Believer in the better

The EITI profile of the month, Mirwais Sarrah, says Afghanistan needs a ‘real’ EITI.

"I have spent all my life in Afghanistan. I believe it is not a poor country”, states Mirwais Sarrah, the Afghanistan EITI National Coordinator. Some may regard Mr Sarrah as an exceptionally strong believer for saying so. Afghanistan ranked 175th in the 2013 Human Development Index that measures income, education and life expectancy. The country has been in a series of conflicts for decades, involving both foreign states and local tribes.

A trillion dollar question

While indicators show that the Afghan population is struggling, estimates of the country’s natural riches have reached mythical levels. The sub-soil resources have been valued to be worth one to three trillion US dollars. This wealth is exactly what Sarrah is referring to when he says Afghanistan is not poor. By no means is he a man distanced from the development challenges of his country. Before joining the EITI national secretariat last December, he worked for the UNDP, the World Bank and the Ministry of Finance.

Sarrah sees that extractive industries could transform the country. The extractive sector has the potential to produce in a short time large revenues that would enable investing in other sectors, such as agriculture, transport, water and education. “Domestic revenues would increase our sovereignty, our chances to determine national priorities”, Sarrah says. In 2013, Afghanistan was the number one recipient of official development assistance in the world.

“Transparency can even improve security”, Sarrah continues. Most of the fighters opposing the government are paid mercenaries that rely on war for a living. A well-governed extractive sector that creates jobs and economic activity could provide these young men with an alternative income, and contribute towards building peace and security.

Getting record-keeping right

As often is the case, changing the big picture requires getting the nitty-gritty bureaucracy right. The Afghanistan EITI has an important role in identifying institutional weaknesses and providing recommendations. “We can help the government form a long term vision for the sector and provide technical support”, says Sarrah.

The lack of accurate and reliable data is a challenge for transparency and governance. The Ministry of Mines and Petroleum does not have a centralised data system, which makes bringing information together very difficult. Data management is not only the government’s problem, also domestic companies struggle with record-keeping. To address this issue, Afghanistan EITI is planning to build an accounting and auditing system for EITI reporting companies.

Curbing illegal practices

Currently not everything is going by the book in the Afghan mining sector. Connections to illegal activities are not uncommon in the political sphere. Sarrah recognises things will not change overnight: “We need more time to establish a standardised system.” Luckily he has high level support in the Ministry of Finance, which hosts the EITI secretariat. “The Minister is a very strong supporter of the initiative. He has told me he wants a real EITI”.

Part of a “real” EITI is using revenue transparency to increase accountability. “We hope to use the EITI for tracking the licensing process and monitoring contracts between the government and companies. Civil society could then disseminate this information, and the people would challenge the government”, Sarrah explains. He seems convinced that increased transparency and accountability is an essential step in ensuring the riches of Afghanistan benefit its poor. “The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the results, seeing things move forward.”