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Rebuilding Afghanistan: The Diaspora Role

By M. Ashraf Haidari

The Ashian Magazine           

October 2004

If we think of development as a set of social, economic, and political freedoms, the vast majority of Afghans were denied and deprived of these freedoms for over two decades. We also know that Afghanistan had already been among the poorest and least developed nations even before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.  

However, the extended years of war after the Soviet invasion completely ruined what former Afghan governments had minimally accomplished for three quarters of a century. In addition, lack of human security led to the flight of 5 million Afghan refugees throughout the world. Afghanistan suffered from a devastating brain drain sending the country to the bottom of the human development index. Today, Afghanistan has the highest rate of illiteracy in the world.

Since October 2001, the Afghan people have begun a new chapter in their history. They have come a long way with the partnership of the international community in implementing and achieving major goals of the Bonn Agreement. A new Constitution enshrining the values and ideals of Afghans, Islam, and democracy was adopted and signed by President Hamid Karzai into law in January 2004. Afghans are now taking bold steps towards realizing democracy through the upcoming presidential elections to be held on October 09.

In spite of these major national accomplishments, many challenges remain that need the sustained commitment, attention, and resources of many actors. While alerting Afghanistan's international partners to our common problems of terrorism, transnational crime, and warlordism—all of which reinforce one another—Afghans must remind themselves of our own national obligations towards Afghanistan. One acute problem of rebuilding Afghanistan is the country's grave lack of human capital. Hence, it is truly time for the Afghan diaspora to replace Afghanistan's "brain drain" with "brain gain."  

Members of the Afghan diaspora are already a major actor in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Prominent Afghan intellectuals and entrepreneurs have returned home and are actively involved in public and private institutional capacity building. Other resourceful Afghans in developed countries should follow suit to fulfill their dream of helping reconstruct Afghanistan.  

Given Afghanistan's comprehensive reconstruction and development needs in social, economic, and political spheres, the Afghan diaspora can play a substantial role in the overall rebuilding and development of Afghanistan through four main ways: 1) institutional capacity building, 2) business and investment, 3) strengthening civil society, and 4) advocacy.  

I.  Institutional Capacity Building

Afghanistan's governance and public-service institutions are in shambles. The country's general challenge of state-building squarely lies in reforming, creating, and building effective institutions to run a modern government. The influx of hundreds of foreign NGOs to Afghanistan is due to lack of local capacity to deliver essential services to the people the majority of whom are yet to benefit from the "peace dividend."

The Afghan diaspora should not sit back and watch this continue. They should fully participate in the rebuilding process of Afghanistan by joining key government institutions in Kabul. This will strengthen the capacity of government institutions subsequently enabling the Afghan government to takeover the ownership of the rebuilding agenda for execution based on Afghanistan's needs not external prescriptions.

The Ministry of Afghan Diaspora is actively working with the International Migration Organization (IOM) and a number of NGOs to place Afghan expatriates in appropriate government departments. According to Manfred Profazi, Program Manager of the IOM Return of Qualified Afghans, several hundred highly qualified Afghans have returned home and begun working with various Ministries in Kabul since December 2001. The rate of return can increase if the Ministry of Afghan Diaspora works with the Afghan Embassies in collaboration with IOM to attract and absorb qualified Afghans from abroad.  

II. Business and Investment

Business investment provides the jobs, the economic development and the hope allowing Afghanistan to break out of the circle of conflict and poverty. Afghanistan's National Development Framework considers the private sector as the engine for economic growth and the role of government as facilitator and regulator.

The humanitarian role of the Afghan diaspora has to be acknowledged. They have sent millions of dollars to their families and relatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. The Afghan Investment Support Agency reports indicate that the Afghan diaspora's financial contribution to their families and relatives has jumped from $120 million in 1998 to $300 million now and increasing.

While continuing the humanitarian role, Afghan expatriates should take advantage of the very generous business and investment environment in Afghanistan. By being the first movers, they will not only reap substantial profits but also pave the way for foreign direct investment. Unless Afghans with national ties move in first and build confidence in others to invest in Afghanistan, foreign investors would be unlikely to do so.

The Afghan government has now set up a "first stop shop" investment agency to promote and facilitate foreign and domestic investment in Afghanistan. Several Afghan expatriates have invested in infrastructure and communications businesses including the $35 million-dollar Hyatt Hotel project in Kabul that benefits from generous tax holidays. Other Afghan investors and entrepreneurs abroad should join them to help enhance Afghanistan's weak economy, while benefiting from the numerous investment opportunities available to them.  

III. Strengthening Civil Society

Civil society means all civic organizations, associations and networks which occupy the 'social space' between the family and the state except firms and political parties; and who come together to advance their common interests through collective action.

There is emerging a vibrant civil society in Afghanistan and in the Afghan immigrant communities spearheaded by women, intellectuals, and ordinary Afghans opposed to conflict, violence, and factionalism that have ripped apart Afghanistan for many years.

The Afghan diaspora can play a significant role in strengthening and enabling Afghanistan's civil society at home and abroad to be an effective interest group against socio-economic and political ills in Afghanistan. In most developing and post-conflict countries, civil society is a beacon of hope for realizing the principles of democracy, human rights, and gender equality. Civil society can play the same role in Afghanistan to bolster rule of law and accelerate the overall peace-building process in the country.    

IV. Advocacy

Advocacy is the process of actively speaking out, writing in favor of supporting, and/or acting on behalf of oneself, another person, or a cause.

Afghans' cause is the rebuilding of our country after its complete destruction. The Afghan diaspora will soon enter its third generation in developed countries and number over a million. In spite of their multiple causes, Afghans do not as yet have a single advocacy group committed to lobbying for Afghanistan. Good lessons can be learned from other North American immigrant communities: Armenians, Indians, Pakistanis, Israelis and others—who are using their resources such as wealth and voting power to bring their home countries' problems to the forefront of the international agenda.

Afghans understand the importance of the international community's commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan. Without sustainable international aid, Afghanistan's nascent institutions will collapse and the vacuum immediately filled by non-state actors who have already victimized Afghans for too long. Afghans need to prevent this from happening again, and they can do so only if we unite, organize, and commit to promoting Afghanistan's interests that match the interests of the international community.

While initiating to use the above ways to help Afghanistan rebuild, the Afghan diaspora should not have high expectations from the Kabul government to facilitate their role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. They should be self-initiative individually and collectively to lift our people and government up at a very critical juncture in Afghanistan's history. Once American President John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." On January 27, 2002, President Karzai echoed the same statement differently while addressing 3000 Afghans at Georgetown University. He told Afghan students, "You are the future of our country, so work hard, study well, make money—and bring it to Afghanistan."

True, the Afghan diaspora need to give to our homeland not vice versa when Afghanistan is weak and needs reconstruction. There is a realization that small independent efforts toward a common goal can succeed in turning a country around. There should be a concerted and sustained effort on our part to turn Afghanistan into a model state in the region and the world over. Together Afghans can do it.

M. Ashraf Haidari is Peace Scholar at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and serves the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington DC as Government & Medial Relations Officer.  

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