Friday, 9 September 2016

President of Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s remarks at ​the Special Meeting of the ​JCMB​ on Brussels Conference on Afghanistan​

Distinguished co-chairs, the first lady, the Attorney General of Afghanistan, Mr. Hamidi; Dr. Sima Samar, Dr. Qayumi, members of the cabinet, our special guests from Europe and Australia, ambassadors, members of civil society, members of the business com-munity, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome!
I am pleased to welcome you to this JCMB meeting to discuss our plans for the coming ministerial conference in Brussels on the partnership between the International Community and Afghanistan. Our very able Minister of Finance has laid down the record; I will not dwell on it; other ministers will discuss this in detail.

I want to talk about people; our people, the people of Afghanistan.

We are servants of the people. I and Dr. Abdullah are standing here today because millions of ordinary Afghans went to the polls to elect leaders who would bring change.

We promised that we would end the corruption that violates our deepest spiritual values and pollutes the soul of our nation. We promised that we would build a society based on laws and justice, not on power and guns. We said that we would educate and employ the next generation of Afghans so that they would not have to live the poverty and pain that has been the daily life of so many millions of our people. We promised to bring them hope.

Before we begin our conversation about Brussels and development, let’s pause this morning and spend some time understanding who the Afghan people are and why so many Afghans wanted change.

Let’s begin with some facts. Thirty-nine percent of our people live below the global poverty line of $1.35/day. Think about that fact for just one minute. Two out of every five Afghans could work all day long and still not make enough money to buy a single cup of coffee in the Serena hotel.

But perhaps coffee in the Serena is not the right measure for understanding what $1.35 means to the life of my poor brothers and sisters, my children. Last November, we brought community members from all over Afghanistan for a three-day conversation about what has now become the Citizen’s Charter that you will be hearing about today.

Here’s what the villagers from Baghlan told us. Sixteen percent of their village had a 1/2 Jerib of land – about a tenth of a hectare — but they could migrate to Iran where they could work as unskilled laborers. From Iran, they would send home almost Afs.3,000 per month — that is, almost $50. With those $50/month they could buy clothes twice a year and many of their children could even enter middle school.

This is the village elite.

For the rest…Well, sixty-seven percent of the village had no land, no livestock, and could only eat two meals a day during the 5 months of the lean season. Please keep in mind that during the lean season, two meals a day means two meals of sweetened tea with bread and salt. Two thirds of the villagers were indebted, but at least their children could attend primary school.They called themselves the village middle class. Sixteen percent of the village — that is, one out of every six families — had no agricultural land. They had no livestock. They could only eat very poor quality food and even then had to reduce their food intake to a minimum.

Their children did not attend school. They could not afford clothes so they only wore cast-offs. They did not visit clinics when they were sick. Women could not call in a nurse when pregnancies went wrong and they began to bleed. They used drawings of broken loaves of bread to show me and our ministers that in the lean season a poor Afghan in Baghlan will eat once in two days. And they were in year-round debt.This is what poverty is.

Let’s zoom the camera out so that we can take a second look at the social geography of poverty in Afghanistan. We have one million internally displaced people.

They are not migrants looking for work. They are displaced. They are people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by conflict, by criminality, or by natural disasters. We can watch the Kuchis, our traditional pastoralist nomadic populations, slowly begin to starve as pastures break down and warfare destroys their herds.

Another five million Afghans live outside of the country, mostly with our neighbors. Some are doing well, but many of them live on humanitarian assistance or try to survive in the shadow refugee economy of border zones, where they are easy prey for exploitation and abuse, and as Ambassador Yamamoto said, “we expect a million of them to return.”

The ancients called poverty the handmaiden of warfare and indeed, much of our poverty emerged from the sea that is filled with our people’s blood. We glorify our brave martyrs who have died defending this country from a war that we do not want by naming streets after them and celebrating their valor with parades and poems, but we should not forget that every brave martyr leaves behind a widow who must find food for her grief-stricken family in a country where sixty percent of the people can eat bread just once or twice a day. We simply do not know how many widows and orphans there are in Afghanistan, but it is blindingly clear that the face of our poverty is female. If educating a girl changes five generations, a female head at household in poverty condemns five generations to exclusion and inequality.

Ending poverty across Afghanistan is the first responsibility of our government. But we cannot end poverty if we cannot tackle the violence, criminality, and terrorism that creates and re-creates both fear and desperation.

These are the stakes of the reforms that our government has sworn to carry out. We hear time and again that we should invite into our tent the people who created and gain from a world where children eat bread once every two days. We should become friends with the elites that stole the few miserable Jeribs of land that were all a poor family in Nangarhar, Herat or elsewhere could live on.

We will not do this.

Today, we are seeing the clash of two models of Afghanistan’s future. We can return to the corruption, the misery and the exploitation of the past thirty years or we can reform; or we can build an Afghanistan for the people - an Afghanistan whose dams water the fields of the farmer, not the bank accounts of those living abroad; an Afghanistan where schools are where our boys and girls will learn to read and write, not non-existent ghost buildings whose funds were stolen by a greedy official. An Afghanistan where even poor people know that if they improve their homes or open a shop, they will not be evicted by gangs of thugs and criminals.

We have an ally in this fight. It is our people. For all of their trauma, our people are un-believably resilient, and I take my hat off to that resilience. Our population has a deep sense of its history and its identity as a nation. We believe in the unity of Afghanistan. We have never had a separatist movement. We sometimes eye change warily, but that wariness gives us the space to study and adopt what is good and fits in with our beliefs and our values. Survey after survey shows that the highest priority for people is not wealth or consumption for themselves, but education for their children. They want a better future, and they must have a better future.

The wounds of our bloodshed, displacement, and conflict are ever-present and they are important. But our population is reformist. They are looking for hope. They hate the bad press our country gets for corruption, for narcotics, and, I am sorry to say, for the fighting amidst our elites. And, here I do not exempt myself and our administration.

The people want change. Terrorism, war, and bloodshed are unfortunate facts of life in Afghanistan today. They will remain a constant threat that our government must contend with. But we cannot use the threat of terror as an excuse to avoid making the reforms and designing the programs that will finally bring to an end the poverty, exclusion, and marginalization that blight the daily existence of people who eat one loaf of bread a day. We do not have that right. I, as their elected leader, do not have that right.

Our country has a consensus that what will bring about the stability we all crave is a return to the rule of law. We do not need to keep inventing legal frameworks or pretend that Afghans do not have a deep sense of what rule of law means. Our entire culture and history have been built around a very deep Islamic theory of government, which is about justice. Justice is fundamental, and reform of the justice sector is absolute top priority.

Mounstuart Elphinstone, the author of “the Kingdom of Kabul”, the great statement scholar remarked that Afghanistan can only be run as a despotism or as a democracy.

We have tried despotism of both the royal and Soviet kind. We’re now trying Democracy. Our anchor is our Constitution, which gives the rules within which every segment of our society can debate the meaning and application of constitutional principles as they play themselves out in our daily lives. Our country has a very rich, ongoing discourse taking place at every level of society, but the common thread uniting it all is that Afghans have agency. We do not wait for history to make us. We make our history for ourselves. Afghan democracy will not be bestowed. It will be made by Afghans, by men and women, by youth, by children, by disabled, by the displaced, by the Kuchi, by the settled, by the urban citizen.

But it would be naive to pretend that the country has already realized the promise that constitutional democracy offers. We inherited a corrupt and criminal economy. The structure of our government is what Shakespeare called “a thing of shreds and patches”, a pasting together from different periods of time and purposes. As someone once said about the camel, it hangs together but it doesn’t work very well and a damn well isn’t pretty.

For democracy to succeed and for poverty in Afghanistan to be brought to an end, we need to build the government machinery that can change the lives of the poor. This is what the people are demanding. A democracy that cannot turn the people’s will into policies and programs will not be a democracy for long. The most important legacy that I hope to leave to my successor, and “she” or “he” is the one I think about every day, is a government that can get things done.

I have said previously that Afghanistan today is at a crossroads. People — and I include our international partners — must make a choice between two conflicting models of government. The period following the Soviet invasion left a permanent wound on our body politic. Since the reforms of Amanullah Khan, Afghanistan was evolving in the usual fits and starts but with a clear direction towards becoming a constitutional democracy. But the war culture that emerged to fight the Soviet invasion knocked us from that path. War brought with it a resurgence of the strong men. War turned government into a tool for distributing spoils and patronage. War legitimized the political uses of violence, corruption, and terror. This is what we have started to change.

The strength of democratic government lies in the successes, we — and here again I stress not just out government but you, our international partners — will have in building strong institutions. We need institutions that are accountable to our people and will respond to the needs of what they express. We need institutions that are staffed by people who know their job and make their offices function. We need institutions that can cleanly and efficiently work together to solve the problems of a village where two thirds of the people spend five months of the year without three meals per day.

The government that we inherited lacks coherence. In the ANPDF paper that you have before you, we defined the challenge as one of overcoming institutional fragmentation.

What do I mean by fragmentation? Look at us. We have at least eleven different agencies that are charged with fighting corruption. Nine do vocational education. Our minis-tries look like archeological digs, with the remnants of finished project management units stacked on top of each other like the layers of a long-dead city.

We drown in pointless procedures that aimed to control corruption but instead produced paralysis, without in any way stopping the leakage of funds. The governor of Herat Province, who was formerly our minister of Agriculture, once told me that for him to buy a pencil, he, the minister, had to sign fifty one different pieces of paper.Well, he stopped buying pencils.

Turning the thing of shreds and patches into a powerful set of instruments for ending poverty was never going to be an easy task. Replacing fragmentation with coherence was always going to bring with it broken eggshells and wounded egos.

But we will not be stopped. As you will hear today, our administration has become consistent, transparent, and clear in its plans for bringing about reforms. Our campaign agenda for reforming government is on the web. In London, we described what those reforms would be. In the Senior Officials Meeting here in Kabul last September, we formed the councils and began work on the National Priority Programs (NPPs). And in Brussels, we will show you what we will deliver.

Preparing for Brussels has given us many useful insights. The first is that many of the reforms we have undertaken are beginning to pay off. Our public financial reform roadmap is building the ability of our finance ministry to prepare, manage, and spend a credible budget. People wonder why Dr. Abdullah, I and my ministers spend four hours each week reviewing large tenders for government contracts, but the National Procurement Authority broke the vicious stranglehold that corrupt tendering held on our government contracting, and I am pleased to acknowledge the exceptional work of Mr. Yari and his colleagues. And, thanks to those reforms, soldiers can now face insurgents knowing that their guns will have bullets. Our children can go to schools that no longer collapse because they were built without enough cement. And we have begun the process of building a court system that is staffed by qualified judges and lawyers who dispense laws and justice instead of requests for bribes and pay-offs. If the cost of schools that do not collapse and clinics that finally receive quality medicine is that I and my ministerial colleagues get criticized for spending four hours a week breaking the corrupt procurement cartels, well, that is a cost that we will continue to be prepared to pay.

We have also been positively surprised by the success of our inter-ministerial development councils in creating the enabling conditions for ministries to work together as teams rather than as rivals. Our biggest development challenges are inter-ministerial, not ministerial. We’ve always known how to build roads and to build clinics, but to re-duce maternal mortality, we needed to know how to build a road that would lead to the clinic. For the first time, the big development problems that our country faces are being discussed openly rather than hidden beneath angry claims about ministerial turf. As we found in the course of developing the National Priority Programs, we will be presenting to you today, grouping ministries into problem-solving working groups turned out to be a felicitous way to bring consensus and teamwork to bear on how we could bring very large investments to fruition.

We have started to put in place the systematic, market-friendly rules that the private sector needs to work. Businesses must feel that the government is listening. In our monthly High Economic Council meetings – now almost turned into weekly meetings, thanks to Minster Hakimi and Dr. Qayoumi – the last thirty minutes are reserved for representatives of our private sector to air their concerns and dialogue over solutions. You will hear today representative of the private sector tell you whether this is all talk or not, but I can assure you today from my side that we take these dialogues with utmost seriousness.

And then we must act. Just this past month the High Economic Council opened up the Afghan market for digital services. The Council also recently approved long-standing demand from businessmen to extend business visas from one to three years. More are on the way. Our ANPDF contains a pretty good initial package of private sector friendly actions and reforms but I can promise you that these are just the beginning of Afghanistan’s new opening.

And the private sector is responding cautiously and carefully, it is true, but after a long drought we are finally seeing some large-scale investments in exports, agro-processing, and services.

We will be there for them. We have launched an all-out effort to build bridges with our neighbors not just to bring peace to this troubled region, but to knit our neighborhood into a peaceful community bound together by trade. Last July, we joined the WTO. TAPI, CASA-1000 and other large, cross-border projects are continuing to advance. Later this month, we will inaugurate two new railways to boost trade with our western neighbors, and by the end of this administration, the multi-country port project of Chabahar, with the help of India, will have opened up an entire continent to Afghan products and traders.

But in the end, a government is only as good, as honest, as the people who staff its offices, make its policies, and respond to the people. Look around you. You are all long-standing friends of Afghanistan. When have you ever seen so many young people staffing the offices of government? When have you ever seen so many well-educated, confident women deputy ministers, director generals and ambassadors representing the next generation of Afghan civil servants?

I am the first to admit that we have just started the process of reinventing our government. But, we have indeed started. We cannot afford a civil servant that is treated like the carcass of a dead zebra ready to be shredded and shared by political hyenas who treat the civil service as so many prizes to hand out as rewards. Pulling the civil service out from the spoils system is going to be a difficult and painful challenge. There will be howls of protest and pain as the noose against corruption grows ever tighter. Ignore them. We cannot afford a civil service of arrogant appointees who do not know their job, do not come to office, and do not show the Afghan people that service to the community is their right and obligation.

How will we get a civil service built on merit instead of patronage? We have a plan. I have proposed that we should pull all but the top levels of the civil service out of the political arena. Test for quality and weed out or move away unqualified people who abuse their office. Second, we must strip away the layers of corruption that have distorted ministry’s visions of what they are supposed to be doing. Why does every ministry in the government to have its own independent construction wing? We Afghans know the answer. Let’s instead decide that one or two ministries should have the technical expertise, procurement skills, and oversight to build government buildings. And then let the education ministry focus on teaching our children and the health ministry to treating the sick rather than spending so much time worrying about who gets the contracts to build the schools or clinics. Third, while all parts of the civil service are important, we need to define the common functions that all ministries must be able to carry out. Last week the Council met to radically restructure the CBR processes so that it accelerates qualified staffing, and over the coming weeks before Brussels we will be rebuilding the corporate, human resource, and audit offices of all of our core ministries.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have come a long way since we met last in London. Over the course of today you will hear from our ministers and our teams how far we have moved in turning the reform agenda into concrete programs and activities. I am very proud of my team, Afghanistan’s team, and I am confident in the future of this country.

Six weeks from now our government will be holding another meeting in this very same hall. But it will not be with world leaders such as yourselves. It will be with villagers. Poor men and women, the poor men and women who last year touched my heart with their stories of what it means to be poor.

I promised them then that our government would not fail them. This time, it is our turn to tell them some stories. Here is some of what we will say.

Four years ago, one thousand, one hundred poor Kabuli families were swindled out of their deposits for public apartments. Minister Naderi swore that if he could not finish those buildings within three months he would resign from our government. Three days ago, I accompanied Minister Naderi as he presided over the ceremony of handing 2014 finished clean homes to families who thought they had lost everything, and they gave him a certificate for good performance and told me every one of the ministers should be able to hold a contract and deliver like Minister Naderi.

Of course there is one small condition. Since we had contributed about ten million dollars, the certificates had to be in the names of wives and husbands both, not just in the name of husbands.

Minister Zamir will tell you, our guests, why their crops no longer need to rot in the fields because there were no buyers to take them to market. When earlier this month Pakistan closed its borders just as our farmers in Kandahar were harvesting their unbelievably delicious fruit, Prime Minister Modi kindly waived all tariffs when, again for the first time ever, our security ministries organized a Kandahar Fruit-lift to fly $69 million worth of those ever-so delicate crops to fruit buyers in India. Thank you.

And then there’s the story of irrigation. For an Afghan farmer, there’s simply no other way to say it. Water is life. For the past 15 years, so little effort went into building water systems that by 2014 we actually had half a million hectares less irrigated land than the country had under the Taliban.

Two months ago, I was delighted again with Prime Minister Modi’s presence to inaugurate the Afghan-India Friendship Dam at Salma. Eighty thousand poor Afghan farmers can now water their fields, even when the changing climate delays the rains, and fifty thousand people now have electricity for the first time ever. Dr. Qayoumi and Minister Osmani are to be thanked for their exceptional efforts in making this grand national project possible. Last week, the High Economic Council approved an expansion of Kajaki Dam, which will add 100,000 hectares more, and soon after that we will finish the Kamal Khan dam and canals, bringing new life to an additional 120,000 hectares. We will build more dams in Afghanistan in the next three years than the last 250 years combined.

Ladies and Gentleman,

I will not pretend that this has been an easy year. Nor do I see the path ahead suddenly becoming gentle. The business of reform is difficult.

But there is no other way. Our country needs hope. Our country needs to see and hear that their government is uniting around the causes of justice for the poor and education for all.

In today’s presentation and discussion we look forward to your comments and feedback on how we can sharpen our message and, together, give our people that hope in a better future that they so richly deserve.Thank you!

Kabul, September 4, 2016

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