The South Asia Channel
Progress in Afghanistan can be measured by the successes of its telecom industry. In this booming sector, phone use is ubiquitous, the internet is used to perform surgery, employment is up, and corruption is down.
While Afghanistan’s transition over the last fourteen years has been well-documented by the media, there are still many questions concerning the country’s future. And with the international troops having reduced in numbers over the last year, a continuing volatile security situation, a new national unity government in place, and reduced donor funding, a key question remains: Can Afghanistan continue to progress — and progress on its own — in the face of so many challenges?
To understand this, we must understand how far Afghanistan has come in such a short period of time. This can be illustrated by looking at arguably Afghanistan’s biggest private sector success story: the telecommunications industry. At the end of 2002, 99 percent of the population did not have access to a phone. People had to walk to other cities, and even other countries just to make a call. From a communications perspective, Afghanistan was land-locked in every sense.
Fast-forward thirteen years later to today where almost 90 percent of the Afghan population has access to a phone. The telecommunications sector has invested approximately $2.5 billion into Afghanistan — with the largest company, Roshan of which I am CEO, investing over $600 million alone since 2003 — and is the largest taxpayer in the country. It has connected Afghans from the towering mountains of Pamir in the north to the sand deserts of Kandahar in the south. It has enabled the youth of Afghanistan, who form the majority of the population, to embrace social media, blogging, Twitter, and Facebook. Even the Taliban can now use social media; they might not like music or flying kites, but they know how to tweet.
Above all, the telecommunications industry has set an example for businesses in Afghanistan by operating in an ethical and transparent manner and not only being successful, but also driving socio-economic development to key sectors, including the Afghan media and the country’s civil society.
For example, newly introduced technologies have eliminated the middlemen in the business and financial sectors and have increased access to quality healthcare. M-Paisa, a popular mobile money service, handles $6 million in monetary transactions every month and has been used by Afghan national police in five provinces resulting in a 30 percent increase in salary payments thereby reducing corruption. Farmers can get real-time information on commodity pricing to ensure the best profits. Local hospitals in Bamiyan, Kandahar, Faizabad, and the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul are all linked via Telemedicine technology to each other, and to one of the most modern and best equipped medical facilities in the region: the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. This technology has enabled Afghan doctors in remote parts of the country to diagnose and even perform surgeries using the telemedicine link. In the last eight years, more than 14,000 patients from across Afghanistan have received treatment and diagnosis through Telemedicine and more than 4,000 healthcare providers have been trained.
Despite this progress, there is still much to do. Afghanistan is at an important and critical juncture. The security situation remains volatile, and with international forces leaving the country, increased incidents of violence are likely. The economy has slowed, GDP growth has shrunk, and foreign aid is decreasing. However, there is optimism.
More Afghans are educated now than ever and the workforce is slowly being repopulated with domestic workers. In 2003, almost all of the technical employees at Roshan were non-Afghans; now Afghans make up 96 percent of its staff. A 2013 study of the Afghan Telecom Industry by the Afghan Investment Support Agency found that the sector has created 100,000 jobs.
However, hope and optimism will only get Afghanistan so far. In order for Afghanistan to really progress, it is investment in education that will be pivotal. In 2001, less than one million students were going to school and hardly any girls. Today, more than 8 million students are enrolled in school and universities, of whom almost four million are girls. As these children come out of school, they need jobs. The country also needs to see sustained economic development and job creation at different levels, particularly in the Small and Medium Enterprise sector.
In order to drive this economic development, we need to build an entrepreneurial mindset among more Afghans. The country’s businesses need to invest in the youth. They need to train leaders who are well-educated, fiercely ethical, ambitious and eager to lead, politically savvy on a global scale, and keenly aware of Afghanistan’s history. Every company that operates in Afghanistan has a responsibility to educate the country’s next generation of leaders, executives, and thinkers. With a burgeoning young population, the potential is truly vast, but the enabling environment needs to be in place to foster this potential. We all have a responsibility to give the youth training, confidence, and above all, a chance to succeed.
The real battle in Afghanistan begins now. It is not about bombs and guns, but books and learning. The continued support of the international community, especially in terms of supporting higher education and investment in small businesses, is vital to ensuring Afghanistan can stand on its own feet in the long term, using its own resources, pool of talent, and entrepreneurial spirit. Similarly, the role of the Afghan government in improving transparency, battling corruption and supporting a business-friendly environment, is critical to enabling Afghan businesses to grow and the private sector to succeed, and reducing Afghanistan’s existing dependency on foreign aid. Only then will Afghanistan’s next generation be able to govern with wisdom, conduct business with integrity, and live in freedom.
Jawad Jalali/AFP/Getty Images