An Afghan Monitoring and Evaluation Consortium (MEC): A New Market Based Approach to Development AssistanceRegardless of the pace of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2013, we risk a precipitous loss of influence there if we don"t quickly develop a viable plan to transition from our military heavy strategy towards one more focused on effective development assistance and soft power projection.Unfortunately, our track record with regards to managing effective development assistance has not been good. Traditional US and international preferences for massive top down development programs in Afghanistan has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on unsustainable programs and fueled a pervasive culture of corruption.The Afghan development success stories that have emerged are those programs that are locally conceived, smaller in scale and, importantly, have proven sustainable because local Afghans are vested in the long term success of the projects. For example, the Afghan National Solidarity Project (ANSP) has successfully devised, implemented and completed thousands of development assistance programs that are improving the lives of Afghans across the country.Similarmicro development approaches have proven successful in other countries. In Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank pioneered micro-financing for small local businesses in the 1970s and 1980s employing market based incentives and a strong monitoring and evaluation regime to track and manage their loans. Another Bengali entrepreneur introduced technology to the model building a network ofVillage Phone Ladies that helped to catalyze mobile adoption in this relatively poor country. The resulting Grameen Phone company subsequently attracted international investment and has grown to become the country"s largest mobile provider.These examples are relevant to US development challenges in Afghanistan for three important reasons. First, they demonstrate the efficacy of a micro approach to development and the ability to scale proven programs to meet national development objectives. Second, Grameen Phone in particular highlights the relatively untapped potential of mobile phones as a development tool. Finally, they highlight how important robust monitoring and evaluation regimes are to objectively assessing and reporting on development programs throughout their full lifecycle.Therefore, to build on what is already working in Afghanistan, one of the most important things the US could do in 2013 is to provide catalyst funding for the creation of an Afghan Monitoring and Evaluation Consortium (MEC). This Afghan MEC would be a public-private enterprise with start-up funding from USAID and an immediate and predictable revenue stream provided through long term contracts to provide monitoring and evaluation services for all development projects receiving any US funding. The Afghan MEC could draw its leadership initially from the country"s government (e.g. the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development) and draw its staff from indigenous academia, NGOs and the Afghan private sector.The Afghan MEC could leverage existing technology by utilizing mobile phones to conduct and report program assessments, key measures of effectiveness and programmatic progress across all US funded programs. Many of these assessments would include GPS fixes, pictures as appropriate and automatic date time stamps clearly confirming when and where the assessments were conducted thus providing both credibility and transparency to the reporting.Over time, as the Afghan MEC reported on programs from across the country, it would develop a unique data set which would enable it to cross pollinate good ideas and best practices. The synergies identified across development programs would drive down the costs of program implementation and increase the beneficial impacts.Additionally, the Afghan MEC could itself be used to attract foreign direct investments (FDI) into Afghanistan. Multinationals around the world are keenly interested in emerging markets due to their growth potential but are often reticent to invest without the means to conduct detailed risk assessments and implement cost effective monitoring and evaluation programs associated with those investments. The Afghan MEC"s ability to consistently provide such verifiable and reliable monitoring and evaluation services could, over time, attract increasing flows of FDI thus fueling an engine of economic growth that could increasingly enable Afghanistan to fund more of its own development.In 2013, the US will shift from a predominantly military approach in Afghanistan to one in which soft power projection becomes much more important. To succeed in this transition, our soft power strategy must be informed by hard data and the accountability for results and transparency that come with it. The proposed Afghan MEC could provide that data and become a new and important US partner in nurturing the economic development that we all hope will lead to a more viable and peaceful Afghanistan.