Categories: Rise to Peace blog

Trade, Aid, and a Self-Reliant Afghan Economy

At first glance, a chart depicting Afghanistan’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures since 2001 could be characterized as a series of peaks and valleys. Though the imagery may be fitting with the country’s landscape, probes into why Afghanistan’s year-to-year growth is erratic necessitates a deeper look into the country’s trade practices, as well as the management and deployment of foreign aid.

While incessant conflict with the Taliban certainly plays a formidable role in deterring investment, it is far from the only ailment afflicting Afghanistan’s path toward economic independence. As one example, foreign aid still accounts for nearly 77% of the government’s budget, and that includes an assumption of a best-case scenario involving collected revenues.

Furthermore, Afghanistan’s increased engagement in global trade has yet to materialize any substantial capital investment, which is necessary for industrializing the economy and building a sufficient manufacturing base. The country’s trade deficit has also widened considerably in the last decade by nearly 25%.

Such conditions suggest that even in the event of successful intra-Afghan talks, the country’s development agenda will still rely heavily on substantial foreign aid inflows, with the World Bank estimating between $6-8 billion USD will be needed annually over the next several years. In order to best facilitate the use of that aid, both donors and the government will need to be selective in projects that incorporate broader participation from Afghans and put the country on proper footing for self-reliance.

To achieve this, Afghanistan’s economic policy will have to focus on three key prerequisites. These include an emphasis on export-led growth, diversification of trade partners and investors, and improvements toward tax revenue mobilization.

Export-Led Growth

Export-led growth is a strategy that concentrates on boosting the export potential of domestic businesses that specialize in certain goods and services. Assuming a comparative advantage for developing these certain products exists, the revenues and profits earned from exports are then to be reinvested in the country to expand production capacity and nurture the development of supporting industries. This method of economic policy was principally responsible for the rapid expansion of East Asian economies and remains in favor today among emerging markets across Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

For Afghanistan, exports have historically been limited to agricultural products (mainly fruits) but given the country’s vast reserves in minerals and natural resources, the opportunity for industrialization will be contingent upon proper management of the extractive sectors. The benefits would include the absorption of labor from agriculture as well as a diffusive investment that would support infrastructure projects and generate demand for businesses and employment across the manufacturing and services sectors.

In the past, several donor-led initiatives focused on the establishment of “resource corridors” have been put forth but have been shelved as a result of insecurity and dampened foreign investor sentiment on the country’s prospects. Nevertheless, should intra-Afghan talks prove fruitful in resolving the insecurity, it would clear the most significant obstacle for the extractive industries.

Diversification of Trade Partners and Investors

Currently, Afghanistan ranks 173rd out of 190 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, an index that uses indicators including the time required for permits and licenses, access to credit, and the enforcement of contracts, among other criteria to gauge the business/investor climate. As a result, inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country remains scarce and concentrated among a handful of nations, most of them neighbors. Afghanistan’s export destinations are in a similar position, with India and Pakistan accounting for a combined 75% of all Afghan exports. Imports are more diversified in terms of sourcing, but the trade imbalance has been costly in the absence of any progress on an import substitution strategy.

While the debate on the harmful effects of a trade deficit remains unresolved, curbing Afghanistan’s import reliance could help it bolster homegrown industries. Agricultural products and textiles makeup a significant portion of Afghan imports, yet domestic potential already exists in these sectors. Hence, these sectors, if prioritized, could rank among one of the simpler transitions available to the country’s economy.

The textile industry is also a common and vital source of employment for female labor and allowing wider participation by females can pay dividends by providing additional economic security for households, a boost in consumption, and accelerated growth via a larger labor pool for the country.

Ensuring quality over quantity in FDI is commonly overlooked by recipient nations, particularly those endowed with natural resources. Oft-cited criticism of foreign investor practices include employing or awarding contracts to the investing nation, with little to no benefit for the domestic workforce or businesses. Stipulating stringent quotas for the contracting and employment of Afghan businesses and nationals is a crucial tool that can be leveraged when vetting potential foreign partners.

Given Afghanistan’s strategic (and volatile) location, diversifying the country’s trade partners and investors remains in its best interests for long-term growth. This directly ties in with a balanced foreign policy based on non-alignment. Given the competing interests of regional hegemons like Russia, China, India, and Pakistan, the ability for Afghanistan to deftly balance external relations without committing to a single side ensures sovereignty and self-reliance.

Mobilization of Tax Revenue

At present, the shortfall between the Afghan government’s annual budget and its revenues stands at roughly $8.5 billion USD, which is covered by foreign aid. A gradual paring of that figure will necessitate a more efficient collection and allocation of tax revenues. In tandem with taxes, Afghanistan’s role as a transit hub for pipelines and infrastructure that transports resources (like natural gas) is another opportunity to improve revenues.

In a scenario where peace is established, ensuring that the Taliban’s arbitrary tax regime is dismantled in favor of a government collection system will be vital to increasing government revenues. In addition, the ability to safely access and incorporate swathes of Afghan territory under the government’s jurisdiction will present new opportunities to improve the fiscal situation of the government and locals. However, the notion of a “peace dividend” will not be without costs. As exhibited by US troop withdrawals throughout the Obama Administration, any additional drawdowns could once again trigger economic consequences for businesses that engage with or rely upon foreign forces.

It remains pertinent that the government learns to wean itself off of foreign aid and prove to its donors it is capable and sophisticated enough to budget and allocate aid funds efficiently. Doing so would contribute positively to what will be a long, but viable, route toward genuine independence and lasting stability.

Arman Sidhu

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