Pakistan and Afghanistan – Creating Women-Centered Economic Cooperation

By Shad Begum

Executive Director, Association for Behaviour & Knowledge Transformation (ABKT)

Afghanistan has experienced decades of conflict and lawlessness, and is now in dire need to ensure effective use of its untapped resources to support its economy. Regional connectivity initiatives could supplement Afghanistan and Pakistan’s economic cooperation in the future, and reduce insecurity.

Moreover, for greater regional integration, the establishment of infrastructural and economic ties through engaging existing organizations/platforms and public engagement, can help increase mutual understanding on social and cultural issues. Such an all-inclusive approach towards regional connectivity and integration, will lead to greater security and stability, as well as sustainable development.

Bridging the Gap

Pakistan and Afghanistan serve as a bridge between South Asian and Central Asian countries, considering the geographical locations and political histories. Therefore, promoting regional connectivity in the South Asian-Central Asian Region contains the potential of advancing economic development and peace in the entire region.

Furthermore, past tensions in few local countries obfuscate the task of regional cooperation. However, the recent conflict-ridden history of the region increases the need for interrelationship.

Women and Connectivity

To promote regional connectivity, Pakistan and Afghanistan must focus on strengthening people-to-people connections. However, in building these engagements, there is a dire need of equally engaging women, given they are key stakeholders. At the core of every intervention, both countries must bring together women in the region with the aim of understanding the broader concept of regional connectivity. The gender lens in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region must focus on bilateral dialogue and challenges. Many organizations and networks are already serving as a platform and facilitating different initiatives across the region, as well as building ties among the public. There is a need to engage with, and strengthen these exciting initiatives, which will help create an environment fostering peace and cooperation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In addition to introducing new programs, attractive to both private and public investors, there is a need to establish regional economic cooperation forums in areas for infrastructure development, skill development, agriculture development, and private sector development. These efforts should include women; it will contribute to women’s economic empowerment. Major aspects of these programs should focus on promoting access to economic markets, targeted training in literacy and business management skills, access to economic financing, and removing the legal barriers to women’s economic participation.

All the initiatives should be reinforced by the recognition that women are capable to become influential economic drivers across the region, by tackling the barriers in their participation including, better connections between the women of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which can enable them to realize their full potential.

Building on elements aimed at women’s empowerment should be an integral part of regional economic progress. This is the right time for Pakistan and Afghanistan to redefine their regional cooperation strategy and ensure women’s engagement in all regional cooperation and investment projects, given that women have much to add and stand to benefit from their success. Ideally, this is the right time to establish Pak-Afghan Women’s Network with branches and focal persons in each province in both countries, to continue sharing knowledge and information, that will further strengthen ties in the long term.

The Future for Afghanistan

Afghanistan has a long journey to shift from a country dependent on aid, to a trade and transit economy. The end of the Transformation Decade is closely approaching, and in the coming years, there will be a significant decline in aid. Regulating Afghanistan’s economic path in the near future is dependent on infrastructural development, reforms, addressing regional trade rivalries, improving management, building local capacities, and ensuring better governance.

Afghanistan should essentially develop its proactive policies and domestic capacities to entice others to connect with its initiatives. Given the existing security and economic situation, there is less motive and interest for other countries to make an offer to Afghanistan. Analytically speaking, Afghanistan cannot solely address the hurdles to achieve its full potential as a regional hub and needs a regional approach to turn its problems into core capabilities. In order to transform Afghanistan into a regional center for trade and transit, there is a need of using regional cooperation, integration, and attraction of investment, for improving the infrastructure of the country.

Afghanistan’s government needs to establish a full-fledged program for women’s economic empowerment through regional economic cooperation, and must initiate joint ventures with Pakistan, such as assisting women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with value chain development, and access to regional and global markets, by connecting them with regional and international networks. The presence of local women-owned SMEs from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the supply chains of multinational enterprises will raise their international competitiveness. Pakistan has great experience to share with Afghanistan when it comes to ensuring engaging women as key stakeholders in nationwide programs.

Pakistan’s example of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), a program that is focused on women’s economic empowerment and access to finance and skills, is helping income generation at the lowest level, especially in rural areas, can be replicated in neighbouring Afghanistan. Likewise, the Lady Health Workers (LHWs) program, which has succeeded in providing maternal and childcare facilities, helping in nationwide polio campaigns, and now serving in the COVID-19 pandemic, can also be replicated in Afghanistan. It has taken years for Pakistan to properly produce programs such as BISP and LHWs. Training exchanges between Afghan and Pakistan governments can be initiated for greater capacity building. Afghanistan and Pakistan should undertake joint plans to ensure that gender diversity serves as an advantage for economic development in the full implementation of all regional cooperation and investment projects.

Originally published in UNDP Pakistan’s quarterly issue “Development Advocate Pakistan entitled ‘From Conflict to Connectivity: Prospects for Regional Integration in South & Central Asia’.

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