Chris and Hedvig Alexander on Canada's role in Afghanistan's future
Although Canada will be soon withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, some Canadians' dedication to the country will remain strong long after the military presence is gone. On the forefront are Chris and Hedvig Alexander, a couple whose long involvement in Afghanistan has given them a unique perspective on the role that Canadians can take to support Afghans in rebuilding their country.
Chris Alexander was Canada’s first resident ambassador in Afghanistan from 2003-2005, and remained in the country until 2009 as Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). A career civil servant, he spent eighteen years in Canada’s foreign service, including as Ministerial Counsellor at the Embassy in Moscow. Born in Toronto, he was educated at McGill and Oxford. He was elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Ajax-Pickering in 2011 and is now Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence. He recently published The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace.
His partner Hedvig Christine Alexander, meanwhile, is a former army captain who served with the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) and as a UN Military Observer in Abkhazia, Georgia. She worked for the Danish Embassy in Moscow and with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Kabul. While in Afghanistan she established and ran the Peace Dividend Trust, promoting local procurement of goods and services to boost the Afghan economy. Her interest in helping Afghans rebuild their lives led her to serve as the managing director for Turquoise Mountain, an organisation dedicated to reinvigorating traditional craftsmanship, and most recently, to found Jali Designs, which makes the skilled products of Afghan artisans available to an international market. She is a native of Denmark, with degrees from Copenhagen Business School and Yale University.
Both Chris and Hedvig are passionate about Afghanistan, and bring a wealth of experience to their understanding of its current situation. With the NATO Summit being held in Chicago, to determine the future of international involvement in Afghanistan, I asked them for their reflections.
You spent 2003-2009 in Afghanistan, first as Canada’s ambassador, and then as a representative of UNAMA. What are the most important insights you gained about Afghanistan during this time?
First, I started to grasp how vast and rich Afghan history has been, as a funnel for Asian civilizations moving from north to south, and as bridge connecting India and China with Persia and the Mediterranean. It is an astonishing story. The conflict and instability that have raged on and off in Afghanistan now for almost four decades are a direct consequence of the country’s role as a lynchpin at the heart of Asia. Second, I came to know a huge number of smart and talented Afghans.
You have just published A Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace. Why did you feel the need to write this book?
Afghanistan’s story from 9/11 to now had not been properly told. The successes were going unacknowledged; the underlying causes of the conflict misunderstood. For Afghanistan to regain its place among the peaceable countries of the world, we need a shared account of these issues – and agreement of what it will take to finish the job.
The role of Pakistan in stabilising Afghanistan comes up in your book. Its influence has been discussed by Ahmed Rashid, and US policy makers. What are you adding to this?
My book tells the story as lived from Kabul – as well as Kandahar, Herat and other cities affected by the Taliban-led insurgency. The Taliban and those who back it continue to undermine peace and security in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the broader region.
Many Canadians are upset about the apparent lack of progress in Afghanistan, and want to end Canada’s involvement there. What is your response to this? Do you think Canada is doing enough?
Canada has made a huge contribution. For more than a decade, the brave men and women of our Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP and many dedicated public servants and civilians have made enormous sacrifices to assist the Afghan people. For example, we were among the leading supporters of elections, disarmament and national programmes that have brought schools and infrastructure to villages across the country.
In 2006, our soldiers stood almost alone against a new tide of insurgency in the south. Their professionalism and sacrifice on the battlefield, together with that of the US and other allies, prevented a Taliban comeback. Today Afghans are increasingly taking the lead in building security across the country. Canada’s significant contribution to training will continue until 2014, and our financial support for Afghanistan’s national security forces will continue for several years even after that date. Canadians should be proud of what their soldiers and their country have achieved in Afghanistan.
What do you think will happen in Afghanistan when NATO troops pull out in 2014? What needs to happen to ensure stability?
Canada and its NATO allies remain committed to providing support through 2014 and beyond. But only the Afghans themselves can bring stability. First, they need to ensure their economy continues to expand – with mining a major growth prospect at the moment. Second, they need to continue isolating and dismantling the opium economy. Third, they need to renew and strengthen governance at all levels, especially via presidential elections in 2014. Finally, as the book argues, they need come to terms with Pakistan that result in secure borders, flourishing trade and an end to cross-border interference.
Tell me about the Peace Dividend Trust. What is it? How does it work? What is the objective?
I started the first Peace Dividend (PDT) project in Afghanistan in 2006. At that time the organization was a think tank based in Ottawa, started by Scott Gilmore, and Kabul was the first stab at implementation. The Kabul project was a reaction to a study that had uncovered that in all peace keeping missions the UN and the international community were involved in, only very little of all the money that went into these missions – be it Kosovo, East Timor or somewhere else – actually stayed in the economy because most of the procurement was done outside of these countries.
So our objective was to promote local procurement of goods and services to boost local business, employment, tax revenues and the Afghan economy. We did this by helping Afghan businesses understand international organizations such as the UN, the international armies and later NATO procurement needs, systems and requirements. We also build a database putting online all small, medium and large Afghan businesses so that procurement officers from various organizations could go online from their offices to see what in fact could be bought in the country and finally by matching businesses – for example introducing some of the best farmers and produce producers to a new five star hotel in Kabul to make sure that as much as possible was bought locally.
In our first year, we generated more than $180 million for the Afghan economy and in the following years much more. Today, Peace Dividend Trust has officers in many places in the world.
I understand that you are the managing director of Turquoise Mountain. Tell me about how this started for you, and why.
My friend Rory Stewart started Turquoise Mountain (TM) at the same time as I started PDT. He has asked me to join and I had said that when there was a budget for a business development department that would find and expand markets for the products the students were taught in the four schools I would him. Education is of course always a very valuable thing in itself, but I did not feel it made sense to educate young hopeful Afghans in crafts for which there were no market strategy or access. So he raised some money and I found someone else to take over PDT, which was very established at this time.
When Rory left, I took over management of the whole organization and it was a fantastic job. I am still working with TM – helping them shape their business activities, product lines, pricing and market their products. We just finished a product website at www.turquoisemountainarts.org. I go back to Kabul as much as I can, but with two small children it is not as often as I would like.
You have since founded Jali Designs. Why? What does it offer and how is it different from other companies? Are women a particular focus?
I strongly believe that supporting small business through trade is the most effective and sustainable way of improving people's lives and that a business model is the only way to demonstrate that products from the developing world can genuinely compete to an international standard. At the same time I saw that online portals such as Etsy.com, NotOnTheHighStreet.com and others focusing on handmade and bespoke products were becoming incredibly successful and that the market demand for these products were increasing. However, these portals continue to exclude the most talented producers from countries with the richest craft traditions.
Artisans, who mostly come from developing countries, are usually dismissed as lacking entrepreneurship and professional drive. In fact, the exact reverse is true: they are as eager to embrace the market on its own terms as anyone else. What they lack is market access in the broad sense of the word. I wanted to try to fill this gap by tackling challenges – those that were systematically excluding artisans from potential markets – such as quality control, logistics, distribution, and especially marketing and sales. Also public and private donors in Afghanistan have been focusing on funding production as a way of supporting skills training, employment creation, capacity building, et cetera, but never support the getting to market and sales aspect. Afghanistan therefore currently has a number of very high quality producers but no way of reaching an international audience.
I don’t only work with women, but also include male producers. I want to work with those who do the best work and ultimately also believe that increased income in the family – even when earned by the man – most often also benefits the women. My company – Jali Designs – is dedicated to connecting talented artists in the developing world with the markets they deserve.
Is trade a development strategy? How does it fit into other strategies?
I strongly believe that it is. Not only does it bring income to businesses and into poor societies, but it also connects people in isolated places to the rest of world. I ultimately think that people are poor because they are isolated and lack access to education, health, markets, information about prices, customer preferences and demand for their skills. This actually fits well with other development strategies, such as for education or health, but I do think that donors — when they set out to support employment and business – should take a less charitable and more market-based approach. They should look, for example, not only at how things are produced but also how they are sold. They should also have more start-up and expansion financing available for small business.
What are the most significant changes you witnessed in your years in Afghanistan? Are you hopeful about the future?
I have been involved in the country for 10 years now and have witnessed so many changes. I always found that if Afghans were given a serious opportunity they understood what do to with it. Whether it is businessmen and women getting large contracts or craftspeople perfecting product quality on an international project, they all impressed me. When I left there were more lights in Kabul’s streets, more children in school, lower child mortality, but less security.
I have a lot of confidence in the Afghans – they are an incredibly resourceful and intelligent people. But I’m not always hopeful that we ourselves will do the right things to ensure that Afghan hopes are realized, especially as donor resources become more scarce.
Chris and Hedvig Alexander will be in Vancouver on Sunday, June 3, to speak at a public event at Van Dusen Gardens. Tickets are available for $20.00 here .