Context & Culture

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way to Go Online: Afghanistan’s youth and new media


"The new Afghan media craze seems to be irreversible," writes Theresa Falke. All of her interview partners were “mobile”, regardless of their backgrounds – although the rural-urban divide still exists. Photo: Proparco PR material

Afghanistan’s mobile phone sector has made great strides and is often named as one of the success stories of post-2001 reconstruction. Although the immediate economic benefit for users is debatable, it has opened new possibilities for Afghans to communicate outside of the all-encompassing social control, particularly for women. But internet access has not kept pace with this development, and the urban-rural gap is still wide. Demands for cheaper access, particularly from the internet-savvy young generation, have increased. Our guest author Theresa Falke (*) reports and shares her impressions from talking about mobile communication with young Afghans.

In Jaghori district, in Ghazni province, winter is harsh. But projects need to continue. Reports have to be sent, bills have to be paid. To do this, our project partners (see author’s introduction at the end of the text) often have to walk long distances to reach the nearest internet café in Anguri or Sang-e Masha, the district centre. That means journeys of up to 15 kilometres. In their villages, they have to climb up on the roofs of houses or even hills to make phone calls or receive and send messages. Often, there is no electricity, as is the case all over rural Afghanistan, so charging a mobile phone can be quite a challenge. (1)

20 million Afghans have mobile phones

The mobile phone sector – the main tool also for internet use, since the country’s landline system was destroyed during the war and never re-activated and most Afghans do not own a computer – is huge and growing fast. In 2002, according to the World Bank, only 57,000 Afghans had subscribed to mobile or land line telecommunication services. In 2011, the number had already grown to 18 million subscribers and – according to USAID – to 20 million in 2013. It might not be entirely true, but walking the streets of Kabul it appears as if almost everybody in the Afghan capital owns a phone and is using it frequently.

A 2013 USAID study asked 2,000 Afghan women from five provinces, Balkh, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar and Nangrahar, about mobile phone access. Almost half of the interviewed women owned a phone, and an additional 32 per cent had access to one. One of the study’s conclusions states that “by a great majority, Afghan women believe mobile phones can enhance their lives and improve the wellbeing of their families and broader society.” However, the study also pointed to social limitations, to “some women” facing “complex cultural and social barriers to mobile phone use” because families simply do not allow it, and to the fact that “most women without access to mobile phones would gladly use or own one if the total cost of ownership (ie, mobile handset, SIM card, voice minutes, SMS and data plan) were reduced and concerns about their privacy addressed.”

This is even more relevant with the communication possibilities offered by internet-compatible mobile phones. Particularly for women and girls, and even more so those living in the rural areas, increased internet coverage could become a window to the world, as in most cases they are not allowed to, or chose not to, leave their homes.  A 21-year-old woman in Kabul told me that, for her, internet access via mobile phone is of essential importance as she wants to live “free and liberally.” Her parents support her in this, but are very concerned about her personal safety. Although she is an adult, whenever she is away from home to meet friends, she calls her mother every hour to let her know she is okay. So in this specific case, reachability gives her more freedom. However, Kabul city, with mobile phone signals available 24/7, is an exception from the rest of the country.

Internet infrastructure lagging behind

Internet access, though, is still a whole different issue. In worldwide comparison, Afghanistan is lagging far behind. In 2011, only three per cent of Afghans had access to the internet. According to Omar Mansur Ansari, chief of the National Information Technology Association of Afghanistan (NITAA), by early 2013, this had increased to 4.2 per cent, while the worldwide average then was 32 per cent. The already quoted USAID study, presented at the recent, first-ever “social media summit” held in Kabul on 22 and 23 September, put the current figure at 7.7 per cent – with access either through mobile phones or computers.

Mobile phone internet is received solely through the systems of three providers: Roshan, Etisalat and Mobile Telephone Networks. With an estimated five million users, Roshan is the leading provider in this market. As a Kabul friend told me, “Everybody has a mobile in Kabul; internet [only a] few.”

But most Afghans live in the countryside, and there, after decades of war, people still face grave infrastructure problems. The larger the town and the more peaceful an area is, the better the access to and speed of internet are. Internet cafés are highly frequented locations there. When one of our Afghan project partners watched me use my mobile internet stick to go online in Kabul, he was excited: “This is my internet dream!” But these sticks are expensive – they cost 15 dollars per month – particularly for average Afghan incomes. (The average Afghan makes 543 dollars per year, or 45 per month, according to official statistics.)

Logically, the demand for easier and cheaper access is growing. NITAA’s Ansari says the government “should step up efforts to reduce the internet costs so that the ordinary Afghans can have access to it.” In the mobile phone sector, prices have already dropped “dramatically” over the past decade, according to USAID: “When mobile phones were first introduced to the Afghan market, one SIM card and a mobile phone handset together cost US $300. Today, a SIM card costs roughly US $1 and a previously owned handset can be purchased for around US $10. Similarly, the cost of airtime has fallen more than 500 per cent since 2003 when one minute cost US $0.36 (18 Afs) — in late 2012, one minute cost US $0.06 (3 Afs).”

Telecom minister Amirzai Sangin, an expert in the field who returned to Afghanistan from exile in Sweden after the fall of the Taleban, admitted already in 2012 that internet costs were too high. (2) He also claims that the Afghan government has made progress in this field over the past two years.

Another obstacle to accessing internet is the high cost for modern internet-capable devices. A smartphone costs from 10,000 Afghani (around 175 dollars), and monthly internet fees are at least an additional 1,000 Afghani (17.5 dollars) – with an average Afghan teacher earning the equivalent of 80 dollars a month. A young Kabuli told me that he estimated that 70 per cent of mobile phone users in Kabul own a smartphone – although many opt for cheap Chinese copies. A good copy, he says, costs about 4,000 Afghanis. According to him, those devices are able to take pictures and videos – an important feature for many young Afghans, but they cannot access the internet.

Many of the young people I interviewed told me they wished they could buy better phones that are capable of going online. Older models are considered “embarrassing.” They also, apparently, as one of my interview partners told me, are not always free from other risks. At the airport, for example, he told me, they regularly attract more attention from security personnel than smartphones, with the assumption that the old models could be rigged with explosives. Authorities seem to assume that no one would sacrifice their beloved smartphones for a terrorist attack.

Direct access to the internet, it seems, is limited to a certain social stratum: to those Afghans with a better than average income, working, for example, for international employers, foreign embassies or in better paid positions in the Afghan government. Buying a computer is still unrealistic for most people. Many solve this problem by visiting internet cafés or by borrowing phones from relatives or friends. A young woman who lives in a low-income neighbourhood confirmed that only a few people have internet access there, but those who do share it with the whole family. She herself frequently visits her uncle for that purpose. Where there is a will, there’s often a way to go online.

Social gaps and cultural hurdles

But mobile phone and internet use also bridge social gaps. Because of the pictogram design on the displays of even many older devices, users do not have to be literate to use them. With Bluetooth technology, uploading and downloading music, making movies and taking photographs is no problem at all. (3) USAID says that for further improvement, apps must “incorporate voice“ (meaning the device’s ability to read messages to the user).

Afghans enthusiastically take photographs and make videos, not just for themselves, but to show family and friends to other people – or to family members who live abroad. Online games are also a way to communicate because gamers are interactively connected. Games are also being played via Facebook, and this social network has already taken the city of Kabul by storm. A former student introduced me to two of her fellow students, both men. Asked whether the three met each other often and do things together, they said, yes – but they rarely meet physically. They enjoy ‘meeting’ on Facebook. When I asked a 15-year-old boy how much time he spends on Facebook, he told me “sometimes whole nights.”

But of course, like everywhere, there is a dark side to social media in Afghanistan, too. Pornography and violence is shared via mobile phones, including snuff and rape videos, in the context of bacha-bazi – reflecting an environment deeply influenced by decades of violence, where the rule of law does not reach far. Because of this kind of material, many Afghans consider internet and social media difficult to reconcile with, or even opposing, Islamic values.

However, I was also told that young mullahs in Kabul already started to use Facebook to reach out to their followers. And not just the young, as described in a recent news story about Sajad Mohseni, an elderly mullah from Bamyan (see here, in German) who posts religious advice on Facebook every day, with great success. He jokingly says, “Before I started using Facebook, not even my own son liked me because I was a mullah, but since, many have changed their opinion about me. Many youngsters have ‘liked’ my page, because I am open and use social media.” Some, he says, use the private Facebook chat to ask questions that might be embarrassing to ask face to face. “Even girls ask me things, and I answer them.”

Social media in the political sphere

For some groups of Kabul youth, internet access means more than having fun in their spare time or posting statements of devotion or sad poetry about desperate love. They share opinions and ideas, they discuss politics, social issues, music, art. The site of “Kabul 2050,” for example, collects ideas from fellow Afghans on how they imagine their capital in the mid-century; its cover photo shows a city that looks like a mix of Dubai and science fiction. The “Green and Clean Kabul Campaign” mobilises volunteers to change the city by collecting garbage, most recently on the Wazir Akbar Khan Hill. It seems to be linked to Hadia, an “Afghan youth volunteer group for social reform”, that has recently distributed songbooks to kids in Faizabad and supports media freedom. In the Facebook group “Kabul Security now!” members can post up-to-date security warnings for parts of the city. Although the group’s administrators recently complained about the misuse of the platform, with people posting fake information or trying to cause hysteria, some people do rely on the information provided as a part of their daily safety net when moving around the city.

One blogger set up a forum where the fulfilment of the election promises of the two frontrunners in the elections, who now have joined in the ‘government of national unity’, are scrutinised. Appropriately, the title of this initiative is “Sad Roz” (one hundred days), referring to the crucial post-inauguration period. “Kabul Street” – whose logo shows a pencil growing from an AK-47 cartouche, and from the pencil a tree (motto: “art is our weapon”) – uses collages to comment on political events. Often, debates on the platforms are rather heated, with many users not shying away from personal attacks.

Political parties and civil society movements – from the Green Trend to Afghanistan 1400 – and more and more individual politicians have also joined the bandwagon. This includes both presidential run-off candidates who, during their campaigns, set up Facebook accounts to tap into the growing online audience.

Social media summit

Afghanistan also took part in this year’s Social Good Summit that was hosted by the United Nations Development Programme and held in 170 countries, including some of the most volatile areas of the world such as Gaza, Afghanistan and Ukraine. The goal of the summit was to point out ways to make the world a better place through social media. In Afghanistan, that meant a two-day national conference (under the title of “Hamgram”; more info here and here) bringing together civil society activists, bloggers and others to discuss and learn new skills – for example, how to develop the technical skills to use social media and how to use it for civic engagement. Workshops were held to ensure the increase of users and networking. On the UNDP homepage, parts of the programme were described as follows:

This summit featured a project that raised funds for Badakhshan landslide victims by using the social media, and initiatives that have made literacy lessons, health counselling and money transactions possible through mobile phones. In addition, a panel composed of Afghan civil society activists and technology experts discussed how social media and digital technology can mobilize people to raise their voices, change people’s behaviour towards their living environment, reinvent the way we learn, and enable farmers to receive real-time market information to increase their income.

Participants said that it will be important to provide education and raise awareness about the opportunities and dangers the internet may pose for Afghans. Some were discussed at the summit, from security problems to the handling of personal information and of ‘wasting time’ in front of the screen (video of this session here 00:18:35)).

But in general, and despite all problems and controversies, the new Afghan media craze seems to be irreversible. All of my interview partners were “mobile”, regardless of their backgrounds – university students, workers or pupils. An image that stays with me is that of three adolescent boys on a donkey cart, listening to Afghan music on a smartphone and dancing to it.

 

(*) Theresa Falke is a member of Freundeskreis Afghanistan (FKA, Friends of Afghanistan), a German non-profit volunteer NGO, founded in 1982 by former development workers. In Jaghori district, they mainly build and run schools in cooperation with the local population as well as a “school committee.” In November 2013, Theresa travelled to Kabul to interview young people for her MA in social anthropology. “New media” was one of the topics young people talked about animatedly.

(1) According to the UN, only an estimated 41 per cent of Afghans have access to a reliable source of electricity.

(2) Quoted in Shahla Murtazaie, “Communications Sector Will Not be Impacted by 2014 Drawdown: Ministry,” ToloNews, 3 Dec 2012 (not online anymore, in AAN archive).

(3) Listen to Afghan ICT expert Jawed Hamdard at a conference in the context of the Social Good Summit 2014 in this video.

Tagged with: , , ,
Thematic Category: Context & Culture