April 04, 2012 - Ask the average American what words they associate with Afghanistan and they'd probably use terms like war, terrorism and instability.
Oxford resident Lori Blaker (far left), CEO of the Rochester Hills-based TTi Global, poses with some gentlemen, which include U.S. Under-Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, Francisco Sanchez (second from right). Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Commerce. (click for larger version)
Ask Oxford resident Lori Blaker what words she associates with the country and she'd most likely say economic opportunity.
That's because Blaker, who's CEO of the Rochester Hills-based TTi Global, was part of an historic undertaking back in February – the U.S. Department of Commerce's first-ever trade mission to Kabul, Afghanistan.
"I was really thrilled," she said. "I was honored."
TTi Global was one of only 12 companies in the United States – and one of only two from Michigan – that was asked to be part of this mission to explore and establish long-term business opportunities in Afghanistan, a country closed to much American business, and enhance U.S.-Afghan commercial relations.
TTi is planning to establish a workforce development program in the region.
Within the next six to nine months, the company is expecting to have a training center up and running. It will be a place to teach Afghan citizens the skills they need to work as electricians, auto mechanics, plumbers, food service personnel, etc.
"You've got a whole gap there in education and development," Blaker explained. "You've got a workforce over there that just doesn't know anything. They haven't been given that opportunity.
"When the Soviets left, women couldn't go to school anymore under the Taliban (government). When young men went to school, they studied the Koran."
As a result of this, Blaker noted Afghanistan is forced to bring in more than 100,000 workers from China, India and Pakistan every year to staff industries such as construction and automotive repair.
"The local Afghans have never developed the job skills required to do the work," Blaker said.
Blaker indicated the facilities for a training center are already over there and she can obtain much of the necessary tools and equipment through donations.
"From that perspective, there's not going to be a big investment required on our part," she said. "What's going to be the big investment on my part is sending the people over there and covering the cost of their salaries."
Initially, TTi Global plans to send over five or six of its people, so they can train local instructors who will in turn, train the Afghan people.
TTi Global has already applied for a business license in Afghanistan and as soon as that's obtained, Blaker plans to take a follow-up trip in about six to eight weeks.
"We've got to work fast," she said.
That's because th future of Afghanistan is still very much uncertain.
"Do I think it's stable enough? Probably not," Blaker said. "One incident could create upheaval. But to me, if we don't (try to build up the economy), everything that we've done over the last 10 years is going to go to waste."
"We've spent a lot of our tax dollars over there. If we don't help these people improve their economy and develop job skills, everything that we've done for the last 10 years is just going to go right down the tubes. When the soldiers pull out two years from now, what's going to be left? They've got some roads. They've got some electricity, but they've also got 50 percent unemployment."
Blaker's no stranger to trying to help the Afghans develop job skills. Prior to the trade mission, she spent the last 18-24 months trying to establish a workforce development program.
From being a mentor through the "Peace through Business" program to her participation in the U.S.-Afghan Women's Business Council, Blaker's been working hard to improve things in the war-torn country.
"To me, it's a country that's just been beat up," she explained. "The people have been so beat up between the Soviets, the Taliban and now everything that's going on."
Despite their tragic past, difficult present and uncertain future, the Afghan people are by no means ready to throw in the towel.
"They're very, very resilient," Blaker said. They're a very warm, friendly, open people and they don't get that kind of press here in the U.S. That upsets me."
Blaker wishes the U.S. media would provide a more complete picture of Afghanistan and its people in its coverage.
When she went there for the trade mission, she "thought maybe the local people would resent me and have some distrust of Americans."
Instead, Blaker had Afghans constantly coming up to her and saying, "Please, tell everybody in America how much we appreciate all of the help, all of the support that they've given us. We're so thankful."
"You don't hear any of that on the news," she said. "That's what, to me, is frustrating."
Blaker noted how American University has established a beautiful campus in Afghanistan.
"Young women and young men actually attend classes together. They're getting a quality education," she said. "We don't hear anything about that. There's a lot of good things going on that we don't hear about."
Blaker noted that throughout her stay in Afghanistan she was "never frightened" and "never scared."
Despite all of these positive developments, Blaker realizes the country still has a long way to go on its road to recovery.
"The level of poverty that you see over there, it's the equivalent or worse of what it is in India," she said. "There's still bombed out buildings. The roads are horrible. The infrastructure was worse than I thought it would be. The electricity would go off and on all day long.
"The depth of poverty and the lack of infrastructure surprised me, disheartened me. I would have thought they'd be further along than they were after all the (tax) money we've spent there."
In the end, Blaker believes if Afghanistan has any hope of building a solid, prosperous future, it will be because of the efforts of American companies and business professionals.
"I think we could actually do more than the (U.S.) government has," she said. "American business people are pretty tenacious and pretty driven. I think we get things done a lot faster."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.