Earlier this month, the world learned that the U.S. had been secretly behind a Twitter clone launched in Cuba known as ZunZuneo, a revelation that has caused much concern over the tactics the U.S. uses to promote democracy overseas. But what happens when a similar U.S. project — design a network meant to facilitate communication — is out in the open? In the case of Afghanistan, it becomes a widely-used social media platform and a way of linking together people across a country.
The New York Times reported on Friday that the United States had quietly backed a series of social networking sites akin to the ZunZuneo network in Cuba, designed to promote political discourse and democracy. “But like the program in Cuba, which was widely ridiculed when it became public this month, the services in Pakistan and Afghanistan shut down after they ran out of money because the administration could not make them self-sustaining,” the Times reported. That doesn’t appear to be the case, however, as far as the Afghan service is concerned. The notion that the program was akin to ZunZuneo in that it had never been previously disclosed, as the Times puts it, also is incorrect.
The site in question — Paywast — launched in early 2011 as an SMS-based social networking site for Afghans. “Its main feature is group messaging, which allows users to join and create groups and send messages to all group members,” a description of the service from 2012 reads. “Mostly, their services are used by commercial entities to spread awareness for their products among the public. The aim behind the initiative is to create an environment where interactions for social and economic changes can take place in Afghanistan.”
The birth of Paywast can be traced back to a 2010 contract from the State Department, awarded to UStronics.com, which owns Paywast as a subsidiary. According to the contract — originally worth $3.72 million, before being increased by another $2 million in June 2011 — UStronics was hired to “support SMS services in Afghanistan.” Jes Kaliebe Petersen, co-founder of Paywast, confirmed to ThinkProgress that the contract in question helped get the service up and running. “In the case of Paywast, the objective of the [State Department] funding was to help improve conditions for mobile phone services in Afghanistan, and to enable open communication between people across the country,” Petersen said in an email.
That seed funding, though, was no closely held secret as was the involvement of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in creating ZunZuneo. Instead, despite the similarities between the platforms, it was openly discussed as a success story in utilizing the internet and technology for development, one of the key goals of USAID. David Ensor, the former communications director at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, went on the record about the U.S. involvement in Paywast back in 2011, soon after he’d departed the State Department. The article published at NextGov in Sept. 2011 says Ensor “described a project aimed at increasing the use of text messaging to create social networks in Afghanistan, which the embassy spurred with a contract to develop cheaper bulk-rate messaging plans.” The article continues: “The embassy paid for the contract by agreeing to buy the first 80 million messages, he said.”
Ensor made a similar pronouncement while he was still serving at the Embassy during a New America Foundation event in which he presented a Powerpoint clearly indicating the U.S.’s involvement in launching Paywast. In the video of the event, which was held soon after Paywast’s launch, Ensor calls the service “Twitter for Afghanistan.” Ensor also confirmed that the U.S. contracted out the site’s development during his talk at the time, but did not name the winning vendor by name.
The utility of Paywast goes beyond the political organization tool that Zunzuneo was designed to be, lending itself to purely development based tasks. “If you sell fruit in the Kandahar market,” Ensor explained at his New America Foundation talk, “and you want the farmers in the surrounding area to know what it is you’re offering for melons at four o’clock on Wednesday, you can send out a message to the 120 farmers who you want to reach. If they, by word of mouth, hear about this they’ll get the price instantaneously and then they can make better decisions about when to harvest their melons. Is it this week or next week the prices maybe will be better. So it’s a tool that we hope that small businesses and farmers to just do a little better and use communications profitably.”
Providing that ability mattered to USAID because prior to the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002, mobile communications were basically non-existent in Afghanistan. A USAID report on the access of Afghan women to mobile technology issued last year noted in its introduction that in the last decade, “some 20 million mobile phone subscriptions have been set up, and the combined networks of the major mobile phone companies cover 88% of the country’s 30 million people.” The mobile telecoms sector thus has become “a major driver of the economy, accounting for the most foreign direct investment in Afghanistan, the biggest non-governmental employer aside from subsistence agriculture, and the largest taxpayer.” In regards to women specifically, the proliferation of mobile phones — and platforms intended to boost their reach — has begun to “facilitate women’s access to life-enhancing commercial and social services, such as education, health care and income-generating opportunities,” lending itself to support from USAID.
Ensor noted in his talk that once the paid-for messages ran out, the user rate would drop as costs were imposed, but he hoped that by then enough people would be on the system to keep it going. That hope seems to have panned out, as the system is definitely still alive and kicking — 1.6 million users utilize the service according to Petersen. Since its launch, it has thrived, playing a role in the Afghan elections as a polling mechanism and way of reporting difficulties at the ballot box, alongside its economic development goals. Just last month, the site announced in a press release that they had collected more than 100,000 data points from users in one such poll, asking whether they had registered to vote, whether they would vote across ethnic lines, and other questions.
ThinkProgress reached out to Ensor, who is now the Director of the Voice of America news outlet, about the New York Times’ article. Kevin Lynch, acting Public Relations Director at VOA, told ThinkProgress that Ensor had read the Times article and could not think of any other program other than Paywast to which the Times article could have been referring. Petersen also told ThinkProgress that he had been in contact with the New York Times and emphasized that the relationship between Paywast and the U.S. government “was in no way covert or ‘secret.'” ThinkProgress reached out to the author of the article about the discrepancy, but did not receive a response as of press time. The article has also not been updated or corrected as of press time.
The calm surrounding the program in Afghanistan stands in sharp contrast to the uproar that ensued following the Associated Press report earlier this month revealing the U.S. involvement in setting up ZunZuneo. The ZunZuneo program, known colloquially as “Cuban Twitter” among those following the story in the United States, was eventually shut down after its appeal failed to congeal among ordinary Cubans. Despite the claims that USAID was acting as “an intelligence agency” in setting up the program, Administrator Raj Shah defended the program as a legitimate way to spread information without Cuban government interference.
The revelation, however, has lead to Congress taking an increased interest in the actions of USAID in its role promoting democracy. Several members of Congress have slammed the secretive nature of the program, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) who called the plan “cockamamie.” However, others — mostly those based in Florida, with its large Cuban expat population — have praised the administration’s efforts to spread democracy on the neighboring island.
So far, though, no members of Congress have blinked at the report of a similar program in Afghanistan. And for good reason — the involvement of the United States in Paywast’s creation and other services in Afghanistan was far from the secret that ZunZuneo was. In fact, it’s something of an openly acknowledged fact that many, if not most, projects in the country are made possible through USAID and other Washington institutions.
“If you ask Afghans how they feel about USAID funding a specific project, they laugh and tell you that the road under their feet was also funded by the Americans, because most things are,” an aid worker based in Kabul told ThinkProgress. “U.S. involvement is the default assumption here.” The same aid worker also described several meetings at which the USAID involvement in Paywast’s creation was discussed freely, including its funding of the system. Given the impact the service had on the recent elections, it appears to have been money well spent.