Secure, but Open: Shared Goals and Takeaways from the EU-BOMNAF Conference on “Sustainable Trade as an Aspect of Regional Cooperation”

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By Carly Seedall - EU-BOMNAF Volunteer

As an International Relations student and first time international conference participant at the EU-BOMNAF conference on “Sustainable Trade as an Aspect of Regional Cooperation”, I expected the event to conclude with representatives from all parties smilingly signing off on a trade agreement. Over the course of two-day event, though this expectation proved to be inaccurate, I found that the conference’s success was evident in its ability to coax actors from Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the international community out of their shells to establish a working platform for dialogue. Furthermore, several key points seemed to resonate with all parties attending the conference. More specifically, most agreed on the fact that both Tajikistan and Afghanistan could stand to benefit from the goods and services the countries can offer one another, that trade has the power to usher in improved regional security, and that striking the balance between maintaining security and opening up trade relations should be a goal of all actors involved.
At the onset of the conference, a presentation by Marko Rankovic, a consultant to EU-BOMNAF and JICA-BMP, stressed Tajikistan’s sobering economic reality, namely that the country faces a future of high unemployment, with 1.7 million Tajik citizens currently between the ages of 10 and 19 expected to enter the workforce over the next decade. Moreover, Afghans continue to struggle to make ends meet as a result of regional insecurity and the lack of proper infrastructure. With many conference participants having visited the isolated region of Badakhshan, it is difficult to comprehend how villages located just a stone’s throw away from each other across the Panj River that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan are hindered from engaging in trade. As illustrated in a presentation by Violane Konar-Leacy from the World Bank Dushanbe, demand exists in Tajikistan for Afghan exports like fresh fruit, dried fruit, and handicrafts. On the contrary, the Afghan side of Badakhshan could benefit from Tajik hydroelectricity and the improved infrastructure that exists across the border.

Though five border markets have been constructed along the Afghan-Tajik border, most have remained unopened in previous years due to security concerns. However, many conference attendees articulated the idea that opening up these markets will empower those living in the region to improve their own livelihoods.

If the region becomes more economically stable, this will weaken the appeal of organized crime. Additionally, trade between the two regions will enhance the benefits of existing initiatives focused on fighting corruption, promoting women’s empowerment and improving infrastructure.

Finally, as eloquently stressed by H.E Hajime Kitaoka, the Ambassador of Japan to Tajikistan, there is a need for balance between keeping the border open for trade and exchange and ensuring security. Since both the Afghan and Tajik side of Badakhshan share similar languages and religions, the border remains a mere political force. At the same time, the increasing presence of regional terrorist and criminal threats should not be ignored. The Ambassador’s approach of “Secure, but Open” resonated with conference participants and his strategy continuously surfaced throughout the following presentations and subsequent workshop discussions.

With so many barriers hindering Tajikistan and Afghanistan from reaching a cohesive agreement on how best to cooperate to ensure both economic growth and security, the conference successfully identified the shared goals and viewpoints of all parties, a key step in implementing reform and improving the livelihoods of Tajik and Afghan citizens alike.