News: Businessmen work to rebuild Afghanistan's economy
Story by Erika Stetson
KABUL, Afghanistan – The compound’s walls and gate are nondescript, indistinguishable from every other barrier in this city of fortresses.
Inside, however, is an airy, windowed business facility with white-painted walls, polished stone and ceilings and pillars decorated with understated carvings.
There, one man, Naeem Yassin, president of the Afghanistan Builders Association, is working to reconstruct his war-torn nation’s economy with the help of a handful of allies and partners.
It’s a task the U.S. government, Coalition military and other organizations have acknowledged only can be done from within.
“ABA is very important in the construction sector in Afghanistan,” said Yassin, who added that “from zero” during the Taliban era, Afghan companies now have begun to compete internationally, with one working in Haiti, another in Pakistan and another seeking projects in Libya.
“Now Afghan construction companies are successful,” he said. “That they are going overseas is good news.”
He estimated $20 billion to $30 billion has been spent on construction in Afghanistan over the last nine years, calling the sector potentially the Afghan economy’s largest. The ABA has more than 500 member companies, with sizes ranging from about 100 employees to more than 3,000. About six member companies are women-owned.
“We’re happy and we’re proud,” Yassin said.
In the absence of a national network of trade schools for electricians, plumbers, carpenters, masons and other industry workers, and in a nation without building codes or much regulatory oversight, the ABA is one of the key sources of professional certifications and efforts to standardize industry practices so Afghan companies operate on the same level as their global peers.
The ABA offers classes on financial and personnel management, proposal writing, contracting, safety, quality control and computer use in addition to assisting with certifications. ABA also arranges conferences for corporate matchmaking to facilitate international projects and so Afghan construction companies can interact with businesses from elsewhere to compare industry practices.
“That also is very helpful for the Afghan construction company,” he said.
The next such conference, in partnership with the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, is set for Nov. 13-15 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.
ABA, a nonprofit trade group similar to those in western countries, was formed in 2004, in part with financial support from USAID. The organization has a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to promote industry-wide certifications and quality assurance practices.
Aside from that initial help, however, ABA is self-sustaining and has few non-Afghan backers to help it achieve its goals.
Among the ABA’s American partners is retired Marine Lt. Col. Rich Diddams, of Teng & Associates, a contracted project manager for Task Force Power, a Kabul-based fire and electrical safety and inspection organization for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan. In his off time he volunteers to teach classes at the ABA, primarily in proposal writing, as well as participating in discussions on standards compliance and contract reviews in keeping with U.S. Federal Acquisition Regulations.
He said while such mentorship is generally “the right thing to do,” it also “puts teeth” into America’s counterinsurgency strategy and compliments the international community’s overall goals in Afghanistan.
He acknowledged that it also was a “mutually beneficial” networking opportunity for his company.
“It’s not hard to understand how a little bit of effort can have tremendous benefits, not only for your company, but the country that’s working to get on its feet after decades of war,” he said.
He called proposal writing a particularly important topic, given that it’s a key way by which companies secure contracts in developed economies.
“A lot of these guys can do the work,” he said, “but they don’t know how to package their skills.”
He added that the ABA also is building a database of Afghan companies to help with vetting.
The program helps evaluate “Afghanistan’s companies based on their past performance, which gives them the opportunity to perform work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Diddams said. “This benefits U.S. companies in being able to establish a profile on companies we can partner with.”
Diddams is the only American construction company representative to interact regularly with the ABA. He is accompanying Yassin to the upcoming D.C. conference. Speakers there will include U.S. and Afghan government officials as well as industry figures.
The increased health of the Afghan business community is creating room for other firms to operate, including those like Woodbury International, a government relations and legal firm with offices in the U.S., Britain and Kabul. Its president and client relations director, the father and son team of Mohammed and Milad Ehsan, also enjoy a close working relationship with Diddams and Yassin and will be attending the D.C. conference.
They employ lawyers and other professionals in several countries and help companies establish a presence in Afghanistan by obtaining visas, vetting prospective local business partners and navigating the legal framework to begin operations. They also offer services such as proposal writing.
“We are Afghans; we know the culture, the laws, the rules,” said Mohammed Ehsan. “But for the Americans, it’s very tough.”
Milad Ehsan said the company has added several clients in just the last few months and overall, business has been very good, “especially with the proposal writing aspects.”
He noted that the nation had been at war for the last 30 years, and not all of its businesses have the internal capacity to handle transactions in the same manner as Western firms.
“They’re not used to writing 100-page proposals or 50-page contracts,” he said.
He added that there was great commercial potential in Afghanistan.
“It’s just a matter of getting international companies here and comfortable with doing business,” he said.
The businessmen agreed there’s a lot the U.S. can do to help. For example, obtaining U.S. visas and handling other legal needs related to building international partnerships can be difficult for Afghan firms trying to win American business.
One Afghan company trying to attend a conference in the U.S. last year didn’t get a visa until four months after the event had ended, they said.
Afghan companies also have been urging the international community to focus more on the economic elements of transition, including arranging for maintenance of already-built facilities, and made some progress at a recent conference, said the ABA’s Yassin.
“They have a lot of projects for military police, road construction,” he said. “If they leave, it’s maybe the collapse of the sector.”
Diddams urged the international community to more closely support efforts like the ABA’s to normalize and professionalize Afghanistan’s economy and help make the nation’s companies globally competitive.
“Really the way to get ahead is to treat the Afghans like our partners,” he said. “They want work – not handouts.”