Opinion Article

The privatization of Volunteerism and the tech bubble in Afghanistan

Written by Said Zazai

Hospitality, volunteerism and doing good on to others are values at the heart of Afghaniyat. Islamic teachings of charity, social good and volunteerism have strengthened this pillar of Afghan society.  Prophet Mohammad once said, “every Muslim should give charity” and if he or she cannot then “help someone in need”. There are endless stories and lessons that teaches us about doing good on to our neighbors or strangers on the street, limited neither by faith, gender nor color.

One aspect that makes a volunteering individual different from a paid employee is the amount of time of the payback or the reward. Employees usually work for a profit or for a reward that they expect to get at the end of the day or after a month or whatever has been decided between the employee and the employer. A volunteer on the other hand, performs the same job for no material gain; rather they do it for the social good of their communities or society. They gain their reward by seeing positive changes in society, or by seeing changes in the people they’ve helped, and this change is always about making others happy or satisfied. Some expect to be rewarded by their God for their good deeds in some other shape or form or time, referenced through the term “Fi Sabi Lillah” (for the sake of Allah) in the Quran.

In recent years, Afghanistan has seen a rise in the work of not-for-profit organizations being performed by private companies. The work that is often performed by volunteers for a given cause is now being commercialized and the culture of doing good and volunteering for social change is carried forward more like a business now.  It is becoming difficult to differentiate through the name of a business entity, whether it was non-profit or for-profit.  Also, the work that was formed by the two different entities appeared much more similar making it difficult for hopeful volunteers like myself to understand whether the work performed through my volunteerism, was in fact, charity or generating profits for the organization.

These confusions were furthered when I was invited to attend social events organized by private companies in Afghanistan.  It soon became apparent that these ‘social’ were intertwined with the overall business goals of the hosting company. The private company owners that I met, were glorifying the fact that the foreign development aid organization are willing to invest for social work through their private companies.

Such efforts are planned to benefit the private sector, and International donor organizations are coming in with preconceived plans on commercializing the goodness of human beings and the culture of civic virtues. Alexis de Tocqueville, a nineteenth century French political thinker believed that a strong and vibrant civil society was vital for building and consolidating democracy. But here the private companies are strengthened at the cost of civil society. Much has been written on the subject but in the context of Afghanistan and particularly in the Information Technology sector, the donor organizations’ approach needs to be debated and evaluated or reevaluated.

In Afghanistan civil society model has been rebranded and packaged at a time when the state was going through heavy restructuring after years of conflict and internal crisis. Prior regimes’ authoritarian and failed re-engineering of the state led to its dependency on external donor funding which allowed the imposition of a neoliberal policies and restructuring for economic and political development.  In the early years of US influence in Afghanistan, Information Technology civil societies gained very little attention from the donor organizations. The private companies were also not receiving any support from the government or the donor organizations in starting up their businesses in this sector. While there are incentives and partnership opportunities that the private sector needed and still needs, the sector had an organic growth, which led to a relatively strong Information Technology service providing companies in the country.

This period however was soon replaced when donor organizations introduced efforts for capacity development of the private sector. A number of initiatives started to provide financial support to private companies to equip them to provide social assistance to the public in the field of Information Technology through training programs. These initiatives also provided support to startup businesses. More and more professionals are now starting up their businesses in the hopes to get funding from donor organizations in order to provide free education to the public.  This was the kind of work that previously was done through volunteering, or Fi Sabi Lillah, with social collaboration and civic virtues. Presently, this is becoming commercialized and a superficial need in the market has been portrayed, enabling professionals who want to be entrepreneurs and are looking for easier ways to become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. This illusive market does not have the strength to create and sustain the demand once the cash flow is stopped by the funding organizations.

These over enthusiastic startups are given false impression about the market demand for Information Technology solutions and services.  A donor-driven sector is in the making of a tech-bubble in Afghanistan. It’s more like a tech-balloon than a bubble, which will at some point deflate with a long slow hiss. Professionals therefore, must “take it easy” and plan for a long term sustainable business, donor organizations must “have mercy on civil society” because their right attention will get this wheel going for a longer and more sustainable future.  The mysterious (lack of) presence of the Afghan government also cannot be ignored.

About the author

Said Zazai

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