a U.S. – Afghan Women’s Council partner. The Agency’s assistance has actually supported myriad efforts of the Council. In addition to AUAf, USAID has worked with the Ministry of Education, the International School of Kabul and the Women’s Teacher Training Institute. But support has not been limited to the education sector. In partnership with USAWC partners, USAID has developed and implemented programs for children, women’s leadership, women’s entrepreneurship and women’s health care.
The results of the U.S. Government’s support for Afghanistan’s women are visible and impressive. Programs like the REACH are offering midwifery training have helped lower child and maternal mortality rates by over 20% in the last ten years; over 3000 midwives have been trained, about half of them with U.S. support. Additionally, I’m thrilled to say that today over three million Afghan girls are in school; almost no girls were being educated while the Taliban were in power.
The US-Afghan Women’s Council should be applauded. It has delivered concrete results for development while maintaining crucial support in the U.S. for the needs of Afghan women. The Council has stimulated a dazzling set of projects and programs involving an impressive set of partners from the private sector, foundations and NGOs committed to ensuring expanded opportunities for women in Afghanistan.. As we mark a decade of progress through the Council, I’m reminded of Secretary Clinton’s remarks on Wednesday when she said, “The women of Afghanistan are a valuable and irreplaceable resource, and their rights must be protected, and their opportunities for them to contribute must be preserved.”
The U.S. is experiencing a relatively mild winter, but the opposite is true in Afghanistan. Temperatures near the capital city of Kabul recently dipped to 3 degrees Fahrenheit making this winter the coldest in 15 years.
As is often the case, the people who are most vulnerable are also the least equipped to protect themselves against the cold. The New York Times recently reported the deaths of 28 children in Kabul in recent months, and the 30,000 Afghans who are living in informal settlements throughout the capital city remain at a high risk of hypothermia.
In fact, well before the winter months, with USAID funding and support, emergency supplies were stockpiled in preparation for the freezing temperatures. Since the onset of the extreme cold and winter emergency conditions, USAID has been coordinating with the United Nations and international organizations to distribute this emergency aid to the settlements surrounding Kabul, as well as other areas affected by extreme winter weather. USAID and its implementing partners are especially focused on reaching vulnerable populations, including women and children. By the end of last week, emergency relief supplies, including blankets, tarpaulins, clothing, stoves, and fuel, had been sent to all of the informal settlements near Kabul.
While winter aid is reaching many Afghans, both in the Kabul area and in more distant provinces, the humanitarian response is not without challenges. The dangerous security environment makes it hard to safely reach vulnerable populations, and rugged terrain slows aid to remote regions. Despite the challenges, USAID will help Afghans make it through the winter and continue our commitment to improve their quality of life into the future.
In a December 6, 2011 story in the Asia Times, Dr. Rafiullah Bidar, the Jalalabad program manager of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, made a striking comment: “It is part of our culture that people kill each other over two issues. . . . One is for land, and the second is women.”
Improving land tenure and land management systems will help reduce violence, increase peace, and promote economic growth, which are among the most pressing challenges facing the Afghan Government.
USAID is currently working to improve land tenure in Afghanistan by providing technical assistance and institutional strengthening to the Government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) entities in Kabul, which play a role in the land tenure process in Afghanistan, through the Land Reform in Afghanistan (LARA) project. LARA is a program jointly developed by USAID/Washington’s EGAT Bureau and USAID/Afghanistan.
This project works directly with the GIRoA entities of Arazi (Afghan Land Authority), Afghan Geodesy and Cartography Head Office (AGCHO), Supreme Court, Ministry of Urban Development Affairs (MUDA), and Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG). Work in Kabul includes policy formation and streamlining of the land tenure process with all related GIRoA entities.
After a hiatus, we will be continuing the “This Week at USAID” series on the first day of the work week.
Thursday, September 8th is International Literacy Day. The Center for Universal Education at Brookings, the Education for All-Fast Track Initiative, and USAID will mark the day by hosting a series of panel discussions on how a range of education stakeholders are addressing the challenge of improving literacy, particularly at lower primary levels, to help fulfill the promise of quality education for all.
Stephen Haykin will be sworn-in as USAID Mission Director to Georgia.
Raja Jandhyala, USAID’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Africa, will testify before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights on the long-term needs in East Africa.
Alex Their, USAID’s Assistant to the Administrator and Director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, will testify before U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on development programs in Afghanistan.
In 2002, fewer than 200,000 people in Afghanistan had access to telephones. Today, some 15 million Afghans use mobile phones and a full 85% of the population lives within the combined network coverage of the four major telcos. This technological leap connects Afghans to each other and to the economy in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. And the mobile phone now opens up a world of possibilities for finding solutions to some of the challenges that Afghans face every day. One important use that is quickly becoming a reality in Afghanistan is the creation of a nationwide mobile financial services sector – using mobile phones to transfer money safely and instantly, reducing the need for cash and giving millions of Afghans who may never see the inside of a bank the ability to use their handsets to conduct basic financial transactions. The possible applications for mobile money in Afghanistan are limited only by our imaginations.
Today I had the honor of announcing three USAID innovation grants, totaling just over $2M, to develop applications in this field and begin to create a mobile banking system that could include all Afghans.
At the grant kick-off event, the Afghan Education Minister highlighted the urgent need for mobile payments in Afghanistan by telling us about his staff member who was killed just three weeks ago while transporting cash in a remote province in northern Afghanistan in order to pay a teacher. He expressed his frustration that thousands of his teachers, who are so critical to Afghanistan’s future, often wait months to get their salaries due to the difficulties of transporting cash in the country. I am delighted that USAID is able to help seed a partnership between the Afghan Education Ministry and the mobile operator MTN to begin paying teachers in ten provinces over the mobile platform, thus ensuring they get paid in time and in time, and more importantly, that no Ministry employee loses his life for a duffle bag of cash. And if successful, we expect much of the Afghan civil service to eventually benefit from a mobile payments system that will help the government develop its own capacity as our troops transition home.
The second grant links up telco Etisalat with the new Afghan electricity utility. To my mind, this partnership to design mobile phone-based billing and payment systems for electricity service represents the true art of development by using creative, commercially viable systems to help the Afghan utility collect real revenue. At the end of the day, delivering electricity to all Afghans will require a revenue model that will sustain operations, motivate more public and private investment, and expand Afghanistan’s energy grid so that fewer communities live in the dark. This novel concept applies to any kind of service. In Kenya, some rural communities are sustaining water systems thanks to a mobile phone-based payment system. The concept is simple: consumers use a phone-based app to pay for the water they need, enabling the maintenance required to actually keep the system up and running. Although mobile payments are a simple concept, the possibilities they offer are revolutionary for truly under-served communities.
The third grant funds a partnership between Afghanistan’s mobile money trailblazer, Roshan, and a micro finance consortium whose clients are predominantly women. The concept is to further extend the reach of credit into areas otherwise inaccessible or simply too costly to reach. Running loan extensions and repayments over mobile phones significantly reduces the need for loan officers and clients to travel. This cost savings can be passed on to the customers, making credit more affordable. In culturally conservative Afghanistan, our hope is that this innovation will better serve women who might otherwise not be able to participate in loan programs.
Finally, today we kicked off a contest USAID is co-sponsoring with the Afghan Mobile Money Operators Association to tap the minds of creative young Afghans. University students are being asked to submit ideas for mobile money applications they believe will make a difference in the life of Afghans. Designers of the eight most interesting proposals will receive cash awards and, more importantly, the mobile operators will implement and market the winning apps. We hope this contest will not only drive uptake among a key early adopter demographic, but will also unleash the creativity of young Afghans who have so readily adopted cell phone technology.
With 3G looming just over the horizon (the Afghan Government issued the first tender earlier this month), it is clear that Afghans will increasingly use mobile phones and other modern technologies to build a healthier, better educated and more prosperous society. The days of land-lines or coal-fired development are rapidly being replaced with these new innovations, and I am proud that USAID is able to help unleash Afghan innovation to lead the way.
PS – Check out this video on Afghanistan’s emerging mobile money sector.
Alex Thier is the Director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs and Assistant to the Administrator at USAID.
In Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I encountered two programs that are emblematic of the challenges and triumphs of civilian assistance efforts in Afghanistan. The first, the National Solidarity Program (NSP) is an Afghan government-run, internationally-funded, and, most importantly, locally-owned effort that has brought community development programs to over 22,000 Afghan villages. The lasting benefits are not only physical – but NSP has improved governance and conflict resolution as well, contributing to the critical effort to stabilize the country. NSP has been one of the largest recipients of USAID’s development assistance under the Obama administration, as we have prioritized sustainability and local ownership in our efforts.
The second program is one, designed in 2007, to build provincial roads in eastern and southern Afghanistan. As the program took off, two serious problems emerged. First, security deteriorated dramatically – some 127 have been killed and 258 injured in 928 attacks. The program approach of requiring extensive community engagement became increasingly difficult. Second, the attempt to rely on the capacity of local industry foundered. Seeing a troubled program, we ordered an assessment in 2010, and ordered the program scaled back by nearly 50 percent.
What connects these programs is the way we answer the same fundamental questions about what we need to achieve in Afghanistan over the next few years to ensure a durable transition to Afghan self-sufficiency, and how we do it. In order to answer these questions across our portfolio, and ensure an efficient, cost-effective, Afghan-owned portfolio, USAID has launched a new Sustainability Guidance for Afghanistan (PDF, 350 KB). This guidance captures USAID’s strategy for achieving the conditions required for a successful, sustainable, Afghan-led transition, including achieving basic levels of security and stability, and building the confidence of the Afghan people so that there is positive movement toward capable, inclusive, and pluralistic governance.
This new guidance is significant in several respects. First, the guidance aligns with principles of sustainability and durability outlined in President Obama’s December 2010 review of US policy in Afghanistan. By committing ourselves to promote sustainable development in support of transition, USAID will be directly contributing to the United States’ national interest to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.
Secondly, this guidance is consistent with recommendations from the World Bank, Oxfam, U.S. Institute for Peace, the U.S. Congress, and others who have called for an increased focus on sustainability in assistance efforts, and growing concerns about how the Afghan economy (and therefore Afghan stability) will weather the drawdown in international resources over the next four years.
Finally, as we begin to implement this new guidance, we are actively reviewing every single one of our projects through a lens of sustainability, which we measure through the extent to which programs contribute to transition, build Afghan confidence and capacity, and are supported by the Afghans in the long-run. Based on this analysis, USAID is making shifts in its portfolio. We will end, postpone, or modify projects that do not align with these principles of sustainability, as we have already done in numerous cases. There will be many hard decisions to make as we go through this exercise, but we will make them in order to support the Afghans in their quest for long-term development.
Take, for example, USAID’s education portfolio in Afghanistan. It is a well-known fact that, thanks to support from USAID, over seven million children are enrolled in school today in Afghanistan, 37 percent of which are female. There were an estimated 900,000 boys enrolled in schools when USAID entered the country in 2002. A lesser known fact, however, is the degree to which the Afghan Ministry of Education is playing an increasing role in achieving this progress. Since 2006, USAID has provided in-service training to over 53,000 teachers and school administrators through a direct, non-Afghan USAID contract. Thanks in part to increased capacity at the Ministry of Education, USAID is now shifting this assistance “on-budget” – that is to say, going directly through Ministry of Education systems. Not only will this shift result in significant cost-savings for the U.S. taxpayers, but it will also contribute directly to the sustainably of this programming by building and reinforcing the capacity of the Afghan government to manage such programs in the future of its own initiative.
Development in a war zone, as is the case in Afghanistan, is painstakingly difficult. We recognize that there are trade-offs inherent in these solutions, but we also recognize that transition absent Afghan capacity and leadership is not transition. Long-term development in Afghanistan requires patience and stability, a popular will to change, and respect for sustainable and legitimate governance. Our hope is that through concerted application of this guidance and through our continued efforts in Afghanistan, we are empowering Afghans to take control of their own development future.