IT Drives Customs Reform In Afghanistan

The project is being counted on to generate much-needed revenue for the government, which is operating under a constitution signed Monday.
Officials at consulting firm BearingPoint say they're making progress implementing IT and administrative systems that will be key to the creation of a self-reliant Afghan government, which is operating under a new constitution signed into law Monday by president Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

Among other things, BearingPoint is working on a customs-reform project that will be counted on to generate desperately needed revenue for the government. Caroline Price, a senior managing partner at BearingPoint, says the firm is cooperating with local Afghan authorities to deploy PCs and networking equipment at border points throughout the country. Newly hired and trained customs agents will use the devices to collect tariffs and track the flow of goods in and out. The agents will tap into applications developed by BearingPoint and third parties that let them classify goods according to World Trade Organization standards and assign taxpayer identification numbers to importers and exporters. Data will be transmitted to the Afghan Ministry of Finance in Kabul over satellite links. Price says the technology is being implemented from scratch. "Afghanistan missed 30 years of computerization," she says.

The effort is part of an economic reform program that BearingPoint is undertaking in Afghanistan under a three-year, $39.9 million contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development. In addition to customs work, BearingPoint is also providing technology and planning services to the Afghan government in the banking, trade, and legal sectors. In Kabul on Monday, Karzai signed the country's new constitution, which enshrines a presidential system of government and paves the way for general elections.

Price, who travels to Kabul several times a year to oversee the project, says she's pleased with the progress that's being made. "You can now see uniformed customs officials at the airport, which is something entirely new," she says. However, she concedes that implementing the program in more remote regions of the country poses some difficulties. "Customs faces a challenge in that it's one of the first technology-enabled reform programs to move outside of Kabul," she says. According to media reports, Afghanistan's border areas--particular those adjacent to Pakistan--have become havens for pro-Taliban, anti-U.S. guerrillas. In addition, many of the country's borders have been at one time or another controlled by drug lords. "Customs reform can be a problem in any country," she says. "You're bringing transparency to a process that in many cases has been a bought position. So it's not without inherent dangers." Despite the risks, Price says the customs systems will give the government better control over its frontiers and improve its ability to fight corruption.

Sporadic violence has increased recently throughout the Afghanistan. About 60 people have been killed in sectarian violence in the past three weeks. Price, who stays in a private house leased by BearingPoint and patrolled by armed security guards when she's in Kabul, says she's not worried. "I've always felt very secure there."

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