The 2017 Afghan-American Conference in Washington, DC.
By M. Ashraf Haidari
Do Afghans abroad ever think about their debt of service to Afghanistan and what they can do about it?
The land Afghans call home is diversely populated, geographically landlocked, politically and economically undeveloped, and unfortunately located in a predatory neighborhood where at least one of its neighbors sees its raison d’être as being partly dependent on instability in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, other state and nonstate actors — such as extremists, terrorists, and drug traffickers — have exploited Afghanistan’s vulnerabilities to their advantage, and they will continue to do so alone or together in common self interest.
Afghan immigrants are keenly aware of who stands to gain the most from their weak state institutions, from polarization of their ethnic diversity, from their country’s abject poverty, and from their dependency on foreign aid. If they talk about these vulnerabilities in almost every public forum, in every conference, in every gathering of family and friends, then one wonders why they choose the path of self-destructive inaction over the path of united action to help secure the future of their nation.
Afghanistan’s people must add up their diverse voices — the Sikhs and Hindus, the Sunnis and Shias, the Aimaqs and Turkmans, the Uzbeks and Hazaras, and the Tajiks and Pashtuns — to form one formidable unified Afghan voice, one unbreakable Afghan front, so that their nation is no longer perceived as “dividable” or “expendable” to serve the interests of any foreign ideologies or policies. They must deny anyone the opportunity to divide and rule them. They must embrace a religion of peace, tolerance, and coexistence, and a culture of diversity, pluralism, hospitality, and freedom that truly define the Afghan character and national identity.
If they internalize and practice this national ethos, Afghans can be sure of performing the greatest service to their homeland: helping ensure future generations inhabit a land of unity, peace, and prosperity free from the foreign influences and miseries befalling Afghans today.
The Afghan diaspora in developed countries, including the West, should avoid getting bogged down with the day-to-day problems in Afghanistan. Instead, they should think about how they can help address the greater challenges facing their homeland. They should avoid the empty question one keeps hearing from some Afghans abroad who, out of frustration with homelessness, ask: “What has Afghanistan done for me to deserve my service?”
What has any country done for her citizens to deserve their service? It is the citizens that make the republic; not vice versa. Similarly, Afghan immigrants should help build their republic first before demanding rewards.
The Japanese turned resource-poor islands into a global economic powerhouse. Theirs was a much more devastated country in the wake of World War II, but they recovered from the destruction wrought by America’s nuclear bombs and rebuilt their homeland.
Wealthy Afghans abroad should never ask what Afghanistan can do for them but ask what they can do for Afghanistan. They can do for Afghanistan what the Japanese and other postconflict nations did for their homelands. Afghans should begin in developed, peaceful countries where they have the resources, the capacity, the know-how, and the wealth to walk their talk about the challenges of securing and developing Afghanistan. They should do their share and avoid going down in the history books as a diaspora that never made a serious effort to save their homeland but allowed it to be a pawn in the game of others.
There are four practical ways resourceful Afghans abroad can play a vital role in the overall stabilization and development of Afghanistan: building capacity in Afghanistan; investing in Afghanistan; strengthening Afghanistan’s civil society; and advocating and lobbying for Afghanistan.
Building Capacity in Afghanistan
The first step to Afghanistan’s recovery is to replace her “brain drain” with “brain gain.” The United Nations Development Program ranked Afghanistan 169th out of 188 nations on the 2016 Human Development Index. Afghanistan’s competitive human capacity now mostly lives in developed countries, including the West.
One effective way for the diaspora to help is through membership in Afghan civil society organizations, which can use the voluntary services of their members toward Afghanistan’s stabilization and sustainable development. Afghans abroad should be able to achieve this objective by reaching out to the various public and private institutions of their professional choice at home and assess their capacity building needs. Then, based on these institutions’ specific requirements, they should arrange placement programs, whereby the resources of Afghan expatriates can be brought to bear on developing Afghanistan. If they volunteer one or two years of their career to help build institutional capacity at home, Afghans abroad will have gone a long way paying their debt of service to Afghanistan.
Investing in Afghanistan
Afghans abroad annually send millions of dollars in remittances to their families and relatives in Afghanistan, as well as in Pakistan and Iran. While continuing the humanitarian role, wealthy Afghans abroad should take advantage of the very generous 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.
The Afghan government has continued to help develop the private sector to create sustainable jobs and drive growth. In the last Senior Officials Meeting in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani discussed the 11 top constraints facing the private sector in Afghanistan. So far, better business licensing has been advanced; punitive tax penalties abolished; and public-private partnerships legislation developed. And much more is being done to provide the right environment for attracting and retaining domestic and foreign investment in Afghanistan’s virgin markets.
Strengthening Afghanistan’s Civil Society
A vibrant civil society has emerged in Afghanistan and in the Afghan diaspora communities spearheaded by women, intellectuals, and ordinary Afghans opposed to the conflict, violence, and factionalism that have ripped apart Afghanistan for many years. The Afghan diaspora can and should play a significant role in strengthening and enabling Afghanistan’s civil society at home and abroad to be an effective interest group against socioeconomic and political ills in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, they should organize their efforts through civil society organizations and use them as conduits to channel their resources.
In addition, membership in Afghan community associations or participation in their events — such as those organized in Europe and North America — is another effective way to serve Afghanistan. Afghan immigrants should generously support these associations so they can continue their regular programs that further many Afghan causes. Literary, poetry, Sufi, and cultural gatherings keep the diaspora’s collective memory of Afghanistan alive, introduce their culture and traditions to others, and instill a sense of Afghanyat and identity in their young generation.
Advocacy and Lobbying for Afghanistan
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. Afghan immigrants’ greatest cause is the stabilization and development of their country. As the tragic events of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks have so far demonstrated, international security is inextricably linked to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Hence, Afghan immigrants with citizenship in developed countries should lobby their governments for continued security and reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan. Advocating for sustainable resources to build peace in Afghanistan will serve the national security of both the immigrants’ new countries and their homeland.
The Afghan diaspora will soon enter their third generation outside Afghanistan and number over five million. They should begin organizing and learn from other immigrant communities in the West (e.g. Armenians, Indians, Pakistanis, Israelis, and others) to utilize their resources — notably their voting power and wealth — to bring the challenges facing Afghanistan to the forefront of national and international agendas.
Serving Afghanistan requires a great deal of self-initiative and collaboration on the part of all Afghans abroad to organize their efforts and pool their scarce resources across the world in support of lifting up their nation at a very critical juncture in Afghan history. They should unite to give back what they can when their homeland needs them the most. They must be Afghanistan’s natives and citizens in need and in deed. They should work from a philosophy of “qatra, qatra, darya mesha” (drop by drop makes a river) to turn their homeland into a model state in the region and the world over.
Together Afghans have proudly done the impossible in the past. That should give them hope that they can now certainly accomplish what is possible: to secure and develop their beautiful home, Afghanistan.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and a Research Fellow at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS). He tweets @MAshrafHaidari.