Networking for business slowly replaces a decade of foreign assistance

By Michelle Tolson

April 27, 2015

Mazar-e-Sharif—As international donors reduce assistance to Afghanistan, in-country companies and civil society groups dependent on that support must shift gears in order to be sustainable.

From 2002 to 2014, Afghanistan’s economy swelled with an influx of donor dollars, with gross domestic product reaching US$20.31 billion in 2013, five times greater than its 2002 levels. Indicators from employment to education rose, and fledgling civil society groups experienced a flood of much-needed support.

“The difference with NGOs in Afghanistan, compared to other developing countries, is that it is post-war and very donor-driven,” says Mohammad Shah Babai, Director General of Paiwand Emroz Social and Cultural Organization in northern Mazar-e-Sharif.

Babai’s organization is working to increase the skills of civil society by building stronger relationships among the private sector, the local government and vocational training organizations—including for-profit consulting firms and non-profit NGOs.

As part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, implemented by Creative Associates International, the Paiwand Emroz Social and Cultural Organization is one of several non-profit NGOs and for-profit private firms providing demand-driven technical vocational education and training for Afghan job seekers and employees. The program helps build the capacity of both types of vocational training providers.

The Paiwand Emroz Social and Cultural Organization is currently training 75 individuals in marketing, and has signed 60 memorandums of understanding with employers to raise the salaries of the program’s graduates by at least 3 percent.

With unemployment creeping up in sectors once plush with foreign assistance and contracts with NATO forces, like construction and product manufacturing, civil society and private sector vocational training groups are playing an increasingly critical role in bridging the gap between employers’ demands and the skills of the workforce.

Networking—huge step in the right direction

Salem Helali, Chief of Party of the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, greets representatives from civil society and AHEAD NGO at a training program kick-off ceremony hosted by AHEAD in Mazar-e-Sharif on February 28, 2015.

While face-to-face networking meetings and industry events are well-established in other countries, in Afghanistan this has been growing more slowly due to security concerns.

“Networking is new to Afghanistan,” says Salem Helali, who leads the four-year Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, which is facilitating pre-training “kick-off” events as a way to stimulate the concept of networking.

“People see that it is important for business development and marketing, and they are starting to realize the benefit of it,” he says.

In an interactive business and vocational training kick-off event in Mazar-e-Sharif in February, the program brought together technical and vocational training providers, private sector employers and employees, job seekers and government officials, including Director of the Economy Department of Balkh province, Abdul Rahman Samadi, Ph.D., and the Governor’s Economic Advisor, Ahmad Wali Sangar.

The event, which was attended by more than 120 participants, was hosted by Assistance for Health, Education and Development—a provider of financial management trainings through the program.

Weak linkages between the private sector and technical and vocational training providers is a significant obstacle to creating a more sustainable model of workforce development in Afghanistan, according to a published report called “USAID’s Afghanistan Technical and Vocational Training Providers Inventory.” Generating opportunities to build these connections is critical.

If a workforce development project did nothing more than facilitate relationships, it would be a huge step in the right direction,” the report stated.

A donor-driven approach to vocational and business training was the driving force during the country’s reconstruction phase, the report said. To move forward from a decade of war and reliance on international aid, the country needs a sustainable Afghan-led model that addresses actual labor market needs.

Through the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program model, nongovernmental organizations and private firms that provide technical and vocational education training and business education and skills conduct labor market demand assessments with employers. The trainers then use the information gathered to develop relevant curricula for job seekers and employees.

The program aims to place or promote with salary increases 25,000 Afghans in mid-career and semi-professional employment. The program’s stated goal is that at least 25 percent of individuals trained will be women. To date, through local implementing partners, the program has trained 12,478 Afghans, more than 34 percent of whom are women.

Networking kick-off events, like the one in Mazar-e-Sharif, are pivotal in building long-lasting professional relationships between training providers, private sector employers, employees, job seekers, government and civil society.

Tech sector brings in new talent

Assistance for Health, Education and Development (AHEAD) hosted a financial management training kickoff event attended by 121 participants, including the Director of the Economy Department of Balkh province, Dr. Abdul Rahman Samadi, and the Governor’s Economic Advisor, Ahmad Wali Sangar in Mazar-e-Sharif on February 28, 2015.

In the information and communications technology sector, kick-off events have attracted new trainees and have drawn attention to the growing field.

“We recently conducted a kick-off ceremony in Jalalabad and we realized it is a very effective strategy for promotional activities,” says Sayed Moharam, an engineer and the head of the Nangarhar Institute of Computer Education.

After the March event—attended by 120 employees and jobs seekers and 30 representatives from the private sector, business associations, education and government officials—Moharam says the his institute “saw a drastic influx in the rate of trainees’ registration and business offers.”

Following the event, the institute registered 75 new trainees.

In recent years, the information and communications technology industry has been robust in Afghanistan. This sector, which was once largely supported by foreign donors, has also in seen a recent influx of direct private investment from Afghans in the country as well as from Afghan expatriates.

Through the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, a total of 2,021 semi-professional Afghans, over 25 percent of whom are women, have completed training in modern information and communications technology curricula. Of those trained, 1,473 were either placed or promoted with salary increases of at least 3 percent. Another 1,625 are currently enrolled in courses.

“The [information and communications technology] sector, for Afghan businesses, has brought about a revolution,” said Rafiq Shahir, head of the Professional Experts Association of Herat, speaking at a March kick-off for the tech sector in Herat.

With the technology to unlock business potential and access information about products and prices with a simple click, Afghan businesses need software developers and network administers to further develop their businesses.

After a kick-off event in Kabul in February, the information and communications technology training provider Afghan Mobile Reconstruction Association was offered 30 job vacancies to fill from a single company.

“We are not going to private sector companies, they are coming to us. This program meets real needs in the private sector,” says Sayed Muqadas, Ph.D., Program Director of the Afghan Mobile Reconstruction Association. “The very thing that interests them is that we are involving them.”

Steps to sustainability

For more than a decade, Afghan’s economy boomed with funding from foreign donors. For a local, demand-driven workforce model to succeed in the long run, it must be developed in close partnership with the government.

“It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that projects like this are sustainable after these programs are gone,” said Najib Paikan, Ph.D.., a leading civil society activist and owner of ARZU TV, speaking at the Mazar-e-Sharif event.

A key step, says Paikan, is for the government to be actively involved in connecting training providers with the growing Afghan business community. In the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program design, government partnership is integral.

At the recent kick-off event in Mazar-e-Sharif, government officials and training providers engaged in a facilitated session to establish lines of communication and discuss how they can collaborate to support a sustainable workforce development model.

These relationships are already blossoming. In mid-March, Paiwand Emroz Social and Cultural Organization organized a follow-up meeting at the Balkh Department of Economy to introduce government representatives to other program grantees in the area—building more and more connections for a strong Afghan economy.

Edited by Aziz Gulbahari and Jillian Slutzker

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