September 6, 2009

Afghanistan: Communication & Development

Earlier today I was reading a blog entry by Peter Bergan, the CNN Security Analyst, about the improvements Afghanistan has experienced within the last couple years.  He highlighted various improvements in security, mine clearance, education, economic development, and refugee repatriation.  There was also a great deal of applause for the construction of a large, modern airport.

Reading this column initially made me cringe, as it brought to mind a story I once heard from my grandfather about an experience he had in Vietnam in the early 60's.  In short, the Americans had constructed a massive modern airport while the Russians provided instruction to the local population about better ways to fatten and breed chickens.  It doesn't take much thought to recognize why the general public, who could never see themselves ever riding in airplane, were more receptive to the Soviets.

However one additional point mentioned by Bergan was that "One in six Afghans now have a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system."  With a population of over 32 million people, this means that nearly 5.5 million people have access to cellular communication within this generally rural province.  While its likely that most Afghans remain uninterested in the new airport, with 5.5 million users in about 5 years, mobile phones are clearly a winner.

Certainly the expansion of cellular networks posits significant social benefits for the Afghan population. Prior to 2003, it was common for many villagers to have never once used a telephone. Now it is possible for this family-centric culture to maintain ties over greater distances. In addition, this cellular network may be a key component with the ongoing stabilization and development of the nation.

Cell phones and Security
One of the major benefits to arise from the establishment of mobile technology within Afghanistan was the capability for armed forced to locate Taliban insurgents by tracking phone signals within the countryside.  And lately, as mobile phones became more prominent throughout the public, individuals have been more willing to provide authorities with information regarding insurgent activity because this information can be provided anonymously.  Although Taliban fighters have made efforts to destroy cell towers, the general public has been frustrated as such destruction now interferes with their own lives.

Lessons from Grameen Phone
Established in 1996 by Iqbal Quadir, the founder and Director of the Lagatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, and Nobel Laureate Mohamed Yunus, the Grameen Phone company has served as the primary cellular phone provider within Bangledesh for the last 13 years.  In addition to standard phone services, Grameen Phone was further created with the intention of utilizing mobile technology as a tool for economic development.  Most notably, Grammeen established the program Village Phone,  assisting interested entrepreneurs in rural villages to sell telephone services to villagers.  Additionally, phones had been made available by means of micro-finance projects, while internet access could be acquired by means of community information centers.  With enhanced connectivity, individuals could better operate their own businesses, such as by determining the going market price in advance of goods delivery, or by knowing the upcoming weather conditions.  Individuals may also start businesses selling phone credit, mobile phones, or providing battery charging services

Capitalizing on Remittances
Nearly all migratory populations are dependent upon, or in some way participate within, the ongoing international flow of financial remittances.  As displaced families, unable to obtain sustainable incomes, remain dependent upon relatives and friends for financial assistance, it is obvious that cellular communications serve an important role within the stabilization of the Afghan economy.  With over 3.3 million displaced individuals within and outside of Afghanistan, the ability for these individuals to access  cellular technology now provides financial services well beyond the use of traditional money wiring services.

In the near future Afghans could utilize this technology to buy goods, pay bills, and move cash in the same manner found throughout the African continent.   By establishing bank accounts via mobile providers, Afghans will have the ability to secure their finances and easily transfer funds for the purpose of remittances by uploading purchased phone credit, transferring it to another account, and then exchanging that credit for cash or goods.

SWOT
Although increased cellular connectivity strengthens family ties, improves security, and could provide a means for future economic development, there are nonetheless major obstacles.  The prominence of low incomes and illiteracy greatly undermines the distribution and use of cell phones, yet with innovative programming by international agencies these problems may be mitigated.  Through the distribution of cell phones via micro-finance and entrepreneurial services, and in coordination with the further development of the nationwide education system - which has been noted as improving - the role of mobile communications may continue to serve an important role within the reconstruction of Afghanistan.