Q&A: Regional cooperation in Afghanistan with ADB’s Country Director for Afghanistan Narendra Singru

Article | 8 September 2020

Narendra Singru
Narendra Singru, ADB’s Country Director for Afghanistan

With its strategic location at the “Heart of Asia” and longstanding history as a trading hub, Afghanistan offers many opportunities for regional cooperation which can help reduce poverty and transform the country into a more productive economy.

The country is a member of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program – a partnership of 11 countries to promote economic growth and development through regional cooperation – and was a founding member of the Asian Development Bank in 1966.

Afghanistan is chairing CAREC Program in 2020. ADB’s Country Director for Afghanistan Narendra Singru explains how regional cooperation can benefit Afghanistan and the wider CAREC region.

1. What role is there for regional cooperation in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan’s geographic position as a strategic bridge and connecting hub between Central and South Asia offers many opportunities for economic cooperation. Regional cooperation, as a building block, not only helps Afghanistan leverage its economic growth, but also creates catalytic impact in addressing the prevailing challenges of poverty, security, and terrorism.

To support regional cooperation and integration, Afghanistan joined the CAREC Program in 2005 and has since been working closely with other member countries to restore the country to its traditional place as a crossroads of cultures and commerce, and promote peace, prosperity, and stability in the wider region.

CAREC’s other members are Azerbaijan, the People’s Republic of China, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

2. What are CAREC’s priorities in Afghanistan?

Under its CAREC 2030 strategy, the program will continue to support Afghanistan in developing its potential as a regional transit hub with an emphasis on major road and rail corridors. It will also support regional energy initiatives such as the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) gas pipeline, and the Turkmenistan–Uzbekistan–Tajikistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan (TUTAP) electricity project.

CAREC also promotes trade facilitation initiatives and the development of agriculture market infrastructure and value chains. This will help Afghanistan maximize the value of its natural resources, build human capacity, and create more jobs and opportunities for local businesses.

3. What are some of CAREC’s main investments in Afghanistan to date?

As of 2019, the CAREC Program had invested around $4.46 billion in 37 projects in Afghanistan, on the principle that better connections will be key to unlocking the region’s vast resources and human potential. We are currently processing new projects for approval in 2020 that will further enhance regional development.

As of 2019, the CAREC Program had invested around $4.46 billion in 37 projects in Afghanistan, on the principle that better connections will be key to unlocking the region’s vast resources and human potential.

As Afghanistan’s leading partner in infrastructure and regional cooperation, ADB is helping develop Afghanistan’s potential as a cross-regional transit point for both transport and energy, with emphasis on the CAREC corridors and regional energy initiatives.

Our experience shows that infrastructure development remains key to inclusive economic growth and improving access to opportunities for both women and men. Since resuming its operations in Afghanistan in 2002, ADB has committed around $5.9 billion to the country. Our operations currently focus on the agriculture and natural resources, energy, and transport sectors with special attention to regional cooperation, improved governance, and capacity building.

4. Which sectors have been most active?

Let me briefly highlight some of our main achievements. In the energy sector, ADB funded projects have supported the construction of 1,971 km (605 km completed, 1,366 km ongoing) of high-voltage power transmission lines and 19 (15 completed, 4 ongoing) substations. The assistance has helped to enhance regional connectivity, extend the national grid connectivity, and provide reliable and affordable electricity to people in many provinces who were previously not connected to the grid.

In transport, ADB projects have supported the construction and rehabilitation of 1,055 km of roads while work continues on an additional 465 km of national and regional roads. The support has improved regional connectivity, safety, efficiency, and sustainability in Afghanistan’s transport sector. ADB also financed the first railway line between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, which carries 3 million to 4 million tons of freight annually between the two countries, and helped complete a feasibility study for 813 km of rail line to connect Afghanistan with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

And in agriculture and natural resources, ADB-funded projects have helped construct and rehabilitate around 350,000 hectares of irrigated land, while work continues on an additional 300,000 hectares. The completed projects have generated around 2 million short and long-term jobs and benefited more than 9 million people.

ADB-funded projects have helped construct and rehabilitate around 350,000 hectares of irrigated land, while work continues on an additional 300,000 hectares. The completed projects have generated around 2 million short and long-term jobs and benefited more than 9 million people.

5. What are the main challenges to regional connectivity in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is classified by ADB as being in a fragile and conflict-affected situation (FCAS). In addition to the limited technical and financial capacities, the deteriorating security situation in the country makes it difficult for ADB and other development partners to keep project implementation on track.

Considering these, ADB has developed an FCAS toolkit and Enhanced Project Delivery Approach (EPDA) to improve the implementation of projects in the short and medium terms given the fragile and conflicted-affected context of the country. Although conditions have improved since 2002, Afghanistan needs further support to make development assistance more effective.

6. How has ADB supported Afghanistan through the COVID-19 pandemic?

In addition to the aforementioned support, ADB approved a $40 million grant to support Afghanistan’s fight against the pandemic. The support includes construction of hospitals and medical facilities, procurement of urgently needed medicines and medical equipment, and training frontline health workers and support staff in COVID-19 surveillance, prevention, testing, treatment, and risk management.

In July 2020, ADB handed over the first consignment of personal protective equipment to the Ministry of Public Health to help protect frontline health workers who are at high risk of being infected with COVID-19 while providing care. The support is part of a $2.73 million grant—financed under ADB’s technical assistance on Regional Support to Address the Outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Given Afghanistan’s strategic location, controlling the spread of COVID-19 has important benefits for its neighbors and more broadly for the CAREC subregion. ADB will provide support in areas such as regional public goods, mitigating risks at the borders, and enhancing collaboration and knowledge sharing on responding effectively to the pandemic.

7. Where does the Afghanistan Infrastructure Trust Fund come in?

ADB administers the Afghanistan Infrastructure Trust Fund (AITF)—a flagship vehicle for financing large or complex infrastructure projects. Many projects are financially beyond the capacity of the government or any single donor. AITF allows the strategic pooling of funds—from governments, bilateral and multilateral partners, and the private sector—to develop the vital infrastructure that Afghanistan needs.

The AITF has grown steadily and its financial performance continues to improve. Currently $743.5 million has been pledged to AITF. Donors have flexible options on how to contribute, according to their priorities. Expanding AITF will help to build on existing gains. We will continue to work with the government and donor partners to channel additional resources to invest in much-needed infrastructure projects through AITF.