RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
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Americans are focused on the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That number is supposed to go down over the next couple of years. For the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, though, a more vital question may be the state of the Afghan economy.
MONTAGNE: Right now, that economy depends on billions of dollars in aid money, including funds that have created hundreds of thousands of jobs. But as NATO troops go away gradually, the cash will go away too. NPR's Sean Carberry reports on the potential for that to create a massive brain drain.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Sitting in the basement of a large house-turned office isn't where Rohullah Zarif wants to be. He spent 15 years with the development organization CARE Afghanistan. Now, he's a technical advisor for an international construction and support services firm.
ROHULLAH ZARIF: Here, I am working for one person. He's the owner of the company. When I worked one hour for CARE, it means my benefit reached poor communities that they are in need.
CARBERRY: CARE is just one of hundreds of non-governmental organizations working in Afghanistan. It used to receive 80 percent of its funding from USAID. Last fall, that well ran dry. Rohullah and 460 others lost their jobs and had to look elsewhere.
ZARIF: I was able to find a job based on my qualifications, can I say, or some relationship that I had. Without relationship, you're not able to find some job.
CARBERRY: While he has a job, it's not the one he wants. And he doesn't know how long it will last. Still, he's fared better than many former colleagues at CARE. He says one has a Ph.D. and has been jobless for seven months. Another is a civil engineer and he got tired of looking for work at his skill level.
ZARIF: He opened a shop in the Parwan district and now he's a shopkeeper, not an engineer.
JENNIFER ROWELL: A lot of people who have left some pretty nice jobs in some great NGOs where they were able to build their skills and really contribute, they're struggling. They can't find anything.
Jennifer Rowell is director of Advocacy for CARE Afghanistan. She says a few years ago there was a massive surge in international funding for development work in the country. She describes it as an aid bubble that was going to have to burst.
Bottom line, there will be a hit and that hit has begun.
CARBERRY: UNAMA, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan itself is facing a $30 million funding cut this year. The mission will have to close offices and lay off skilled Afghans. Afghanistan's anemic private sector is nowhere near able to absorb these people, especially at the salaries they were making with NGOs. The country already suffers from very high under-employment. Jennifer Rowell...
ROWELL: And those few skilled positions that we're recruiting for, we have about five times the number of applicants applying for the job this year than we did last year.
CARBERRY: According to Afghanistan's Ministry Of Economy, there are roughly 50,000 skilled Afghans working for NGOs. And, it's not just those positions that are at risk. According to World Bank statistics, 106,000 Afghans working in key ministries are paid through donor funds, and paid quite well. Donors also provide salary supplements to thousands of other government workers to attract and retain skilled individuals.
GHULLUM RASUL NAWABI: You know that Afghan government don't have that much power or not much money to fund the projects like I'm working on that.
CARBERRY: Ghullum Rasul Nawabi is team leader of the Kabul Urban Reconstruction Project. His office is in the Ministry of Urban Development, but the World Bank pays his salary.
NAWABI: And the World Bank, they wanted to give some funds for continuation of this project, but it's not clear yet.
CARBERRY: Nawabi says if his job is cut, he might have to move to Pakistan or Iran. CARE's Jennifer Rowell says that many of the people in these sponsored government positions are dual nationals who returned to Afghanistan when the Taliban fell and they have other places they can take their skills if funding dries up for their positions here, or if they're unsure about security.
ROWELL: I suspect that the brain drain is really going to be at that level, at the senior civil service level. We might lose them depending on how those programs continue or are ended or shift or are funded differently. This will be the group to watch.
CARBERRY: If they go, Afghanistan would be deprived of a critical building block towards a more developed and stable future.
Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.