Ten years ago, the Afghan postal service lay in near total ruin, undone by the nation's civil war. Sending a letter usually meant having to find someone traveling in the direction of the recipient willing to carry a note and hoping for the best.
Then, about four years ago, Ahmad Sher, a Jalalabad shopkeeper, noticed his city had a post office. On a whim, Mr. Sher, who loves listening to the radio, decided to send letters to several talk radio programs using the Afghan government postal service.
Like most Afghan 20-somethings who have grown up only knowing broken government institutions like the post office, he wasn't surprised at his friends' skepticism when he told them he planned to send the letters. "My friends made fun of me and said my letters wouldn't be read on the radio for a year," Sher says.
Sher and his friends were surprised, however, when the letters started making it through – regularly and in less than a week.
During the past 11 years, the United States has spent more than $60 billion on Afghan development to improve a government that still openly deals in corruption and often struggles to offer basic services to many of its citizens. Yet as the government struggles to develop despite an excess of foreign aid, the post office has quietly managed to become one of the most efficient national institutions – and with extremely limited international assistance.
"We saw a huge amount of money was spent on the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, and the national intelligence service. Their job is to provide security for people, but 10 years later the security is getting worse, and people are still concerned about their safety," says Fouzia Roufi, a member of the Afghan parliament's telecommunication commission. "The Afghan postal service is a promising administration. Whenever we talk to people, they are happy about the services they provide."
"Friendly customer service" is not a phrase often heard in reference to government projects in Afghanistan, but, sure enough, post office workers in Kabul even go so far as to lick stamps for patrons.
"If employees are committed to providing services for people, I think that even with empty pockets they can do something," says Mohammad Naseem Rahimi, acting head of the Afghan postal service, adding that he thinks the postal service's attitude could be a model for other government offices.
Unlike other government offices that employ full-time foreign advisers, who are paid healthy six-figure salaries, the Afghan postal service has only occasionally hired temporary foreign advisers to help revise its postal code.
The US Agency for International Development and the International Security Assistance Force contributed delivery trucks, China provided 100 mail-delivery bicycles, and Iran sent postal bags. International postal organizations have also provided some equipment. Otherwise, the organization has had to be largely self-sufficient compared with other development projects.
"The postal service doesn't need a big investment. With just a little bit of money you can provide people with a postal service," Mr. Rahimi says.
Afghanistan first established a postal service in 1878. Fifty years after its inception, it received international recognition. On the eve of the Soviet invasion it had grown into one of the stronger regional postal services, able to send and receive letters from anywhere in the world in a timely manner.
Since the civil war, the postal service has reinvented itself with offices in all 34 provinces, and, Rahimi says, it is close to having offices in all 364 districts.
Though street addresses are a foreign concept in Afghanistan, the postal service manages to do house deliveries – even if a postman might sometimes have to ask around to find the correct house.
Sher says he now uses the postal service regularly.
He's even received calendars and other promotional items in the mail from a Chinese radio station, he says, delivered to his shop for about the cost of a piece of bread.