London: Since 2001, Britain’s policy for and involvement in Afghanistan has either been military or aid. After 20 years and with almost £40 billion in aid as well as over 450 British soldiers and countless Afghans dead, their families devastated, it is time for Britain to pursue a policy of mutual trade with Afghanistan.

From 2008, Britain’s aid to Afghanistan and its impact has constantly been questioned. The Senlis Council, an international policy group has called Britain’s aid in Afghanistan ‘Dysfunctional’ and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) reported programmes worth £178m annually were at risk of theft, fraud and corruption.’ Schools, hospitals, roads and markets funded with British aid either do not exist, are totally destroyed or they are under the control of powerful warlords or armed Taliban as their offices, rendering no benefit to the people of Afghanistan or Britain.

For the past ten years, the British Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BACCI), Afghan Business Association UK, Afghanistan Enterprise Council and numerous private sector stakeholders have also voiced their concerns about the flow of Britain’s aid money to development contractors and charities acting like private sector entities. These organisations took the bulk of aid money intended for private sector while undermining natural free market dynamics, innovation, entrepreneurship and private sector stakeholders, the key domains of business.

It is still not late, and it is never too late to do the right thing. And for global Britain, trade and aid for trade is the key to a win – win relationship with Afghanistan.

Britain is home to almost half a million Afghans. The largest group among the Central Asian nations and the fastest growing group among the South Asians in United Kingdom. The British Afghans are leading the biggest private sector and trade initiatives with Afghanistan in Europe, giving Britain an unparalleled advantage compared to anyone else in Europe to trade with Afghanistan, and through Afghanistan with Central and South Asia.

In this article, three key reasons are highlighted to show why a trade first and aid for trade policy is the best way forward Britain’s relationship with Afghanistan:

  1. Corruption free

Britain’s billions in aid to Afghanistan have fallen prey to corruption, fraud and outright theft from day one, and anyone who has worked in the country knows this too well. The corrupt officials in Afghan government since 2001, dodgy development contractors and some unethical nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have stolen hundreds of millions from the foreign aid committed as humanitarian and economic assistance for the people of Afghanistan.

This industrial scale corruption and theft of foreign aid in Afghanistan by corrupt officials and foreign entities resulted in millions of young men under the age of 25 being left unemployed, families falling into extreme poverty and violence spiralling out of control with catastrophic consequences.

Through trade and aid for trade, Britain can totally bypass the structures and entities that have been the main cause of corruption in Afghanistan. Using the innovative gig economy models of UBER and AirBnB similar to the ones used by BACCI for its ‘Buy From Afghanistan’ programme, every craftsperson, entrepreneur and SME can become a trading partner, facilitating direct bilateral trade between Afghanistan and Britain, creating millions in revenues, opportunities for hardworking people at the grassroot level and eliminating corruption, ultimately paving the way for a peaceful, self-sustainable Afghanistan and strong trading partner for Britain in the heart of Asia.

  • Non-political

Afghanistan is a complex nation with even more complicated political and tribal dynamics. We know that Britain’s aid and resources in Afghanistan have been used by politicians, warlords and tribal leaders to settle rivalries in their areas for their own benefit.

Politicians have used the aid to win elections, warlords have milked it to arm themselves to the teeth and Taliban have targeted reconstruction wherever they felt it helped the government against them.

With trade and aid for trade, the money will go straight to people, entrepreneurs, and SMEs. Regardless of who runs the government or runs the country, trade will continue. Trade benefits the people not a single entity or political block. It avoids the dilemma of whether to fund the government or pay the Taliban for protection. The trade first policy will also protect British initiatives in Afghanistan against targeted attacks because people will see that the projects are non-partisan and non-political but rather economic bilateral initiatives benefitting people of both Britain and Afghanistan. In Britain, it will show people that Britain does not act like a cash-cow for warlords and corrupts but instead spends public funds on developing trade ties.

This trade first strategy will also fight the idea that exists among some circles of Afghanistan that foreign nations pump money into corrupt politicians and killer warlords in order to weaken Afghanistan. When the people see that Britain has began working with the people directly or fund initiatives mutual benefit that reach the most vulnerable citizens of Afghanistan and the economy starts to grow organically through trade and entrepreneurship, a true bond of friendship and humanity will form between people of Britain and Afghanistan. Actions matter more than slogans. Non-partisan trade and aid for trade is the way forward to avoid hundreds of millions of aid being lost to corruption and prevent attacks such as the one on British charity, the Halo Trust.

  • Beneficial to global Britain

Post Brexit and post-Covid19 Britain needs ever more trade. Global Britain must be ahead of the curve in entering new markets and gaining first mover advantage. Afghanistan in the heart of Asia must be seen as the most strategic trading partner for Britain to gain an economic foothold in the centre of Central Asia, South Asia and the New Silk Road connecting China to Middle East.

Afghanistan has the fastest growing population in Asia reaching 40 million. It is surrounded by South Asia with over 1.5 billion people in the South and China with another 1.3 billion in the East. To the West and North lie the energy and mineral rich Central Asia and Middle East. Afghanistan in the heart of Asia with a multicultural, multilingual and English-speaking young population can act as the Singapore of the region. Where within a few hours, British goods and services can reach the entire region within hours from a hub in Kabul.

Two BACCI projects ‘Buy From Afghanistan’ and ‘Buy From Britain’ are key examples of 100% private sector led trade initiatives led by visionary British- Afghan entrepreneurs that are going from strength to strength while most government funded initiatives are crumbling in Afghanistan.

Using the most innovative and advanced entrepreneurial ideas from London, ‘Buy From Afghanistan’ is transforming lives of the poorest communities in Afghanistan and together with ‘Buy From Britain’ facilitating deals worth millions of pounds and helping British and Afghan SMEs trade together in ways never done before.

Today ‘Buy From Afghanistan’ is the biggest private sector initiative in Europe. British entrepreneurs are making Britain proud and taking the lead through trade. Afghan rugs, jewellery and dry fruits are sold in every single county and city in Britain as well as over a dozen EU nations. ‘Buy From Britain’ is helping British SMEs export medicines, machinery, cars, tractors and much more to Afghanistan in greater quantities than ever before, connecting traders, facilitating deals and providing deal protection guidance.

Conclusion

To conclude, the future relationship for Britain and Afghanistan must be based on trade. Global Britain must take advantage of its British-Afghan entrepreneurs and take the lead in trading with Afghanistan rather than feeding Afghanistan. Britain’s policy of aid for Afghanistan must prioritise aid for trade. The aid for trade policy will protect Britain’s aid from corruption, theft and being used by human rights violators in destroying the lives and communities of Afghanistan. It is an ethical, nonpartisan and the right approach to dealing with Afghanistan. Innovation, entrepreneurship and trade built Japan, Germany and America, it can truly transform Afghanistan as well.

Recommendations

A: Work through private sector on trade and business

The ‘Buy From Afghanistan’ and ‘Buy From Britain’ are two examples of organic trade initiatives started by private sector and growing while everything else is falling apart in Afghanistan. British government must reach out to seek advice and collaborate with visionary private sector stakeholders to build long-standing and mutually beneficial relationships with Afghanistan. Britain as the cradle of democracy and free markets along with allies like America, the greatest nation built by innovation, entrepreneurship and business must come together to work for trade with Afghanistan and rebuild it with similar values that built these great nations. Afghanistan must also understand the only way out of the economic and social misery is trade. All must work with private sector change makers not handpicked businessmen or government contractors to make things happen.

B: Commit 25% of British aid for Afghanistan to trade  

British Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BACCI) has extensive expertise in UK – Afghanistan trade arena and acts as the European leader when it comes to trade and business with Afghanistan. BACCI recommends committing 25% of the total annual British aid to Afghanistan to be Aid – For – Trade. Directing such a small portion of the total aid to trade has the potential to double Britain’s bilateral trade with Afghanistan over the next 5 years, reduce losses to corruption and impact the lives of people directly through innovation, creativity and trade. The government of Afghanistan can follow a similar strategy by allocating 1% of the national budget to trade with UK and Europe. The time for dependency on others is over and time for economic self-reliance must start now.

Authored by: Afghanistan Enterprise Council