I was invited to Afghanistan for a week-long consultancy in June 2009 with an organization funded by USAID to bolster Afghan-run businesses. The organization is called Afghanistan Small and Medium Enterprise Development (ASMED), a program implemented by DAI, based in Bethesda, Maryland. Its more than 75 staff members, drawn from five regional ASMED offices in Afghanistan, gathered in the capital city of Kabul for a retreat aimed at enhancing the functioning of their organization and their work relationships.
I came as an associate with the KonTerra Group. My role included coaching the retreat planning committee prior to the retreat itself and then leading a workshop on teambuilding and an exercise on developing a vision statement during the retreat. At the conclusion, I joined the retreat planning committee and the ASMED management team to “debrief” and identify future possibilities for organizational development and teambuilding.
I felt privileged to get a glimpse into the impressive economic development work being done by ASMED. This is an organization that has grown from two staff people in Kabul in late 2006 to more than 75 staffers in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar. While there have been growing pains, the degree of shared vision among the staff and their apparent organizational effectiveness are remarkable.
ASMED has assisted aspiring exporters of Afghan products to present their goods – carpets, marble, wool and cashmere, dried fruits and nuts, food processing, gemstones, and handicrafts – at trade fairs in such locations as Tajikistan and India. In addition, the Sabawoon Poultry Feed Mill in Jalalabad, started in 2008 with the help of a grant from USAID, is producing quality feed in demand by chicken farmers. Previously such feed had to be imported. The USAID website pertaining to ASMED activities lists the following results for ASMED’s work in the last three years:
- Provided 550 business skills training sessions throughout the country.
- Created about 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs since late 2006.
- Supported 6,370 Afghan businesses and facilitated access to
- Established more than 120 (including 27 women-run) business associations and supported more than 230 associations with grants for equipment, capacity building, and improving member services.
- Provided 137 small grants totaling $3.45 million for market development, value chain improvement, and association capacity building.
- Established an internship program benefiting 1,025 university students, a quarter being women. Approximately 75 percent of the graduated interns received full-time employment offers from their host companies.
- Offered 521 professional mentorship opportunities, linking young entrepreneurs with business executives.
- Facilitated the sale of more than $30 million of Afghan small- and medium-enterprise products at national and international trade shows.
To maintain and improve upon this remarkable record, ASMED and USAID recognize that ASMED must transition from leadership by non-Afghan experts to leadership by capable Afghans who have been given the time, training and support to develop into exceptional leaders. Fortunately, I could already see that such Afghan leaders are emerging in the organization – several played leading roles in the retreat.
Clearly, a week-long visit to a deeply complex country like Afghanistan means that any impressions are at best provisional. However, I left Kabul with a deep admiration for the ASMED staff with whom I interacted and a greater sense of hope for the future of Afghanistan. The commitment of Afghan staff to work for a better future for their country, at the risk of serving with a U.S.-linked organization during a time of war, was particularly impressive.
David R. Brubaker, associate professor of organizational studies at CJP, has expertise in supporting healthy organizations, leadership, group conflict and change processes. He has trained or consulted with over 100 non-profit or governmental organizations in the United States, Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.