Tag Archives: afghanistan

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Entrepreneurship Under the Taliban

In this video from our recent Democracy that Delivers for Women conference, the bestselling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana talks about the challenges and opportunities that face women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict countries. As Gayle points out, women entrepreneurs are important not only to the economic recovery of conflict zones, but to ensuring that “there is a community to go back to when the war is over.”

CIPE is working with partners around the world to support entrepreneurs in regions that have been devastated by years of war, including Afghanistan, where Tashabos helps teach tens of thousands of school-age girls and boys valuable entrepreneurial and business skills. Find out more about what Tashabos is doing for Global Entrepreneurship Week at the Community of Young Entrepreneurs blog.

You can also read a full transcript of Gayle’s remarks in this week’s Economic Reform Feature Service.

Three grains of salt


Greg Mortenson poses with Sitara ''Star'' schoolchildren in Wakhan, northeastern Afghanistan in this undated handout photograph released to Reuters March 11, 2009. (Photo: Reuters/Central Asia Institute)

This week I received an email with the subject “Microfinance for Mother’s Day.” Mother’s Day is quickly approaching and with just a simple donation I can give the gifts of “empowerment, dignity and hope” to another mother, somewhere in Kenya. Narratives like this are emotional and powerful, but, alas, they are not always true.

Feel-good narratives can fuel well-intended initiatives, but revelations last week by 60 Minutes questioning the veracity of parts of Greg Mortenson’s novel “Three Cups of Tea,” as well as the work of his charity—the Central Asian Institute—in building schools for girls in Afghanistan, raise serious questions about how such narratives can result in oversimplified development interventions.

The troubling allegations leveled against Mortenson involve misappropriation of charity contributions for self promotion; exaggerated or outright fabricated tales of capture and triumph; and the dismal underperformance, underutilization or non-existence of those schools Mortenson’s charity claimed to be building in the rugged border region.

These allegations have generated such a buzz because, for the past five years, Mortenson has been an international celebrity—traveling the world promoting his narrative of schools for peace and understanding. “Three Cups of Tea” has sold more than four million copies and become required reading for U.S. military serving in Afghanistan. Americans, including President Obama, have contributed millions to Mortenson’s charity to build schools.

What is most problematic about Three Cups of Tea isn’t what it stood for—the undeniable importance of gaining the respect of elders and building understanding through educating the next generation—but the power of the narrative it crafted and sold: that building schools was somehow an antidote to the intractable problems of insurgency and radical extremism metastasizing throughout the Afghan/Pakistan borderlands.

As Greg Jaffe wrote in the Washington Post, “Mortenson’s narratives of wise, patient and kind Afghan and Pakistani elders made it seem as though progress in Afghanistan was achievable.”

“The U.S. military was just dying for his story to be true,” Celeste Ward Gventer told Jaffe, a senior civilian advisor to the U.S. military.

Another central tenet of the Three Cups of Tea narrative is what Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke calls “messianic” development, referring to the promise of accomplishing unrealistically high goals under very difficult circumstances. As Burke explains, “I don’t think cynicism is the issue. The thing we all really need is a sharper understanding of the development industry and a wiser appreciation of how our own desires for sweeping messianic transformations are as much of a target market as any other consumer demand.”

Let me be clear. Greg Mortenson’s quest to provide Afghan children secondary schooling is admirable, as is his determination to make a difference in such an uncompromising environment. The problem lies in convincing Americans with big hearts that making a difference is something that can be done easily and by writing a check. The number of schools built by Mortenson’s charity that remain vacant, understaffed, underfunded or used for crop storage attest to how difficult and complex development really is.

To be fair, Mortenson’s is not the first memoir to be challenged as part fiction, nor is building hundreds of schools for children is the first half-promise to entice caring do-gooders. Websites like Kiva.org came under fire in 2009 for giving microloan donations to microlenders to invest in advertized projects, rather than sending donated funds directly to the specific microenterprise projects donors were led to believe they were supporting. Microcredit is another idea that has “spread contagiously, propelled in part because so many of its proponents want its promise of poverty reduction to be true.” Most of the recent research, however, suggests otherwise.

As many have pointed out since the 60 Minutes story broke, questioning the practices of one philanthropic charity should not deter all Americans away from giving to the hundreds of needy causes out there, many of which have been taken up by non-profits with long standing integrity. For this Mother’s Day, I know my mother expects me to do due-diligence on my gift to her, even if it means just choosing a good restaurant.

Removing obstacles to private sector development in Afghanistan

The question of how to create economic basis for peace and prosperity in Afghanistan has been on the minds of local policymakers and international development experts alike. What better way to find answers than to ask Afghan entrepreneurs what challenges they are facing? The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has done just that. A newly released paper “Bactrian Gold: Challenges and Hope for Private-Sector Development in Afghanistan” is a result of more than 130 interviews with business owners and other economic stakeholders conducted in cities across Afghanistan. The authors Jake Cusack and Erik Malmstrom – U.S. combat veterans in Afghanistan and Iraq – traveled without security or organizational affiliation to Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Heart in order to gain first-hand perspectives of the Afghan people.

Their findings complement the results of CIPE’s 2010 Afghanistan Business Survey of 738 Afghan businesses who identified the three leading factors most adversely affecting the growth of the Afghan private sector to be: lack of security (78 percent of respondents), corruption (53 percent), and lack of electricity (44 percent). The report delves deeper into the complexities behind those and other problems facing Afghan entrepreneurs.

Cusack and Malmstrom observe that despite increasing violence, business continues. The key problem is that because of security issues and poor infrastructure, it is difficult to maintain predictability in business and expand operations, as businesses find themselves cut off from raw materials or technologies they need, and unable to deliver their goods to the market. But ultimately it is uncertainty – not just regarding physical security but also government policies, foreign investment, infrastructure, etc. – that makes doing business in Afghanistan a challenge.

Corruption, a key theme in both the CIPE survey and Cusack and Malmstrom’s interviews, is another crippling factor for Afghan businesses. A 2010 UN Office of Drugs and Crime study revealed that bribe payments in Afghanistan were equal to 23 percent of GDP. Not just bribes, but also widespread favoritism and nepotism rooted in weak governance institutions and crony capitalism, hinder the development of a market economy where businesses can compete on the level playing field. As the report puts it, currently “many businesses in urban areas view the government as both weak and malignant. It is not strong enough to protect or guarantee private property rights, yet it still wields enough power to make things very difficult for the disfavored or very easy for the connected.”

These problems are compounded by limited access to capital, corrupt judiciary, underdeveloped human capital, unfavorable trade and land policies, and distortions caused by the poorly managed influx of foreign aid. Businesses do adapt to such a difficult environment but that’s a short-term strategy that cannot guarantee long-term sustainability for individual businesses or the desired development outcomes for the country as a whole. The authors have these recommendations based on their on-the-ground experience:

  • Infuse private-sector talent, foreign and Afghan, to support local businesses.
  • Change development incentives to reward implementation and long-term results.
  • Support Afghan enterprises with a better regulatory and operating environment, public-private partnerships, and linkages to multinational firms.
  • Increase access to capital and business advisory services.
  • Make clear long-term commitments by the international community to reduce harmful uncertainty in the business environment.

The authors conclude that, despite challenges, Afghanistan has a significant untapped economic potential that can be capitalized on through the development of its private sector. Cusack and Malmstrom warn that “war should not be an excuse to resurrect flawed concepts—for instance, that centrally planned growth is necessary due to a chaotic environment or that, with enough money, donors can simply create a developed economy.” Instead, “a vibrant private sector must be built from the ground up, where government provides a basic level of security, removes as much unpredictability as possible, and provides a regulatory framework for success (…) Afghan entrepreneurs must be empowered to be the key drivers.” One can only hope that the international community and the Afghan officials alike heed this advice.

Recognizing the value of education…and educators

Afghan high school students undertaking the Tashabos course. (Photo: CIPE)

For the last four days I have been a delegate to the second World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) hosted by the Qatar Foundation.  The 1200 delegates, presenters, and laureates of the WISE Awards for Education Innovation represent a phenomenal range of talent and devotion to education around the globe – from Jeffrey Sachs, speaking about the Millennium Development Goals for Education, to CIPE partner Martin Burt of Fundacion Paraguaya to an educator from Guatemala working with indigenous peoples to maintain their education traditions.


Justice in the kingdom of Kandahar

An Afghan man drinks tea as he listens to conversation between U.S. Army soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade, and other villagers, Tuesday, May 18, 2010, in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. (Photo: AP)

As you read this post, over 12,000 NATO troops are fighting pitched battles with hardened Taliban fighters for control over Kandahar province. The New York Times is reporting that Western forces have “seized the initiative from the insurgents” and are assuming the commanding heights of the province. The overarching goal is to use every instrument of NATO power – military, economic, and political – to clear away insurgents, hold the population center, and build institutions and infrastructure. But I want to step away from all of that for a moment. Though this part of the conflict is significant, it’s also all-too-distant from everyday life. It’s really in the everyday struggles that this war will be won or lost.


Afghan Youth in Parliamentary Elections

Young female Afghan women from Mazur-i-Sharif display their inked fingers after voting. Photo: IRI

Barbara Broomell is the Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute.

September 18, 2010, marked the date that members of the Afghanistan Youth National and Social Organization (AYNSO) prepared for all year. Thirty-five individuals endorsed by the organization vied for parliamentary seats among a field of 2,608 candidates, one contender for each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and one individual for a seat allocated to the Kuchi people, the nomadic people of Afghanistan. Several AYNSO candidates are showing strong returns with at least five currently placing in first or second place according to preliminary results. Final elections results are expected to be certified by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission at the end of October.

These 35 individuals represent Afghanistan’s diverse population. They are not chieftains, warlords or political elite and they are not alone. AYNSO boasts a network of nearly 16,000 members across the country whose average age is 27. They bring more like minded individuals into their fold with each new monthly-membership drive.


Empowering Afghan Women before the Election

The latest Peace Brief published by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) highlights the challenges – and opportunities – facing Afghan women in the upcoming Wolesi Jirga parliamentary elections on September 18. Although women account for half of the country’s population and on paper possess equal electoral rights, in reality they are up against a number of factors that hamper their political participation. Physical insecurity remains one key obstacle that threatens the rights of all Afghans. Yet, women in particular have to deal with social and cultural constraints that limit their participation.

For instance, many Afghan women feel that they need explicit permission from their husbands to vote or to run for office. They often have a hard time registering to vote because in culturally conservative communities women are not allowed to interact with unrelated men – including voter registration officials. A practice of proxy voting, where when a man fills out voting ballots on behalf of the female members of his family, is also a common social norm.