Iqbal Quadir Upends Development

Iqbal Quadir founded Grameenphone in Bangladesh in March 1997. Eleven years later the for-profit business has gathered 20 million subscribers and sparked a telecom boom: Bangladesh now has at least six mobile operators and nearly 30 million subscribers, and the Grameenphone model is being replicated in much of developing Asia and Africa.

By promoting economic activity and widening access to markets and jobs, Quadir believes the telephone has increased his country's gross domestic product more than millions in foreign aid - a triumph that has become his guiding principle.

"In some ways, Grameenphone created me," said the 50-year-old, who has since launched a handful of not dissimilar enterprises. "I developed the sense and perspective on what developing countries need: companies that are inclusive."

To that end, Quadir's latest creation is the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a newfangled incubator for the business ideas of budding developing world entrepreneurs. It welcomed its inaugural group of fellows in fall 2008 and just might change the way we see development.

"At the end of the day," Quadir said, "poor countries develop because their people are put on the global economic highway."

If that's the case, Legatum's inaugural class of 12 fellows has just entered the on ramp. All are current or incoming MIT students, chosen for their entrepreneurial potential.

"There are proxies for entrepreneurialism," said Michael Maltese, the Legatum Center's managing director, speaking of the selection process. "We look for leadership qualities and whether they created anything, such as a community-based organization."

Candidates must also offer at least the seeds of a business plan, which, in partnership with MIT's Sloan School of Management, the center will nurture.

"The Legatum Center aims to take half-baked business ideas and complete the baking process," Maltese said.

Amy Banzaert is developing an alternative charcoal made from sugar cane waste to provide clean cooking fuel in underdeveloped regions. Adnan Shahid will work an incubator for mobile technologies businesses in Pakistan. Natalia Maya Ortiz hopes to improve productivity and market access for Colombian farmers.

"Over 60 percent of Colombia's population is rural, and the main livelihood is agriculture," Ortiz said.

Production there is inefficient, Internet access minimal and markets are local, she noted. The result is that few farms are self-sustaining.

"Rural people many times don't have knowledge and skills to use Internet or information services," she said. "My idea is to provide training for new technologies and skills as a means to improve competitiveness and production."

The center will help Ortiz develop that idea, via a scholarship and its informal curriculum.

"It's not a school, and it's not an academic program," said Maltese, comparing the Legatum program to the Rhodes scholarship, which rides on top of academic studies. The fellows will attend monthly meetings with Quadir and sit-downs with prominent figures in development and entrepreneurship.

The goal is to prepare the fellows for success upon departure.

"By the time they complete the fellowship they will be at that stage that they could make a very good pitch to investors and hopefully get startup money to launch their business," said Maltese, adding that U.S. investors have shown interest in Legatum, which plans to link them with graduating fellows.

Legatum's deep-pocketed backer revealed his interest last year. New Zealand billionaire investor Christophive Chandler is so reclusive that when he is listed by Forbes magazine as one of the world's richest he is represented by a dark silhouette because no public photo of him exists. But the 48-year-old Kiwi met Quadir in mid-2007, listened to his idea and invested $50 million via his development firm, Legatum Global Development.

"Legatum made the investment in the center for two reasons," LGD Managing Director Alan McCormick said in an e-mail. "First, because MIT is one of the world's leading academic institutions and has a long history of producing new business ventures. Second, because Quadir is the living embodiment of enterprise and development, an investment banker who utilised a readily available technology - cell phones - to have a profound effect on the life of Bangladesh's poor."

McCormick sees great potential in the center, which will expand to award 40 fellows over the next few years.

"We'd like to see a dramatic shift in the recognition that enterprise solutions provide the most effective and sustainable path out of poverty - not because we say so, but because the work that the Legatum fellows are undertaking is practically and demonstrably effective," McCormick said. "The intersection of technology, business and development is the future of sustainable development, and its home is at the Legatum Center."

The center is founded on that philosophy, rooted in Quadir's experiences with Grameenphone in Bangladesh. Quadir, who lectured in technology and economic development at Harvard before moving to MIT in 2005, regularly gives a presentation in which he points out that $650 billion in aid to sub-Saharan Africa since 1960 has led to very little growth. He argues that top-down and foreign-devised development plans widen the power gap between the people and the authorities in developing countries. The answer, Quadir says, is bottom-up, technology-based entrepreneurship-for-profit businesses that foster innovation and competition and empower people to improve their lives.

"I think it is a great idea," said Vijaya Ramachandran, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C. "My research and work done by various scholars on African and Asian development shows that investments in education have a high payoff in terms of entrepreneurship - particularly in terms of expanding skills and building business networks."

This perspective is not new. In his 1999 bestseller, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said, "Entrepreneurship is the most potent force for uplifting countries." New York University economist William Easterly, one of the first to point out that aid and development programs often do more ill than good, has long argued that development professionals should assist homegrown entrepreneurs like Quadir.

Such ideas are mostly alien to the highest rungs of academia.

"Hopefully we will create enterprises around the world in developing countries," Quadir said. "In addition, we could make a dent in that thinking of the classic development approach, and in order to make that dent it helps to be at a respected university."

Ortiz agrees.

"The center is an ideal place to gain a lot of knowledge and skills about entrepreneurship," the 25-year-old said. "People from developing countries, like me, we could never study or receive education like we could get at MIT, so if I didn't have help of people like Legatum I couldn't make my dream come true."

Fast facts
Name: Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT
Founded: 2008
Mission: To train developing world entrepreneurs and develop their ideas.
Headquarters: Cambridge, Mass.
Founder and director: Iqbal Quadir
Employees: 4
Opportunities: Fellows must be from the developing world, and enrolled at or planning to attend MIT.

-- posted to devex.com, 15 Sept 2008.


Living the Life II

My second night in Afghanistan I stroll a few blocks down the street to grab a beer at Gondamack Lodge, the high-end guesthouse and resto-bar run by a former Australian journalist. The Afghan government banned alcohol earlier this year, but they turn a blind eye to several foreigner-friendly establishments in the capital, all of which are heavily secured.

First I'm asked for my passport on the sidewalk. American, check. Then a man peeks through a sliding eye-level panel in the exterior door, sees me, slides a heavy bolt and opens. Finally a third security guy buzzes me thru two steel doors and into a tranquil green garden, where aid and development workers sip room temperature pinot, quacking ducks amble after healthy portions of pasta and beef and, from rather robust stereo speakers, Yaz worries “we're moving farther away.” I secure a picnic table next to a tree and gape.

So here it is, I think to myself, the other side of Kabul. I'd go on to find a similar scene at other ex-pat frequented hotspots – Cabul Coffee House, where the coffee is from Italy and the banana juice is swoon-inducing; Chaila, where the burgers, wraps and coffee are first-rate and missionary workers are thick on the ground; La Cantina, which has excellent burritos for the low low price of $15 and any beer you like as long as it's Heineken in a can; and the ultimate in ex-pat decadence, L'Atmosphere, a sleek indoor/outdoor restaurant/bar/cafe complete with ping-pong table, well-oiled battalion of ever-present servers and, in case the Kabul heat is getting to you, a cool, shaded swimming pool.

I order a beer and start reading the local newspaper. By the time I've finished my second cold one darkness has fallen and the novelty has waned considerably. On the walk home I fall in step with a chatty young Afghan. “You have no bodyguard?' Safeed asks me. “You are here alone? That is not good idea; there are many bad Afghans.”

Must be why the foreigners need their little islands of fantasy.

Living the Life

His speedometer is busted, stuck on 45 kph. His gums have crept halfway down his big, yellow-ish brown teeth. He likes to play wailing Afghan music about as loud as he can stand it while swerving down mountain roads. When he smiles his face, criss-crossed by cavernous creases, glows. His name is Saeed Mirza and he is the baddest driver in the Panjshir.

He wears a forest green correspondent's vest and keeps a keffiyeh wrapped rakishly around his neck. His faux-Gucci wrap-arounds sit untouched on the dash. He's got a Brett Favre-like salt-and-pepper three-day beard and his hair is cut in a chic, Roman style, with short bangs flat against his forehead. He speaks in an Anthony Quinn growl and is loved by all. Locals smile and wave as he zips through their village. He chats with policemen and security guards as if they were his cousins. He rarely goes three minutes without a full-bodied belly laugh. He drives an aging Toyota wagon across hellishly dangerous Afghan highways for a living yet this man, this Saeed Mirza, full of life and mirth and verve, may be the richest man I've ever met.


An Afghan Love Story

Meraj, the bright, handsome Afghan who's been working as my interpreter, has started telling me about his love life. It begins when I ask about the dark orange stains on his hand.

"In Afghanistan, when a man gets married he puts henna on his hand," he explains over a lunch of kebabs and pulau on my first full day in Kabul. "I was married two days ago."

"Congratulations," I say. "I wish I would've come a couple days ago."

"Yes," Meraj says. "It was a very great event, with music and dancing and you would have had a very nice time.” He is 28, his wife is 18. And what's her name? “We don't mention the name of our wife,” he tells me. “Only to members of our family; even my friends don't know her name. Why should they?” He does tell me that her name is the Pashto word for blossom.

The next day we're waiting to go into a play and he gets a phone call. After he hangs up I ask if everything is alright. "No," he says. "That was my girlfriend." I ask if he means girlfriend girlfriend and he says he does. "I didn't want to tell her about my marriage because I love her so much. I have been seeing her 5 years and I love her and I don't want to lose her. But I think a classmate of hers, who was at the wedding, told her about it." He explains that his wife would be unhappy to hear about his girlfriend, who is only 17. He is worried his girlfriend will not speak to him anymore now that he is married.

"David, she is now speaking to me, but only sometimes," a slightly happier Meraj tells me a few days later. "She knows I am married and it will never be the same again." But that's fine, I say, because you love your wife, right? "Yes, of course I do, she is wonderful. But also I have lost the love of my life."

It seems twisted and very wrong, but Meraj's drama is complex. He couldn't marry the girlfriend he loved because she is from Herat, and not approved by his family. So he married a girl who was, which led to this. He's not a bad or sleazy guy, just stuck betwixt his heart and his culture.

Word on the Street

Meraj, my interpreter, and Habib, the driver, pick me up for my first day of reporting at 8am sharp. [The driver side of our banged-up white-and-yellow Toyota Corolla is on the left, as opposed to cars in India and Pakistan as well as the two taxis I took the previous evening. It's a reminder that Afghanistan was never colonized, not by the British or anyone else. The two types seem about equally common, and nobody seems to mind that steering wheels can be on the left or right but all cars drive on the right side of the street.] We head in the direction of the refugee camp swelling on the western edge of the Afghan capital and I, ever curious, start asking about the Taliban.

“We were all women under the Taliban,” Meraj tells me. A handsome 28-year-old who's worked for the World Bank and USAID – he's a clear beneficiary of their toppling. “Nobody had all of the freedoms that they should have, whether under Islam or not. Right now I have no beard. If this was Taliban time they would pick me up and throw me in jail until I had a beard, probably about 2-3 weeks.”

Habib, who spent much of the Taliban years in Pakistan, in the Swat Valley, has a different take. “We had security then,” he says, before speaking about the Taliban directly. “During that time they did nothing wrong, but now they are killing innocent people in mosques and schools. This is not right.” Nor does the burly, bearded driver much care for his president. “Karzai's good, but not as good as we wanted him to be,” Habib says.

Afghanis seem to think of Hamid Karzai the same way Americans used to view Musharraf. “He's not a great president,” a staffer at Roshan, Afghanistan's largest telecom, tells me as I purchase a SIM card, “but others would be worse.” On my flight into Afghanistan my neighbor, a young jeweler named Naveed, says, “he's good but he could be better.”

Back in the Corolla we're crawling at a snail's pace. “Look at these roads!” rages Habib as we slowly roll in and out of golf cart-sized craters on our way back into the city. “What kind of president is he if he can't even rebuild our capital!”


Afghan Art Imitates Life

The day after the UN released its report on Afghanistan's poppies, finding production down overall but still strong in Helmand province, the Helmand Theatre Group enacted a new short play as part of a theatre festival in Kabul. Locals had packed the hall for the previous performance, Moliere's Tartuffe, and came out strong for the Helmand group's show as well. Afghans are an active theatre audience, laughing loudly and applauding any rich actorly touches, and they were held rapt for the 30 minutes of "Drugs."

The story was simple: a poor, desperate father accepts a gift of poppies for his daughter to become bride of a local poppy farmer. Weeks later, after being beaten and suffering from too much work, the daughter comes running to her mother, sobbing. But her father, knowing that he'd be killed if he were to renege on his agreement, forces her to return. The message is clear: poppies equal power.

And in Helmand, which now produces two-thirds of Afghanistan's opium poppies and supplies about 60 percent of world supply, poppies have never been more powerful.

Life Goes On in the Capital

My Lonely Planet Afghanistan tells me that beer and alcohol are served at the restaurant of the Mustafa Hotel, but they aren't. Earlier this year the Karzai government banned alcohol in cafes and restaurants across Afghanistan as well as liquor brought into the country on commercial flights, reasoning that alcohol was haram, or forbidden, in a Muslim country. The move was a step back from the liberal democracy urged on the country by the US and the West and a step towards the harsh strictures enforced during Taliban rule, from 1994 to late 2001.

The Taliban attacks are coming increasingly close to Kabul of late, so it's no surprise that Karzai is offering Islamist hand-outs. Yet the Afghan capital remains vibrant.

A Friday evening stroll through one of its busier up-market neighborhoods turned up children flying kites 100-meters high and a heated volleyball game in Shahr-e-Nau park right next to a couple dozen deaf Afghans engaged in equally heated, if silent, discussion. Across the street from the park men played casual games of snooker next door to KFC, or Kabul Fried Chicken, over which the Colonel smiled, although I doubt he'd be entirely pleased with the flattery.

Kabul Crime Tears Social Fabric

Mohammed Sangar Ahmadzai is about as gentle and soft-spoken an Afghani as you'll ever meet. His dark hair is cut short and he's wearing a white and blue Benetton T-shirt as I sit down next to him and his friend Ali at the Delhi airport while waiting to board my flight to Kabul. The two of them are to study IT in the Indian capital soon and are returning home to get a 3-year student visa. They ask if I've got a ride at the other end and I explain how my driver-fixer-interpreter took a job in Kandahar at the last minute, leaving me without a friend in one of the world's more dangerous cities. "You don't want to take a taxi," Sangar advises. "You might get kidnapped."

We land and the three of us hop into a cab. They take me to the high-security neighborhood of Wazir Akhbar Khan and drop me at my guest house. Refusing payment, Sangar gives me his business card and invites me to lunch at his home the following day.

"I had done really well in my exams and this led to an offer to study IT in India, in Delhi," he begins, shortly afer we've put away our fair share of kofte, pulau, bread, and chaka, a thick, creamy yogurt with something of a bite. "This was a couple months ago, and I was very excited. But my father told me, 'No.'"

He pauses to take a bit of rice. "Then one night I worked late at the office and I was coming home, this was after 9pm, and I came home and as I was getting out of the car I was jumped by three men. I tried to stop them but they had guns and they kidnapped me."

Sangar says this so matter-of-factly, in such a light, straightforward tone that I think he's either kidding or insane. Turns out he's just a Kabuli, as familiar with kidnappings as Midwesterners are with snow.

The men tossed Sangar into their car, covered his eyes with one of the black and white scarves that are ubiquitous here and took him to an empty warehouse. His hands and feet were tied and bound together in front of him and he sat on the ground for five days while the kidnappers negotiated payment and release with his father. He thought they might poison him or put something in his food, so he drank only water and juice, losing nearly 15 pounds from his small frame. His aunts, mother and seven siblings gathered every night at his home, hoping for good news but fearing the worst.

"Finally one night they put me in the car and drove and drove and drove while I was blindfolded. They stopped near a field at the edge of the city, put 250 Afghanis in my hand, took the scarf from my eyes and told me to go and not look back at them or they'd shoot me. I got into a taxi and I told the driver to go to my neighborhood and gave him the money; I didn't look back," he says. "When I got home everybody was happy and they'd made food for me but I couldn't eat. My father came to me and he told me, "You are going to school in Delhi.'"

With lingering poverty and rising insecurity, crime is up in the capital. The Afghan Criminal Investigation Department reported 130 kidnappings from April through August, but the real number is more than double that; fearing the kidnappers will kill their loved one, most do not report the crime. And only about 10 percent of kidnap victims are foreigners, so it's Afghans like Sangar that are taking the brunt of it.

Pride of Afghanistan

I'm the only Westerner on Ariana Airlines flight 312 from Delhi, in a plane amongst the oldest I've seen, with half-emptied ashtrays, seatbelts of thick, heavy steel and ripped magazine pouches sagging from the seatbacks. The pilot, very excited as we land, sounds rather like Borat. “Thank you-a-very much for-a-flying Ari-ana," he says over the public address system. "And-a goodbye!”

A bit of bounce and swerve on the approach, a glimpse of green fields and we touch down. Now that I think about it, the service and the curry were excellent, I had more than enough space to make myself comfortable and the two-hour flight was pleasantly uneventful. I can't see any good reason why the thousands of UN, US and UK employees working in Afghanistan should be barred from flying Ariana. It's a decent airline with a good safety record. More importantly, it's money the Afghan economy could surely use.


Watch Your Step

I visited the world's only landmine museum a few days ago, on the eastern rim of Kabul. The manager, Mohammad Noor Sahak, stepped up to me as soon I strolled inside.

“You are with which organization?” he asked.

“No organization,” I told him. “Just me.”

He looked sharply at me and tilted his head; this seemed a new one to him.

“You are from UK,” he asked.

“No, USA.”

“Oh, I see.”

“USA is good?” I asked him.

“Afghanistan is better,” he smiled.

I studied a few of the dozens of varieties of landmines arrayed in glass cases, and still scattered across Afghanistan, one of the world's most heavily-mined countries. They were made in Italy, China, Pakistan, Iran, and of course the USSR, with names like butterfly and bounding fragmentation. Some were plastic and could fit in the palm of my hand, others were metal, rusted and the size of a healthy tire. I took a few notes, snapped a few pics. Mohammad Noor, never straying more than a few feet from my side, stepped even closer.

“You don't need all this information and pictures,” he said, literally breathing down my neck.

“Maybe I do,” I responded. “Could you maybe go to your desk and I'll come and ask you any questions I might have?”

“What would you like to know?

"Why you are following me so closely."

“This is important part of my job, to keep an eye on all visitors.”

I nodded and continued. Minutes later, as I was nearing the end of my tour around the one-room museum, he spoke again.

“So,” Mohammad Noor began, softly. “You will help me get to United States?”

“To do what?”

“Maybe you could help me think of reason?” he smiled again.

We tossed a few ideas back and forth, perhaps he could lecture about landmines, or museums in war-torn countries, or about the need for security to protect cultural artifacts.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Why do you want to go to the US? You told me Afghanistan is better.”

“US is better,” he snorted, as if I were a fool.

Choice in Afghanistan

The television in my Kabul hotel, the Euro Guest House, has 1223 channels. I'm pretty sure I've never seen more than 400-500. Clearly overkill, I take it to be an expression of the new Afghanistan of choice and an improvement on the harsh repression of the Taliban era.

And given a choice, Afghans seem to lean towards news and sex -- I counted about 100 channels of each. Yet there's also an incredibly wide selection, including at least 19 different languages from over 30 countries. Not a bad way to learn about the world outside.