Mariana and I landed in Kabul to a bright, smoggy morning. Frost lie on the grass; snow blanketed the mountains in the hazy distance. Driving through the city was like viewing every typical photo of Kabul I had ever seen; it was strange knowing I was actually present in it.
We met PDT’s Country Director Phil Colgan in the lobby of our hotel, where he immediately handed us a copy of Afghan Scene magazine, flipped to a PDM-A ad.
“Peace Dividend Trust connects you to local suppliers that can meet your needs. Turn your procurement dollars into development dollars by purchasing your goods and services from Afghan suppliers.” I was excited to meet the team behind it all, a few of whom I knew only through email exchanges.
When we arrived at the PDT office, Phil gave us the run-down of the local context and some additional details about the Afghanistan Marketplace project. Phil was overwhelmingly positive about PDT’s accomplishments and even more so about the staff. He called them “loyal, dedicated, the cream of the crop.” Their results are staggering, he said, especially in a country whose population is about 97 percent illiterate and has been occupied by one force or another since 1970.
Afterwards, we met the staff and sat in on the weekly staff meeting. As each person discussed the weekly minutia of his or her department, I realized that the only reason the project was a success was because of the hard work of these individuals. An obvious statement, but I suddenly understood the infamous “HQ bubble” that haunts many a development project. Listening to one conversation with staff helped me understand more details than I could have ever learned from sitting in the PDT office in New York. It also made me realize that what HQ does matters little to the success of the project. It’s the daily work on the ground that makes the difference.
And in the case of PDT in Afghanistan, the results are astonishing!
The team has created livelihoods for over 120,000 individuals, and by extension their families, and raised billions of dollars for the Afghan government through taxes. This is particularly important in a country with high amounts of corruption. Over 8,000 Afghan businesses are listed on the portal. In order to be listed, each business must be visited onsite by a PDT team member, which includes a site visit by a PDT staff member, survey questions and re-verification – usually over the phone – six months later. Just this week 16 new businesses are in the pipeline to be listed on the portal. This is going on every day thanks to the dedication of our staff.
The portal is popular in Afghanistan. Last week it received just over 7,500 hits, despite the New Years holiday. Afghan ministries use the portal to distribute information about tax filings and other business information. Tender distribution is another important part of the portal. Last week, the office received 53 different tenders and distributed over 190 copies via e-mail, SMS or by Afghans visiting the office.
Thanks to the hard-working staff, PDT’s popularity continues to grow. In addition to billboards around town and an ad in Afghan Scene magazine, the team created a commercial in Dari and Pashto, which recently ran for four days. The next day the PDT office received hundreds of phone calls from Afghan business owners inquiring about PDT’s services. This shows the hunger of Afghan business owners to succeed.
Mariana and I know the week will pass too quickly. Every day is jam-packed with traveling to Afghan businesses, speaking with buyers, shadowing staff and filming TDS pick-up and training sessions in the office. Just going over the schedule that Akbar and Hamid prepared for us was painful because we realized we wouldn’t be able to see everything in such a short time. Though we can’t do everything, we’ll certainly accomplish as much as humanly possible – we owe the staff here as much. Afghanistan is a tough and brutal place but I can already see how inspiring and determined the Afghan people are. We hope we can capture some of that on video.