For hundreds of years, the main trade routes between Europe and the Pacific passed directly through what are now the countries of Central Asia. These trade routes brought prosperity and fostered the exchange of ideas and technology across cultural boundaries. In recent decades, civil unrest, ethnic tension, and mistrust have led to Central Asia being a roadblock instead of a thoroughfare for trade.
What would it take to reconnect Central and South Asia?
Support for new transmission lines connecting the sources of power in one country with customers in another?
Or millions of dollars in trade agreements, reviving age-old connections between traditional trading partners?
Maybe it’s a fortified wheat program, poised to improve nutrition for millions of Afghanistan’s children; or strengthened cooperation in transboundary watersheds to enhance regional peace and stability?
USAID has made these contributions and more as a part of the U.S. Government’s New Silk Road initiative, an ambitious effort to build a more secure, stable and prosperous region with Afghanistan at its heart.
While the goals of the program are lofty, the benefits of these programs are quick specific.
Manzura Zhabarova is an Uzbek entrepreneur who owns a clothing and thread manufacturing company. Our programs helped connect her with a new market: prospective clients in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. “I could not believe that this world existed 800 meters away from us on the other side of the bridge,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to help our neighbors in Afghanistan. Trade is how we can help.”
There are few greater challenges for U.S. foreign policy today than the continued development and stabilization of Afghanistan. As military engagement winds down there, it becomes even more critical to build on the gains of U.S. defense, diplomacy and development efforts.
Afghanistan’s new administration is working to bolster its regional ties in order to promote the economic growth and stability its citizens need. As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani noted during a recent visit to Turkmenistan, “At the moment, Afghanistan has turned into a bridge. Our trade and transit can create many opportunities; energy and electricity and natural gas will be sent to Afghanistan and to other countries through Afghanistan.”
Our efforts are helping to make this vision a reality. For example, we’re advancing regional electricity efforts, particularly through our support for CASA-1000, an ambitious electricity transmission system sending surplus summer hydropower from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to energy-strapped markets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Recently, our support helped finalize a regional pricing agreement, helping pave the way for regional electricity transfers which would bring much needed revenue to Central Asia as early as 2018.
The benefits would be felt well beyond the exchange of energy. As State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Fatema Sumar said, “CASA isn’t really about turning the lights on. It’s about getting countries to work together. That’s priceless.”
From Karaganda to Karachi, our programs are breaking down trade barriers and creating economic opportunity in ways that promote political understanding. Around the region, we are helping countries join and participate in the World Trade Organization, bringing businesses together, leading to millions of dollars in regional deals and sparking new demand for intra-regional trade between Central and South Asia.
These efforts have prompted us to think in new ways about how we work together as an Agency. Our New Silk Road initiatives involve the coordinated efforts of five separate USAID missions, representing two regional Bureaus and leveraging shared human and financial capital toward achieving shared objectives.
his is a pivotal time for Central and South Asia. This vast region faces challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, the Central Asian states have begun to grapple with the potential rise of violent extremism. On the other, in South Asia the world’s largest population centers seek faster economic development and integration into the global economy. We have responded accordingly – with diplomatic engagement and development leadership – because increasing prosperity and stability in this part of the world benefits us all.
At the recent London Conference on Afghanistan, Secretary Kerry reaffirmed that “Afghanistan’s economic future depends on improved connectivity with regional and international markets.”
The New Silk Road is an example of the far-reaching impact our development programs can have, and raises the bar of what we can expect from our investments in international development.
About the Authors: Donald “Larry” Sampler serves as Assistant to the USAID Administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs (OAPA), and Jonathan Stivers serves as the Assistant to the USAID Administrator in the Asia Bureau.
Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared on the USAID Impact Blog.