Walking into the Embassy of Afghanistan here in Washington this week, I was struck by the beautiful carpets, aromatic tea and gracious hospitality that are an inherent part of the Afghan culture. Visiting the Embassy also caused me to think about the importance of strong and visionary leadership in harnessing the power of technology to move a country forward. I was proud to sit with such a leader, His Excellency Minister Amirzai Sangin, the Minister of Communications and Information Technology for Afghanistan, who has charted a course for the deployment of ICT infrastructure in Afghanistan over the past decade and who remains as energetic about its future as if it were his first day.
NetHope was honored to help convene an event at the Afghan Embassy with Minister Sangin leaders from our NGO members, the technology sector and experts in the field to discuss the role of ICT in Afghanistan’s development and explore ways to continue the trajectory of progress. It was encouraging to hear that the telecommunications industry in Afghanistan has flourished over the past decade and that there has been a significant area of focus for private sector investment. Minister Sangin noted that over $2 billion (USD) has been invested in the Afghan telecommunication sector, making it the largest draw for foreign direct investment in the country. Afghanistan citizens have benefited directly from this investment. Mobile network coverage now connects 85 percent of the country’s population and the sector is competitive with services offered by five providers. Additionally, over 40 Internet service providers connect thousands of Internet cafes throughout Afghanistan. Minister Sangin also spoke to bringing affordable broadband services to the people of Afghanistan – a goal we share at NetHope. In the next five years, the Minister has set a goal to provide affordable broadband access to 50 percent of the country’s population. The steps to reaching this goal require networks to bring down the per megabit cost of broadband and using multiple technologies to provide access ⎯ like DSL, 3G mobile networks, WIMAX, and satellite ⎯ in the more remote regions of the country.
With affordable broadband access on the horizon and extensive mobile coverage, Afghanistan is positioned for the development and use of applications that ride the rails of these networks. Much like NetHope’s development of a citizen building gaming application with the youth in Jordan, Afghan youths could develop similar innovative, and not yet unthought-of, applications. I wholeheartedly agree with Minister Sangin’s wise remark that the only limit to what we can do with advanced ICT networks is the reach of our minds. Mobile network operations in Afghanistan have already shown they are ready to head the Minister’s call to innovate by launching mobile money services. In Minister Sangin’s view mobile money could well be the most important mobile application in Afghanistan. It allows payday for teachers and police officers to arrive on time and salaries to be paid in full. It allows money to be sent to those in remote villages, helping to provide financial services to the most rural regions, where a bank branch will never exist. While a visionary, Minister Sangin is a realist. He noted there is hesitancy by some in Afghanistan to the call and promise of technology and mobile money – whether from mistrust, lack of exposure or personal gain. The good news is that Minister Sangin personally is committed to overcoming these obstacles. I am equally committed to continuing our dialog about the country’s progress and exploring ways that NetHope can help our members and the citizens of Afghanistan build their IT capacity and harness its power.