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On Tuesday afternoon, international experts on policy in Afghanistan gathered for a virtual conversation about the future of the nation’s reconstruction and ongoing humanitarian challenges. 

The event was the 11th in the Yale Development Dialogue series, a collaborative effort between the Yale Economic Growth Center, Yale’s Department of History and the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs. The three panelists focused on the future of Afghanistan and its people, especially women, in light of the American military withdrawal from the country earlier this year. They also discussed the impacts of interventionist foreign policy more broadly, as well as how historical relationships between the United States and Afghanistan will affect Afghanistan’s reconstruction. 

“To frame it from a Yale University point of view in the history of international affairs, Afghanistan is an exceptional situation but also one that connects to a much broader, longer history,” Rodrick Stewart, the former United Kingdom secretary of state for international development and a current Jackson Institute senior fellow, said at the event. “It was one of the largest exercises of international development in the last 20 years where we did not only deploy millions of troops but hundreds of thousands of civilians.” 

Stewart famously walked 350 miles from Herat to Kabul in Afghanistan during the winter between 2001 to 2002, staying in 32 villages to “better understand what was happening in the country.” He also spent three years working in a nongovernmental organization he founded in Kabul. 

In addition to Stewart, Tuesday’s panel included Orzala Nemat, a University of London researcher and the director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, and Khalid Payenda, the last minister of finance under the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. 

Before becoming minister of finance in January of this year, Payenda told the News that he worked at the World Bank and advised previous Afghan presidents and finance ministers.  

Stewart, who has been involved in planning the dialogue series, said that Nemat and Payenda were asked to speak at this event because “they experienced firsthand what it meant to live in Afghanistan” and “were on the front lines.”

“I think it’s difficult maybe to communicate what an incredible privilege it is to have somebody like [Nemat] or [Payenda] with us,” Stewart told the News after the event. “Payenda was the Minister of Finance during one of the most difficult times in Afghan history, and it’s a real privilege that Yale students have the opportunity to hear from someone like him.” 

Stewart said he has worked with Rohini Pande, the director of the Economic Growth Center, throughout the year to bring experts from specific countries and fields to speak at Yale for the Yale Development Dialogues. The program overall aims to explore relationships between history and economics to better inform solutions to contemporary issues affecting low- and middle-income countries in particular. 

The series is moderated by Catherine Cheney  ’10 GRD ’10, a senior reporter who writes for Devex about the role of technology, innovation and philanthropy in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

“All too often a lot of conversations about international development issues leave out history, and history is hugely important to understanding the present and the future,” Cheney told the News before the event. “And so I think that is a really unique and relevant aspect of the development dialogues.”

The event was structured as two-minute rotations between the three panelists, guided by Cheney. Stewart provided an “international perspective” while Nemat and Payenda provided the Afghan perspective. The panelists mentioned their specific concerns about the future of Afghanistan and what international institutions can do to alleviate the issues the country is facing. 

The three panelists delved into how the international community and the United States specifically ought to act with the Afghan people in the future. All three panelists were critical of the current policy  of cutting off money to the Afghan government that many international organizations, like the World Bank as well as the United States Treasury, are carrying out. They warned that the policy could exacerbate famine and food shortages in the country which could affect “one third to one half of Afghan people,” according to Payenda. 

Payenda explained that when he was still in the government during the summer, about 16 million Afghans, or “half of the population,” was at risk of poverty due to “drought, displacement and the third wave of COVID-19.” This problem has only been exacerbated by the Taliban’s takeover, since Afghanistan’s foreign aid was “essentially halted” following the takeover. Payenda expressed frustration with the American government on this decision. 

“To put it very bluntly, Biden does not want to hear the name Afghanistan,” Payenda said at the event. “Everybody is looking at the U.S. Treasury and the Treasury does not care or is scared of Biden which means international organizations are paralyzed. The World Bank controls the largest trust fund for Afghanistan and they can redirect money to help Afghanis.”

Payenda also told attendees that it was possible for the United Nations and NGOs to act within Afghanistan to allocate money to address the issues of famine and food insecurity. Moreover, Stewart added that it “was immoral for the American government to starve innocent Afghans in the hope of drawing some political concessions from the Taliban.”

While the event focused heavily on the issue of famine, there was also a discussion on fostering small businesses within the country, especially the handweaving of carpets. Stewart explained that more than one million Afghan women hand-weave carpets and “small businesses like these can help power Afghanistan into the future.” But Payenda told attendees that the United States Agency for International Development was refusing to provide help to the women in this industry, which he said is economically devastating for them. 

Nemat and Payenda also criticized American sanctions on the Taliban, although Payenda acknowledged that “realistically these sanctions are not going anywhere soon.” However, Nemat was more categorical in her criticism, asking “if there is a single example of economic sanctions working in achieving the goal of the sanctions.” 

She also added that international organizations had to move past “investing in specific individuals like [former Presidents] Karzai or Ghani,” and towards broader investments into Afghan society. 

The discussion then moved towards answering audience questions about specific nuances of Afghan economic and social development, and then transitioned to closing remarks from the three speakers. 

Nemat shared a specific project she was working on with a Yale World Fellow to empower and educate groups of Afghan girls. She called on members of the audience to support her. 

“My personal message to those in the International Development Agencies is to support, sponsor and invest in Afghanistan’s younger generations and provide them with scholarship opportunities before it is too late,” Nemat said. “The best way forward is longer-term investment in scholarships across different themes and subjects which will be critical subjects for the future of the country.”

Payenda added that while there was much to be disheartened about within Afghanistan, he still had hope that one day Afghanistan will return to a democratic and free rule where his country can thrive economically and politically. 

The Yale Development Dialogue program began in the 2020-21 school year.

ANIKA SETH
YASH ROY