Afghanistan's man for all seasons
The leaders of the Haitian private sector asked me to invite Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai to speak to them about rebuilding the country after the earthquake. I told them it would be hard to locate Dr. Ghani quickly -- he could be anywhere.
I knew what he'd been doing recently: He had just dined with the president of a post-conflict nation outside Boston; he had become the first Muslim to receive an honorary doctorate at a Jesuit university in Pennsylvania; he was working with presidents from Africa and East Asia to improve governance; and rumor was, he had nearly completed his next book provocatively titled, "Counterinsurgency Economics." After several days of emails, phone calls, and web searches, I found him and notified the Haitians, "Dr. Ghani is at his ancestral home outside Kabul, working to restore his 500-year-old ceremonial gardens. He will be glad to speak to you."
Ashraf was a brilliant undergraduate at universities in Kabul and Beirut, and obtained his PhD in anthropology at Columbia before assuming professorships at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins. When the Berlin Wall fell and the world went from a game of checkers to chess, Ashraf went to the World Bank and worked on long-term projects in China and India. We worked together in the mid-nineties on an internal World Bank project, as Afghanistan was falling deeper into the abyss of fundamentalism, poverty and isolation. I asked him, "What would have to be true for you to go back to Kabul and try to help?"
It was clear that Ashraf would never return to Kabul on behalf of the World Bank. He told me that the multilateral banks' approach was to provide massive amounts of money and top-down regulatory advice constructed in the metropoles of the West. Western institutions assumed all people interpreted and attached meaning to life in the same way. The World Bank, he said, needed to have what C. Wright Mills called "a sociological imagination."
It didn't surprise me when he was seconded to the United Nations to work on the Bonn agreement, where power was transferred to the Afghan people after the U.S. invasion. Or, that he was an early architect of the consultative process with the Afghan people to construct a new constitution, or that the constitution would become the world's first to integrate Islam with democracy and women's rights. But I was very surprised to learn that Ashraf would become the Minister of Finance, effectively, the chief operating officer of a New Afghanistan.
Howard Gardner, Harvard professor and prolific author of all things of the mind, suggests there are two kinds of leaders, direct and indirect. The direct leader leads people, and the indirect is a thought leader; they generate ideas and deal in abstractions. Few people have the opportunity to try their hands at both, fewer still have the ability to break down the boundaries, and for the ones that meet the first two criteria, almost none of them have the guts.
Ashraf's tenure as Minister of Finance was marked by bold, successful initiatives, and by contentiousness with President Karzai and the international aid community. One day, I arrived on the doorstep of his home in Kabul. I walked by the single soldier who stood at the end of the driveway and around the dirty empty pool, a sign of better days. I saw Ashraf seated on his porch, dressed in a flowing colorful robe. He was talking to 30 or so international development consultants. I whispered to the gentleman next to me, "There is so little security here." He whispered back, "No one dares hurt Dr. Ghani, he is a Pashtun prince."
Ashraf proceeded to tell the foreign consultants that 90 percent of them were not doing their job. He called the representative of one of largest organizations up onto the porch and informed him politely, but firmly, that his services were no longer valued by the Afghan people, and they would have to go home. I have worked in international economic development for 30 years; I have never heard of such a dismissal before, let alone witnessed one.
Ashraf has become one of the leaders of a new school of development thinkers, which includes President Paul Kagame of Rwanda; the economist Dambisa Moyo; entrepreneur and MIT professor Iqbal Quadir; and president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno. They believe in self-determination and the competence and rights of poor people to shape the discourse around their own lives.
As Finance Minister, Ashraf proceeded to declare all of his personal assets and launch an anti-corruption campaign. He announced that the Afghan people would create the foreign aid strategy and take over the process of changing the money supply. The IMF had brought in advisors to change the currency. They told him that it would take 18 to 24 months. Ashraf smiled and asked them: If Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British and Soviet empires can't control Afghanistan, how does anyone think a team from IMF can? He then convened all of the moneychangers from the streets, asked them for help, and accomplished the task in several months.
I asked him, "How is it that you could go from author, professor and world banker to running a massive budget and thousands of employees?" He answered, "Michael, I understand that all leadership is contextual."
Ashraf was chosen as Asian Minister of Finance of the year, and then resigned over differences with President Karzai. He became chancellor of the university he once attended as an undergraduate, was short listed to run both the World Bank and the United Nations, and, last year ran for president of Afghanistan on a platform of reform. He tried to bring back Diaspora Afghanis to support the nation and finished fourth out of 38 candidates in a disputed election.
Last month, Ashraf spoke to the Haitian people in Miami by video conference. He urged them to "take back control" from the international community. He consoled them, admonished them and made them laugh. He warned them that few promises would be kept by aid agencies, and said that while massive amounts of foreign aid are needed to rebuild, "Foreign aid can sever the sovereign relationship between democratically leadership and the people." The audience clapped warmly and lined up to ask him questions; a few in the front glanced at one another and murmured, "Bravo."
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