Gardez, Afghanistan – Over the last year the Afghan people have faced a number of upheavals — the end of the US occupation, the Taliban’s return to power and sanctions — and tragedies — a series of ISIL (ISIS) group bombings on places of worship and the Kabul Airport. But it was last month’s 5.9-magnitude earthquake that really rallied Afghans all over the country to reach out and help the thousands of victims.
The June 21 earthquake reportedly killed at least 1,100 people and left more than 1,500 injured in the southeastern provinces of Paktika and Khost. Those numbers startled Afghans inside and outside the country and spurred them into action, as groups of volunteers headed towards the remote districts of Gaiyan, Spera, Barmal and Orgun.
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One of the first ones to set out from Kabul was the team behind Aseel, a mobile app originally designed to sell Afghan-made handicrafts to global markets. Over the last year, they have transformed the app to become an aid distribution and fundraising platform in response to the sanctions, banking restrictions and aid cutbacks that were imposed on Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power last August.
Initially, they were warned by other businessmen against going from pivoting the business but as a group of young Afghans, the team behind Aseel felt they had to do something to help their fellow citizens in a time of need.
“I was told that pivoting a business model based on such an urgent situation is going to kill your company, but I thought to myself, ‘The whole country is collapsing,’” Nasrat Khalid, the founder, told Al Jazeera by phone.
As an Afghan who grew up in Pakistani refugee camps before returning to Kabul in 2009, Khalid felt the chance to provide some aid to the Afghan people was worth the risk to his business. The 30-year-old recalls a conversation he had at the time with Aseel’s Kabul-based Technical Lead, Mohammad Nasir, who grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan during the civil war and Taliban rule of the 1990s.
Nasir told his friend that thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from several northern provinces that had been taken by the Taliban, were flooding into the capital. This rush of desperate families who escaped a Taliban blitzkrieg in the middle of the night reminded Nasir of life in the refugee camps across the Durand Line.
“It’s not the same Kabul. We’re losing hope,” he said to Khalid.
This spurred Khalid into action. He ordered his team in Afghanistan to take the $42,000 they had in profit and use it to help the people. They started creating emergency food packages of rice, flour, cooking oil, tea and lentils, to deal with the hunger crisis the UN said could affect 22 million people. From there, they began selling, at cost, wood for winter, first-aid kits, diapers, tents, baby formula, scarves, blankets and tents.
Since they already had a relationship with more than 400 vendors, they were able to source many of the materials very quickly.
All of which could be bought directly through their mobile app by anyone with a smartphone anywhere in the world.
Because they were a consumer-based startup and were not reliant on foreign funding, Aseel did not have to worry about the aid cutbacks. They just needed to make sure their customers could still use the app to buy things. So instead of selling handmade glass from Herat or carpets from Faryab, they created different care packages customers could buy with their credit cards anywhere in the world. Those packages would then be distributed one by one to needy families.
Almost a year later, that shift and a focus on engaging directly with on-the-ground communities enabled the team to respond quickly to the earthquake. They were on the road to Paktika’s Gaiyan district, the epicentre, by early the next morning. Unlike many other large international organisations, Aseel already had contacts in Sharana, the capital of Paktika and Gaiyan and Orgun, two of the most heavily affected districts.
“We are very, very local,” Aseel’s founder Khalid said by phone from the United States, where he has been based for the last four years. Of the 42 people currently employed by it, the majority are based in Afghanistan, and all are young Afghans.
Khalid says his team’s response to the earthquake, getting in a car and driving nine hours to the affected districts, is an example of how he wants all aid distribution to be handled in Afghanistan going forward.
“Plane-based cash delivery with bullet-proof vehicles and trucks, that’s not the way to go any more.”
Rather than large-scale, high-profile operations that require security escorts, layers of bureaucratic red tape and flying in staff from outside countries, Khalid says Aseel is “relying entirely on local knowledge” for their operations.
To do this, they have reached out to 180 young Afghan volunteers across 25 provinces whom they call “Atalan”, the word for heroes in Pashto. These Atalan go to different communities to conduct multi-step surveys and assessments to identify the most vulnerable in each community. Each Atalan is compensated with a phone card, which helps them to enter the data on the app and 300 Afghanis ($3) for every delivery.
To describe the Atalan process, Khalid turns to Silicon Valley, saying each Atalan is like an Uber driver who is given a gig in their area, “One will go do the initial survey to see how many people are in a house, how many of them have an income, the condition of their home and so on, then, another will go do a follow-up to verify the initial findings.”
Again, this served them well in the earthquake response.
“We were able to cut out the middleman,” said Ihsan Hasaand, the lead distributor. Hasaand also led a team of fewer than 10 people to Paktika. Being an entirely Afghan team, including residents of the affected areas, was also a big advantage when dealing with Taliban authorities who were very receptive to the Aseel team once they proved that they were singling out “the most vulnerable” families that had lost several people in the earthquake.
Khalid said the government, which is struggling under the weight of the international sanctions and aid cutbacks, has been supportive of their efforts specifically because they have no interest in “lining up 60,000 people for a distribution.” Instead, Khalid said Aseel wants to focus on assisting one family at a time.
Afghans, as aid distributors and recipients, have been critical of large-scale distributions, which they say are usually poorly run and create the opportunity for fraud and corruption at all levels.
Khalid says initially the Ministry of Information and Culture did ask for a representative to come to the ministry for questioning, but he said the authorities quickly changed their stance to one of appreciation and support, “they said that this operation needs to scale.”
But some people fear that Aseel’s efficiency and good work is actually creating a situation wherein the government can pass off some of its responsibilities to NGOs and private companies, rather than coming up with their own mechanisms.
Safiullah Taye, an Afghan academic whose work focused on subnational aid allocation in Afghanistan between 2002-2018, says the actual responsibility of responding to disasters and emergency situations lies solely with a nation’s government.
“Despite its noble intentions, an app should not be seen as a replacement for the responsibility of a government” to provide for its people, Taye told Al Jazeera.
Taye also worries that Aseel and other potential apps may lack the tools and capabilities to scale up at a time when 22 million people are at risk of starvation, “It is really hard to see how this app could take the load that even smaller NGOs carry … Aseel can be efficient with smaller parcels, but given what the demand is, Aseel would have to operate as a major business enterprise” to reach all the people in need.
UN, an archaic institution
But Khalid does not think the solution lies in agencies such as the United Nations.
Since no country currently recognises the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate as the official government of Afghanistan, the UN has been put in charge of transferring international aid to other foreign and local NGOs, which aid workers say has made their work much more difficult.
Khalid said the UN relies on an “old mentality and operational methods” to deal with the enormous humanitarian crisis that has been caused by the sanctions.
Since the UN is the sole source of aid contracts in the country, it places an inordinate amount of power in the hands of a bloated, archaic institution that Khalid says does not understand how to properly work at a local level.
One worker at an international aid agency said the UN’s terms for funding are not only unrealistic but make it more difficult for aid agencies to engage with smaller local organisations, including female-led ones.
“They say they want us to work more with women-led NGOs, but they have these ridiculous standards that many really local organisations can’t meet. How many small women or youth-led organisations in Laghman [province] have a finance team that is compliant with some specific accounting standard,” said the aid worker, whose work does not allow them to be identified.
The aid worker said the severity of these guidelines leads to a situation where the NGOs of former politicians and businessmen often accused of corruption and fraud are the only ones that would qualify.
Though criticism of the UN is nothing new in Afghanistan, there are others who have reservations about adopting Silicon Valley-type methods of aid in developing countries. Academic Taye says while Aseel is providing a much-needed service, there are still questions about regulation.
“In theory, the more apps, the more options and people around the world can donate to whatever cause they want, but this also could mean very little monitoring, protection and accountability.”
This lack of monitoring is where Taye says the UN could have an upper hand on apps like Aseel, “the UN is no saint, but there are more checks and balances to how it operates” in general.
Turning a traditional aid model on its head
Usually, local NGOs rely heavily on foreign embassies, international organisations and the UN, but Khalid, a former World Bank worker himself, has turned the traditional models of aid work in Afghanistan on its head, relying entirely on donations made by individual users on the app, for their distributions.
After the fall of Kabul last year, Aseel used the funds it had raised for its initial marketplace business to launch an emergency response operation and to cover operational costs associated with that. Now it has added a tip function to each donation which goes toward covering those costs. Most donors add a tip, says Hasaand, the lead distributor, adding, “All of the donations that we receive go towards the beneficiaries and the cost required to get them the assistance.”
According to Khalid, this direct relationship between the donor, Aseel and the recipient is one of Aseel’s strongest assets.
“You can buy a specific aid package for somebody that you know in Afghanistan and be confident that it will get delivered directly to them. You can’t do that with these international NGOs or the UN or World Bank,” he said.
This direct, human touch led to great amounts of free, word-of-mouth advertising. “Everyone who donated would tell someone else, it just kept growing and growing.”
Since August, the Aseel team has reached more than 212,000 people, all of which was funded through individual donations made through credit and debit cards, including by Afghans outside the country.
Most importantly, Khalid said Aseel is entirely transparent about its beneficiaries, by creating what they call an “Omid”, or hope, card for each beneficiary, which allows the Aseel team then to share all the details about an individual beneficiary with a specific donor.
The Aseel team keeps its efforts local and buys products for distribution from local wholesalers and converts donations into cash through the number of crypto exchanges that have opened up in Kabul over the last two years.
Working with local wholesalers was a very deliberate decision for Khalid, who said he “Wanted to support the Afghan economy and not take over the whole supply chain ourselves.”
Khalid said he wants Aseel and other ventures that are looking to give back to the community to grow larger, not only because of the help they can provide but also as a way to challenge UN hegemony.
“I don’t see any problem other than the UN losing a huge opportunity to expand their own operations.”