(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series: Reflections on Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal.)
When I arrived in Kabul on May 27, after almost four months of being away, I found the city as dynamic as ever: crowded streets with drivers trying to make their way out of traffic, construction work going on at every half kilometer. A wedding hall located directly opposite the exit of the airport caught my eye as it looked like a palace. Its exterior had been upgraded in the last month, according to my father, who was picking up me and my daughter from the airport. It appeared that the exterior upgrade alone would have cost the owner up to $500,000. Looking at this new construction, I said to my father that people outside of Afghanistan assume the country will fall apart when U.S. troops are fully withdrawn by September, but it seems that, for Afghan people living here, they are just continuing on with their plans, and will continue to live their lives during and after the withdrawal. They have no other choice. Today, roads close to my parents’ apartment remain crowded with street vendors and it feels like they are not consumed by politics, but, instead, are continuing with resilience and hope.
We at the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI) are not slowing down either. We are moving ahead with our full energy and so are women-owned businesses across the country. In meetings, planning for the future proceeds without consideration of the withdrawal of U.S. troops or hypothetical scenarios such as the Taliban taking on a governing role.
Since 2002, around 2,471 formal, licensed businesses, and over 54,000 informal businesses, owned and run by women have come into existence in the country. What made me the most optimistic when recently reviewing the data on women-owned businesses in Afghanistan is how old many of these businesses are. The majority of the women-owned businesses in our database are between one and five years old. This means that after the dramatic reduction in both NATO military forces and international development assistance that took place in 2014, Afghan women entrepreneurs continued to launch businesses even in the face of dire security and economic conditions. This is one of the many accomplishments Afghan people have achieved in the past 19 years with the great support of the international community.
To make these irreversible achievements, further strategic support is needed and current challenges need to be addressed. As the U.S. government announced its intention to withdraw all of its troops, it also renewed its commitment to development support, and gave assurances that the U.S. government cares about protecting these existing development outcomes, but also wants to help further provide additional opportunities.
Both the Afghan government and the Afghan people, especially the private sector, are partners in development. If international partners support improving the business and investment environment in Afghanistan, it can help bring greater economic prosperity to the country. AT AWCCI, we consulted over 1,300 women all over Afghanistan and came up with a roadmap for developing women’s entrepreneurship that we’re calling the Women’s National Business Agenda (WNBA). We view it as part of our long-term planning to help the government and the international community understand the challenges that women in business face in Afghanistan and the solutions to address them. They are prioritized as follows:
Ensure security for all citizens. – The escalation of violence in mostly rural provinces in the last six to eight months has made it extremely difficult for women to run their businesses. Complex attacks, and suicide and magnetic bombs are taking a tremendous toll on people’s daily lives. Those injured will need urgent trauma care and are often at risk of losing a limb. Death tolls are leaving deep scars on communities, as the terror unleashed by these attacks haunt people’s lives and, obviously, negatively affect the operation of businesses. The troop withdrawal and the increase of violence has created fear, but if the U.S. government continues supporting the Afghan military and police, and continues providing military equipment, it will help Afghans ensure their security.
Establish women’s markets in provincial capitals where none currently exist. – Afghanistan, being a religious and traditional, conservative society, prefers segregated spaces for men and women. To encourage women entrepreneurship, it will help to start with socially appropriate measures, where women are engaging with other women in a women-only space. This can help prepare a mindset that allows for more non-traditional practices, such as women selling and buying and making businesses deals. Twelve out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces have such marketplaces, but it’s important they exist in all of them.
Of all trade exhibition slots allocated to women, ensure that 25 percent are reserved for provincial women-owned businesses. – Training must be arranged to increase the capacity of rural businesswomen to participate in and benefit from national and regional trade exhibitions, so they can better negotiate with buyers. With the closure of U.S. and NATO military bases, it is also important to connect rural businesswomen with online sales. Handicrafts and carpet businesses with female producers are no longer benefiting from the Friday bazaar, which thousands of foreign troops would attend.
Reduce the space for corruption to exist by simplifying procedures for business licensing, tax compliancy, customs clearance, government procurement, and land registration, among many other areas of concern. – The private sector not only helps with the current revenue stream for the government but provides livelihoods to millions of families in Afghanistan. Directly or indirectly, corruption is inevitable if a sovereign nation’s security lies on the shoulders of the international troops ensuring partial peace through layers of vital support to the Afghan National Security Forces. Fear of government collapse post-withdrawal might create further insecurity among government officials especially at the sub-national levels and this could lead to increased corruption and an inability to improve governance, proper systems, and procedures.
Encourage unlicensed micro- and small women-owned businesses to enter the formal economy by reducing the burden of licensing and tax compliancy. – The Afghan government, at this very delicate time, should play a wise role in encouraging its economic actors in the informal sector to enter the formal sector so government can easily count and mobilize its capital and resources. This type of data – how many businesses are truly operating in the country — is severely needed for both macro and micro economic analysis and policies. The informal economic sector can help the economy further if it is provided a better environment within to function formally. Licensing fees and tax requirements should be kept to a minimum as the government should try to encourage the private sector so that it can, without doubt, generate more revenue from which the government will benefit.
Offer incentives to telecommunications companies and banks to provide services in underdeveloped provinces. – Incentives are needed to encourage providers of telecom services to deliver them to rural areas. The telecom sector’s annual gross sales have fallen dramatically, as conflict in many rural areas has led to telecommunications antennas being destroyed or damaged. This also adds to the cost of business. Rural women’s connectivity has been hurt tremendously, especially when compared to the beginning of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic started and women were able to attend online meetings, workshops, and networking sessions thanks to their online connectivity.
Increase online sales of women-made products in the short term – by A.) working with existing Afghan e-commerce platforms, B.) advocating to the Afghan government to construct the technical and regulatory framework to facilitate online payments within Afghanistan, and C.) improving the Afghan postal system to ensure that domestic and international parcel deliveries can be done reliably and affordably. Such qualitative improvements as mentioned above seem to have lost momentum. Given the current security situation, focus has been diverted to survival mode, and economic actors — especially women as the most vulnerable portion of the population – are focused on merely keeping their heads above water. Insecurity remains the major issue that will suck the oxygen out of the private sector.
Provide grants and technical assistance to support women entrepreneurs who are involved in industrial production. – One of the few interventions that can keep the economy going and the achievements for women protected is for international partners and development agencies to continue their technical and financial support. Women in various industries — such as clothing, jewelry, food processing, and packaging dry fruits and spices — will need more support if they are to expand to mass production and export to international markets. Supporting businesses through this kind of expansion, and supporting businesses to create business linkage with international buyers, will further strengthen Afghanistan’s trade relationship, making it less reliant on donor relationships.
Introduce a 10 percent quota for women-owned businesses for government contracts. – In practice, no matter how capable a woman-owned business may be, the prerequisites and terms for government contracts do not favor women. In most cases, a woman’s judgement is still questioned when involved in competitive bidding. Earlier in 2018, the Afghanistan National Procurement Authority (NPA)’s Procedure was changed and a 5 percent preference was included for women-owned businesses. Since then, more contracts are given to women, but that number should be even higher, given the types of institutional barriers that women face.
None of these steps are easy, particularly the first and most important one: increasing the security and the safety of the Afghan people. Without that, it is difficult for women-owned businesses to exist, much less thrive, in Afghanistan. But, if we all work together in implementing such long-term plans developed and owned by the Afghan people, I see a future that includes a strong Afghan economy and a prosperous Afghanistan.