Often when I speak with people about Bitcoin, the conversations center on whether it’s a speculative bubble or the currency of the future. It’s a classic first world problem: add Bitcoin to my portfolio or not? Regrettably, a lot of noise surrounding Bitcoin neglects the purpose of this invention, and its potential to transform societies, particularly in the developing world.
Though we have our own issues, for the most part, western institutions still function better than most. Unfortunately, billions of people around the world do not share our fate, as they suffer at the hands of government corruption, debased currency, and financial exclusion. So how can Bitcoin help them? The answer lies in transparency. The Bitcoin network runs on the blockchain, which facilitates two things: it eliminates the need for a central authority (institutions), and the tamper-proof open database acts as a safeguard against bad actors. Ladies and gentlemen, the fight to separate the state and money is underway. But why, you ask? Well, imagine living in a version of America where you didn’t have the separation of church and state. Not pretty, right? Now think about the oppressed living under corrupt authoritarian regimes who regulate a nation’s economics. Simply, Bitcoin is an alternative to fiat currencies that are controlled by individuals who hide behind institutions, many of them taking advantage of their people.
To provide context, after graduating from college, I worked in Afghanistan as a civilian Pashto interpreter and cultural advisor for the U.S. military. Much of what I witnessed in Afghanistan was a not a shock to me. Growing up, on family trips to Pakistan, I was exposed to chronic poverty, insecurity, and corruption as a child. I’ll never forget the day when driving through Islamabad, our vehicle was stopped by a police officer. My dad stepped out to try and figure out what was going on, and after about a minute or so, I saw him place money into the officer’s pocket. When he got back into the vehicle, he said to me, “This is Pakistan.” I was ten years old then, but I sensed my dad’s sadness, and it was the first time that I understood my sheltered upbringing in America.
Life experience in the region absolutely helped me through the travails of Afghanistan as a working adult. With each passing mission, I became numb to what I saw: a broken nation still recovering from the darkness of the Taliban. In the midst of this despair, however, signs of a rebirth were there. Children, to include girls, were allowed to go back to school, bazaars were lively again, and billboards for cell phone carriers and mobile phones adorned the city landscape. Mind you, this was 2009, and during the reign of the Taliban (1996–2001), music, films, and internet were banned in the country.
Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was one of the most isolated places in the world, yet less than eight years after the toppling of the terror regime, ads promoting connectivity were noticeable across Afghan society. Moreover, in a country where nearly 70 percent of the population was illiterate, there was an emergence of savvy internet users on social media. Even with an insurgency raging, technology’s footprint was increasing in Afghanistan. When I left in 2011, I felt great optimism about the country’s future, and technology’s role in it.
Almost as soon as I returned home, I missed my military colleagues and the Afghan people. I eventually joined the Army, and in 2016, just before I was deploying to Afghanistan, I learned about Bitcoin. My little brother, Zain, was still in college and told me about this “internet money” that only required users to have cell phone service. A lot of what he said went over my head, but I could feel his conviction about the potential of this fairly new innovation. A few weeks later, I returned to Afghanistan, and as soon as I arrived in theatre, I could sense that this was not the same country that I left in 2011. Skyscrapers emerged across city skylines, almost anyone I came into contact with had a cell phone, and internet connectivity was omnipresent.
After decades of war, technology accelerated Afghanistan’s rebuild, and allowed Afghans to take a giant leap into the 21st century in just a few years. Speaking with members of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, I was stunned to learn that many of them were getting their salaries paid directly through their mobile phones. I thought about Zain and how this concept of internet money wasn’t really that crazy. I mean, if the Afghan government can do mobile payments, then anything really is possible. As an interpreter, I remember brainstorming sessions with my American colleagues on how we could curtail government corruption and ensure that security forces were being paid appropriately. Mobile payments were one of the solutions we discussed because they are easier to trace, and it makes it difficult for crooked bureaucrats to take a cut for themselves. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t gain any traction then, but eventually, what seemed impossible inevitably happened.
While technology has provided Afghans with access to education, enhanced infrastructure, and jobs, sadly, government corruption continues to threaten Afghanistan’s future. The country has made progress, but now more than ever, doing things “the old way” will not work. In a world where it’s becoming harder to hide wrongdoing, we shouldn’t have to turn a blind eye to corruption anymore. This is why Bitcoin’s potential to separate the state from money, and to prevent fraud and corruption, is critical for the development not just of Afghanistan, but the whole of humanity.
I harbor no illusion that Bitcoin will solve all of Afghanistan’s problems, let alone the world’s, but the thing about innovations is that they disrupt the status quo. Change is happening, and Bitcoin is the beginning of a new model that will make existing ones obsolete. This is where the world is heading, and places like Afghanistan, and kids like Zain will lead the way.
There is hope yet for the helpless, and that will always be more meaningful than the price of Bitcoin.