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Archives for Afghanistan

Winter Emergency in Afghanistan

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.

Snow falling in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: USAID

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.



Afghanistan Makes Progress by Addressing Land Issues

Arazi Officials and community members identify land claims at a recent workshop in Jalalabad. Photo Credit: Gary Hunter & Anna Soave

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.

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This Week at USAID – September 6, 2011

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.

Innovating 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.

Sustainable Assistance for Afghanistan

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. 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.

Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan

Originally posted to the Foreign Policy AfPak Channel

In the last decade, Afghanistan has made some dramatic development achievements. Access to basic health services has rocketed from nine percent to 64 percent. Under the Taliban, only 900,000 boys and almost no girls were enrolled in schools, while today, more than seven million children are enrolled in schools, 35 percent of whom are girls. Afghanistan has averaged 10 percent per year economic growth, is using a single, stable currency, and government revenues have grown to $1.65 billion, with a 400 percent increase in customs revenues since 2006 alone.  With gross domestic product (GDP) per capita doubling since 2002, some five million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. In 2002, Afghan government institutions were barely functional. Most ministries did not have telecommunications, electricity, or even basic office supplies like pens or paper. Today, several ministries, like the Ministry of Public Health, which is led by a female doctor (who would not have been allowed to work, let alone lead, under the Taliban), are heading the development charge. Much of this progress has been possible due to the generous support of American taxpayers.

But Afghanistan remains insecure, and its progress fragile. As we embark on the path of transition – the process by which our Afghan partners will truly stand on their own feet – we are ensuring that our efforts are sustainable, durable, and realistic. This was the primary message of the recent report on U.S. assistance to Afghanistan from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) majority staff. We do not endorse all the conclusions in this report, but we appreciate the report’s recognition that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has performed admirably in a very complex and insecure environment.

This progress is a critical component of President Obama’s strategy to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe-haven for extremists. Two years ago, President Obama outlined a whole-of-government approach designed to reverse Taliban momentum and build resiliency into Afghanistan’s government, society and economy.  This approach called for an ambitious civilian-military campaign which included a sharp, calibrated, influx of human capacity and resources. This surge was designed to put the insurgents on their heels and set the stage for a broader political settlement – the key to enduring regional stability.

USAID is an essential component of our critical national security strategy in Afghanistan. Over the last 18 months USAID has tripled its staff in Afghanistan, aligned our efforts with our military and civilian partners, and demanded far greater accountability of ourselves, our contractors, and the Afghan government and local Afghan institutions. The results we are achieving attest to this progress. While rightly pointing out the myriad challenges of working in a war zone, the SFRC report fails to recognize the successes of these efforts and how much we’ve changed the way we do business in Afghanistan.

USAID is committed to sustainable impact through Afghan capacity building. We spend approximately 38 percent of our funds working directly with the Afghan government so that they can increasingly fund and deliver critical services on their own. We have been successful by focusing on a few key Afghan institutions – such as the Ministries of Finance, Public Health, Agriculture, Education, and Rural Rehabilitation and Development. Programs like the enormously successful National Solidarity Program, which has reached over 22,000 Afghan villages, is funded through the government. But we only invest in government when we can do so with fully accountable and capable partners.

We are aligning our resources with critical foundational investments in economic growth, infrastructure, and human capital that will speed a sustainable transition. These foundational investments will create the economic and governance tools to allow the Afghans to manage, and fund, their own future.

We have also taken a number of steps to improve accountability for U.S. assistance. The Agency has created a new division to oversee implementing partners and fight fraud, waste and corruption. This division has already completed more than 40 suspension and debarment actions against programs that were failing to provide transparent and accountable assistance. And we also launched the Accountable Assistance for Afghanistan initiative last fall to help ensure that the Agency is taking the necessary steps to prevent the likelihood of our assistance falling into the wrong hands.

This strategy appears to be paying off. Once shuttered bazaars in Kandahar and Helmand are now thriving, and former opium fields are planted with high-yield seed. The economy, food security, literacy, employment, and life expectancies all continue to rise, the government is more capable, and the democratic system more resilient. Afghan women’s access to education, health care, economic opportunity, and political representation continue to rise. Millions of Afghans are seeing the possibility of a better, stable future.

We are under no illusions about the challenges we face in Afghanistan. Every day our staff and our partners are under threat. Security increases our costs, and we must spend significant effort to safeguard taxpayer funds. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be there.

The results we’ve delivered thus far will enable the president to carefully draw down U.S. resources in Afghanistan, handing responsibility over to a more stable, increasingly prosperous country. And it is this progress that will help bring American troops home more quickly. Civilian assistance has been central to these gains and will only increase in importance as Afghans take the lead in forging their own future.

Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.

Picture of the Week: Senator John Kerry Opens USAID’s Democracy and Governance Fundamentals course in Kabul

Submitted by Maria Elena Barrón, USAID/Afghanistan

Senator John Kerry at the USAID embassy in Kabul in Afghanistan. Photo credit: USAID/Afghanistan

Senator John Kerry, the Chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Afghanistan this past weekend. While at the US Embassy Kabul on Sunday May 15, he took twenty minutes between meetings to address the participants of USAID’s “Democracy and Governance Fundamentals” during the morning’s launch of the course.  The surprise visit let participating USAID, State, and US Military Officers from across Afghanistan hear the Senator underline democratic principles and answer their questions on US-Afghanistan relations.  Senator Kerry highlighted Afghanistan’s democratic advances, Afghans’ need to uphold good governance, and the required patience to strengthen Afghanistan’s own democracy. He encouraged the Afghan participants to be mindful and always stay the course despite democratic setbacks.

The Democracy and Governance Fundamentals five-day course will teach the 25 participants USAID’s Democracy and Governance Strategic Assessment Framework as well as how to use a conflict lens on the four democracy and governance sub-sectors: 1) Rule of Law; 2) Elections and Political Processes; 3) Civil Society and Media; and 4) Good Governance and Anticorruption. The program concludes the afternoon of Thursday May 19.

Development Under Fire: Risks and Rewards

USAID is literally on the front lines around the world, together with our military and civilian partners, to advance US national security and bring stability in critical environments. In Afghanistan, over 300 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans working for USAID take risks every day to turn the tide against the insurgency and fulfill President Obama’s pledge to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.

One central aspect of the U.S. civilian-military strategy is to connect Afghans to the economy, to their government, to their neighbors, and to each other. To accomplish this, USAID has helped to build more than 1600 kilometers of roads in Afghanistan – and we have seen their tangible and transformational impact on Afghans. These roads reduce travel time, handle increased volume, and decrease transit costs. They provide income by connecting Afghans to markets for their products and to their workplaces. Businesses open along the road, personal security improves, and Afghans have much better access to schools, hospitals, and their government. These roads are not easy projects, but their benefits in security and development terms are often profound.

Today’s New York Times (May 1, 2011) carried a report about a project to build the first ever paved road between Khost and Gardez – two important population centers in the volatile East of the country near the border with Pakistan. The road, a high-priority for the U.S. military, the local population and the Afghan government, will be a high-speed, all-weather connector and will provide the provinces with economic and public access to the rest of Afghanistan. The Times story underscores the challenges in undertaking stabilization efforts in the middle of an insurgency – especially infrastructure programs that are a key aspect of our transition strategy.

Insurgents have remorselessly attacked the road to prevent the benefits the road will yield. They know that the sooner Afghanistan has a viable infrastructure, the sooner Afghans can fend for themselves and be less vulnerable to violent extremists. Nineteen people died while working on construction of the Khost-Gardez road to date and 364 security incidents have taken place since our work began. In 2008, when work on the road began, the security situation was far better than in subsequent years. That year there were 32 security incidents, and 2 people killed. By 2009, security incidents had increased ten-fold to 344 with 109 people killed. In 2010, incidents doubled again to 687 with additional 101 people killed working on our programs.

We knew the Khost-Gardez road’s construction would be hard given the territory it had to go through, but we persisted because completion of this road was central to the US civ-mil strategy Infrastructure programs are particularly vulnerable and insurgents take advantage of this through attacks and attempts at extortion.

Under all conditions, USAID takes oversight of our projects extremely seriously. And under such difficult conditions as we’ve found in Afghanistan, we’ve made oversight and accountability as much a priority as our projects themselves. Under Dr. Shah’s leadership, USAID has instituted new accountability systems to add to those already in place, such as the Agency’s Inspector General and the integral role USAID plays with military and US civilian colleagues on Task Force Shafafiyat, Task Force 2010 and Task Force Spotlight.

In the fall of 2010, USAID launched the Accountable Assistance for Afghanistan (A3) initiative. This initiative is specific to USAID and entails reducing the layers of subcontracts, tightening financial controls, enhancing project oversight, and establishing a vetting system. USAID established a Vetting Support Unit in February 2011, and we are now vetting new, non-U.S. awardees and sub-awardees working for USAID, as well as existing awards on an as-needed basis. Indeed, we used the new vetting unit to examine allegations that came to our attention in late February 2011 regarding security subcontractors on a portion of the Khost-Gardez road. Based on information not previously available to USAID, we issued the order to halt funding for one sub-contractor. Whenever credible information becomes available, regardless of the source, we take action.

Effective stewardship of taxpayer dollars is a core mission for USAID, and we ensure that the most important oversight work is performed by USAID directly. We now have hundreds of US personnel in Afghanistan, 60 percent of whom work outside Kabul, in the field, side by side with US military, the Afghan government and our civilian counterparts. In Kabul, USAID’s Infrastructure Office is a 32 person operation.

All aspects of our effort – military, diplomacy, and development – entail risk. Our staff and partners take risks in each decision they make. The only way to eliminate the risks is to cease work all together. However, development is key to President Obama’s civ-mil transition strategy in Afghanistan. Instead we have responded to risk with the increasingly strong array of safeguards we’re applying and refining to be effective in a challenging and constantly changing environment.


USAID’s Efforts in Southern Afghanistan are More Robust and Effective Than Ever

Over the last two years in southern Afghanistan, USAID and our civilian and military partners have built one of the largest joint civil-military stabilization campaigns ever undertaken. This effort is delivering real results. As summer approaches, we are doing more than ever before to consolidate previous gains, achieve U.S. national security objectives and ensure a better future for millions of Afghans.

There will be no gap in USAID’s efforts to reinforce stability in the South. Today’s Washington Post piece on USAID’s efforts in southern Afghanistan simply gets the story wrong.

“USAID plays an essential role in securing military gains through its assistance programs. We are assured there will be no gaps in USAID’s agricultural and other programs in the south that provide such key support to our joint effort,” said Major General Richard Rossmanith, ISAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Stabilization.

In the most volatile regions of Afghanistan, USAID works side-by-side with the military, the State Department, the Department of Agriculture, and others, playing a critical role in stabilizing districts, building responsive local governance, improving the lives of ordinary Afghans, and—ultimately—helping to pave the way for American troops to return home. According to USAID’s Administrator, Rajiv Shah, “Our Agency is fully committed to the success of this effort. USAID’s development programs have built on security gains that coalition military forces have achieved in Kandahar this year.”

In the last year, USAID implemented multiple assistance programs totaling several hundred million dollars across southern Afghanistan. Our recent efforts have improved the delivery of basic services such as education and health care, delivered vital credit to farmers and provided advisory services to small businesses. Through programs such as AVIPA Plus (Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Productive Agriculture) we have employed more than 27,000 Afghans cleaning irrigation canals, distributed hundreds of small agribusiness and community grants, and increased agricultural production—the mainstay of the Afghan economy. We have also launched significant new efforts, like the Kandahar Power Initiative and investments in trade and revenue collection that will make our stabilization efforts more enduring. The AVIPA program—and a host of others—will continue in the coming months, with increased spending levels compared to 2010.

The US Congress and the American people have generously supported these programs. Indeed, even in a difficult budget climate, USAID sought and received bi-partisan support for an early release of funds specifically to ensure that there would be no gaps in this critical effort.

Make no mistake, these efforts face tremendous challenges. President Obama, announcing the results of the December review in 2010, said, “This continues to be a very difficult endeavor. But I can report that thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians on the ground, we are on track to achieve our goals …. In many places, the gains we’ve made are still fragile and reversible. But there is no question we are clearing more areas from Taliban control and more Afghans are reclaiming their communities.”

Southern Afghanistan is an extremely difficult and dangerous place to work. A vicious insurgency targets us and our Afghan partners every day. In 2010 over one hundred staff from our partner organizations were killed and more than twice as many wounded. Targeted assassination of Afghan government officials have risen dramatically. We continue this work not because it is easy, but because it is critical to our national security. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said recently, “every child educated, every farmer whose livelihood is improved, every illness treated forms a stark contrast to the Taliban, and increases the legitimacy of our Afghan partners.”

When we see that something isn’t working, we acknowledge it, and change it. We take the commitment to sustainable investment and verifiable results very seriously. This means more effective cooperation with our Afghan partners and more accountability for taxpayer dollars. The US government also takes the issues of corruption, women’s rights, and good governance very seriously and we are working with the Congress to ensure that all legislative requirements are met.

While this has not slowed our critical efforts, it is making significant changes to the way we do business. For example, we are doing more than ever to ensure that our work is accountable: measuring results and not just spending, vetting contractors and sub-contractors to ensure our money is in safe hands and ending assistance to poor performers and contractors. Our new Accountable Assistance for Afghanistan initiative has taken USAID’s accountability standards to a new level.

As we transition our efforts to Afghan leadership through 2014, we also are working to ensure that Afghan leaders are capable and engaged partners. We are training Afghan civil servants, and consulting more deeply with local communities while helping to forge their connection to a capable and legitimate Afghan government. We are making sure our efforts are sustainable and that our investments will endure. Contributing to sustainable economic growth is a key feature of our U.S. government-wide approach to stabilizing Afghanistan. New investments in exploring Afghanistan’s natural resources and increasing trade are meant to ensure that Afghans can control – and fund – their own future.

The Washington Post piece wrongly suggests that USAID’s efforts to improve its programs and eliminate waste are tantamount to abandoning our commitments to the military and the Afghan people. This could not be further from the truth. At USAID, we know that good stewardship of taxpayer funds and achieving real results are mutually reinforcing.

Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.

Mobile Money: A Foundational Investment in Afghanistan

About the Author: Dr. Maura O’Neill is the Chief Innovation Officer at USAID

I just got back earlier today from Afghanistan where I co-hosted our Mobile Money Summit with USAID Deputy Mission Director Kevin Brownawell to announce our Mobile Money Innovation Grant Fund. The fund will enable public-private partnerships in Afghanistan to expand local mobile money products and services.  Also present at the announcement was Afghanistan’s Minister of Finance H.E. Omar Zakhilwal and Governor of Da Afghanistan Bank Abdul Qadeer Fitrat.

USAID Deputy Mission Director Kevin Brownawell, USAID Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Maura O'Neill and Afghanistan’s Minister of Finance H.E. Omar Zakhilwal at the Mobile Money Summit in Kabul. Photo Credit: USAID

Only 4% of Afghans have a bank account. In most regions of the country a bank branch doesn’t even exist. Hard to run a business, save money or pay loans back for needed supplies like seeds if there is no financial infrastructure. But what if Afghans could send or receive money using their mobile phone? And what if they could pay for medicines, fertilizer and other things that way?  Then more than the 12 million people in the country who today own mobile phones could have the benefits that a modern financial system provides. Mobile coverage is over 85% of the country.

Kay McGowan, USAID’s Senior Advisor on Afghanistan knew that enabling mobile money nationwide could be a foundational investment that would strengthen the country for decades to come. Administrator Shah immediately understood and threw his enthusiastic support behind this initiative. General Petraeus has placed enormous importance on mobile money since so many of the Afghan police and military that we are relying on to stabilize the country have to leave their posts for extended times to pick up their salary or deliver it to their family. Other interagency representatives saw the opportunity for mobile money transfers to take cash off the battlefield and create a transparent trail of money flows. USAID is working closely with our Treasury colleagues on making sure proper systems are in place.

Working with the mobile operators and banks, the USAID Mobile Money Innovation Fund will speed the cost-effective roll-out of mobile money because it offers the people of Afghanistan an efficient way to extend the reach of financial services to underserved populations.

We had over 120 representatives from government ministries, the international donor community, mobile network operators, banks, and microfinance institutions in attendance to discuss the opportunities and challenges in expanding mobile money and branchless banking in Afghanistan. Additionally, I was proud to attend the summit with Priya Jaisinghani, a leading expert here at USAID on mobile banking.

The Mobile Money Innovation Grant Fund will be managed by Greg Howell through USAID’s new Financial Access for Investing in the Development of Afghanistan project.

Congratulations to all USAID staff who were instrumental in making this happen. The fund will support mobile money infrastructure deployment as well as consumer awareness and protection which can serve as a catalyst for economic development.

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