‘The fate of Afghanistan’: Experts discuss the possibility of peace and how to build a stable economy

By Janey Fugate

A much-anticipated round of peace talks could bring about an end of hostilities in Afghanistan, but without the right mix of post-conflict mediation and a focus on building a stable, inclusive economic foundation the country may not improve as expected, according to experts on a panel.

“Peace alone will not result in rapid economic growth,” said Khaled Payenda, economist and former Deputy Minister of Finance for Afghanistan.

Speaking on the panel titled “Peace and Economic Growth in Afghanistan,” Payenda was pointing to a central theme of the discussion: the necessity of enterprise-driven development as Afghanistan determines its future in light of impending peace negotiations.

The July 14 panel, organized by Creative Associates International in partnership with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), convened more than 150 attendees from the private sector, governments and the development communities to shed light on what one speaker described as a “historic and critical time for Afghanistan.” Other partners included the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industries and American University.

“There is hope that peace in Afghanistan may be more likely than at any time in the last 19 years,” said Jim Winkler, the Vice President for Creative’s Economic Growth Division and the event moderator.

The panelists pointed out many issues facing the country, from high unemployment to inconsistent government policies, safety of civilian populations and the ongoing role of donors and the international community in shaping the country’s progress

Tina Dooley-Jones, Deputy Mission Director for USAID in Kabul, and incoming Mission Director, affirmed USAID’s programmatic shift to supporting private sector-led development and job creation in the region, especially in the context of COVID-19.

“We are focusing more on domestic demand for food and the risk for food insecurity across the country,” she said. “We have worked with partners implementing further down the value chain to work with farmers and producers to improve their efficiencies and production. How can producers continue to produce and provide a safe environment? How can we ensure food safety?”

Dooley-Jones emphasized USAID’s five-year development plan that focuses on building employment through the private sector, strengthening value chains, increasing exports throughout the region and facilitating connections between the rural areas and five targeted, population-centric market centers.

USAID is also examining how it can expand into rural and peri-urban areas where internally displaced persons, refugees and ex-combatants are more likely to settle, Dooley-Jones explained during the panel session. Building economies and ensuring that adequate services reach these communities will be an ongoing priority for the nation.

The Art of Reconciliation

The panelists agreed that a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban could generate new opportunities for the country.

To sustain programmatic responses to these challenges, any future stability in Afghanistan must be undergirded by the social and psychological dimensions of reconciliation. Drawing on case studies from around the world, retired U.S. Ambassador Earl Wayne, once the Assistant U.S. Secretary of State and current Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service, shared findings from research he guided at the university.

From South Africa to Colombia, reconciliation work has “added momentum to the healing process,” he noted. His research investigated the role of public expression in healing, how different truth commissions have worked in other contexts and the importance of gender inclusivity in facilitating cohesion.

Projects falling in categories of “peace education,” “peace marketing,” or cohesion-building, for example, can take varying forms depending on the context, but Wayne stated that all successful cases required “a combination of local buy-in and international support, and getting that balance right was delicate.”

Women-owned businesses hang in the balance

Arguably, those who stand the most to lose, or gain, from getting that balance right are Afghan women.

Many fear that any gains made in the last decade for women’s rights, economic advancement and education for girls will be conceded to the Taliban as negotiations unfold. Addressing these concerns, panelist Afsana Rahimi, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Afghan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industries (AWCCI), said that the need for inclusive economic policies is urgent.

“As a woman entrepreneur who started a business in a tough situation,” she said. “I compete with men and established my business, but I am afraid that if our voice is not raised there… I am really concerned about our future.”

She added that lack of representation of female entrepreneurs in policymaking is an ongoing concern that her organization continues to raise among government officials and with the private sector.

The coronavirus pandemic adds another layer of complexity. Rahimi stated that a survey conducted by AWCCI found that 80 percent of women-led businesses closed due to COVID-19. While the pandemic’s full effects have yet to ripple all the way through society, it has already significantly interrupted supply chains and jeopardized livelihoods.

“Economic growth was 3 percent last year [in Afghanistan], which was positive but not enough to absorb the young people coming into the job market, it is projected to be negative 3 percent [decline] this year,” said Ambassador Wayne, emphasizing COVID-19’s negative impact.

USAID’s Dooley-Jones highlighted the development organization’s commitment to women-owned businesses. It has several projects that support Afghan female entrepreneurs, including Promote – Women in the Economy that supports training, job growth and improved wages.

The international community’s commitment to Afghanistan

Bart W. Édes, Representative of the North American Office of the ADB, stated that “Afghanistan needs to know that its partners will stand with them.” 

ADB recently announced that it would finance a new power plant coming online in the north of the country to increase energy security, citing that only one third of Afghans are connected to the electric grid. ADB’s three priority sectors are energy, transportation, and agriculture and natural resources, and the organization is also providing grant funding to support the construction of 15 new hospitals.

Public-private partnerships that aid in providing services and solutions in complex environments will be important to building Afghans’ perception that the government is responsive to citizens’ demands. Panelists agreed that addressing government corruption and bureaucracy will be essential to fostering a sustainable, lasting peace and to establishing a business environment conducive to growth.

“Mobilizing the private sector will be very important,” Payenda said. “Most Afghan businesses say it’s not just the issue of [lack of] investment, it is the corruption and red tape that is the biggest hindrance.”

Knowing that peace is a long process and that resources are never unlimited, especially with such complex stakeholders, panelists concluded the session by emphasizing that Afghanistan needs to set clear priorities, and that donors and the private sector need to align around several key objectives, rather than casting too wide a net at the expense of real effectiveness.

“This could be an opportunity to turn around the fate of the country,” said Payenda.

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