•By Nathan Hodge
•January 20, 2010 |
•12:36 am |
Afghanistan, like Haiti, is a country in need of a major reboot. Yet despite billions in reconstruction dollars and an influx of civilian development experts, it remains at the bottom of every development and transparency index.
But according to Ashraf Ghani, the country’s former finance minister and a onetime presidential contender, Afghanistan doesn’t need an army of consultants and contractors. It needs you and your laptop.
Ghani is promoting the idea of a “virtual surge” as a development alternative in Afghanistan. The idea is simple: In order to help Afghanistan, you don’t need to be in Afghanistan. You can use distance learning and social networking tools to provide the information and expertise the country needs, and save money, time and lives in the process.
“The United States is a society where voluntary activity is ingrained in the culture — and where online community has become very, very real community,” Ghani said. “My idea is to harness the power of online community as the other side of America.”
Call it an alternative, or perhaps an adjunct to, the current troop surge. “The sense of sacrifice by the American soldiers is extremely well appreciated,” Ghani said. “But they don’t have counterpart civilians. There are very few really qualified civilians who can come and take the conditions of hardship. But that doesn’t mean that they cannot contribute.”
The Obama administration has forwarded its own “civilian surge,” an influx of muddy-boots diplomats and development experts. But those federal reinforcements have been slow to arrive, and they often don’t have the requisite expertise in agriculture, engineering or public works that local communities in Afghanistan need. Ghani said Afghans need to tap knowledge and capabilities that are often found at the state level and local level, as well as in civic organizations and the private sector.
Sound far-fetched? After all, Afghanistan is supposed to be in another century, development-wise. Not quite so, says Ghani. “Today, we have over 11 million phones in Afghanistan,” he said. “We have over two million subscribers to the internet. It’s not the country that it was in 2001, when I created the first licenses on telecom, with 100 mobile phones.”
And as Afghanistan is more plugged in, more tools are becoming available to make this kind of collaboration happen.
One instance might be in the open source, high-resolution satellite imagery that’s been made available, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense. “Now we have one square meter resolution of the territory of Afghanistan on satellite imagery,” Ghani said. “That is available — completely open source — to the universities, because the Department of Defense was extremely wise, and declassified it.”
It’s an interesting parallel with Haiti, where the Pentagon recently shared imagery from the RQ-4 Global Hawk spy drone so relief groups could have an up-to-the-minute picture to coordinate rescue operations. In Afghanistan, Ghani suggested that satellite imagery could be used by engineering schools to design dams for affordable hydropower.
In agriculture, opium cultivation is big business, and U.S.-funded efforts to create alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers have often fallen short. Afghans could use more advice from U.S. agricultural experts.
“Will we be able to get 2,000 of the top agriculturalists in the united states to come to Afghanistan? Not likely,” Ghani said. “But can we use their brains? I think absolutely, through this mechanism.”
Ghani is also forwarding a new program, called “urban solidarity.” It’s an adjunct to the National Solidarity Program, an Afghan-run block-grant program considered a successful model for rural development. Ghani suggested that urban areas can get a better picture of security and development by populating Google sites or wikis with key information.
“Kabul, for instance, has a new mayor,” Ghani said. “I was talking to him — he has no database on Kabul. And to secure the capital city that [has grown] from 600,000 to roughly between 4 and 5 million, he needs online daily data to understand what is functioning, what is not functioning, what the complaints are regarding security, in which neighborhoods, and how you mobilize around this.”
We’ve written about this kind of initiative before. Last year, we wrote about the Jalalabad Fab Lab, a small-scale workshop and rapid prototyping facility set up by a group of motivated volunteers. It was development on the cheap: Equipment and startup costs were provided, in part, by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, and volunteers took unpaid leave to travel to Afghanistan. The whole thing cost around $40,000 (not including donated time and security work), an amount that probably wouldn’t even begin to cover the overtime pay for a typical expat consultant.
Social media and distance learning, of course, can’t be a cure-all: Ghani’s efforts to tap social media during the country’s recent presidential campaign did not bring him anywhere close to victory. And fiber optics only cover 17 of the country’s 34 provinces. But Ghani argues that the traditional models of relief and development are broken, and require a new approach. And that means looking past the vested interests of Development, Inc.
“That resistance is going to be real,” he said. “This is where the military and the larger political leadership really needs to exercise its responsibility and role. Because what is at stake are lives, American and Afghan. And we need to tackle the entrenched interests from a very small group that are very powerful and very [resistant] to try new things.”
Had the aid business existed 60 years ago, he added, “the Marshall Plan would never have been implemented.”
Photo: U.S. Department of Defense
I think this is a brilliant idea. Like someone says in the comments, in the past two decades with the advent of personal computers and internet we have stopped more wars, shared more knowledge, and gained more understanding of our neighbors. It is through education that we can save this world. At least, that is what I naively believe.
What are your thoughts ontd_p?