He fled the Taliban at just 16 years old. His crime? He was found listening to rock music, and was told his life was at risk. So he became a refugee, moving from place to place until finally he made it to Britain.

Granted asylum, he studied and tried to learn English from a standing start. At 18, he managed to persuade a university to take him in, despite his problems with the language. “Give me a chance, and you will not regret it”, he told the admissions officer. He graduated first in his year, then went to Imperial College London, one of the most prestigious engineering colleges in the world.

After receiving his Masters, a lucrative career as a civil engineer beckoned. He was wealthier than he could have dreamed, and was part of huge infrastructure projects such as London’s $30bn Crossrail initiative. Yet Afghanistan, his home, called to him.

“My colleagues told me ‘Yama, you are crazy’, but it was a calling so I left.” So Yama Yari returned to his homeland and within years was using his engineering skills to build roads for his country as Minister for Public Works. What is the biggest challenge he now faces? Fighting the Mafia and cutting corruption. He sat down with GovInsider to tell his story, and the battles he intends to fight next.

Saving $500mn

When he first returned, he was seen as a potential British spy. “They think may be you are working for other people and so on and so forth. So, it’s really difficult to integrate back and win people’s trust,” he says. But he worked to win over local trust.

He was asked to setup the country’s first railway authority. “That let me gain more experience in terms of how we do things in Afghanistan, how our organisation is set up, how the government, the bureaucracy works.”

Yari witnessed vast amounts of corruption in his role, so he proposed launching the country’s first national procurement authority. “I created this authority to regulate procurement because we suffered a lot in terms of corruption in the past,” he says.

He brought in civil society and shared contracts data under open standards so everyone could track them. “It empowers them to make sure the government does what it’s supposed to do, what it promised to them. It empowers them through the monitoring of data,” Yari says.

In four and a half years, the procurement reforms helped to save nearly $500mn, he says. “That’s the money that would have gone to the pockets of the Mafia and the corrupt thieves, and we stopped it and I had a direct role in that. I’m very proud of it.” Despite being only 36, his hair is totally grey from the stresses of the job.

“That’s the money that would have gone to the pockets of the Mafia and the corrupt thieves and we stopped it”.

Cutting corruption in public works

Since joining the cabinet, Yari is now leading reforms in the Ministry of Public Works. “I’m changing the Ministry entirely; I’m turning it upside down,” he says. The Ministry was setup based on a “Soviet era structure”, he says. “It’s just not responsive enough to today’s demands.” He is rebuilding the organisation’s structure, its financial system, laws, and recruitment.

Given his experience in procurement reforms, he is making changes to the ministry’s finances. “I changed the procurement team and I changed the finance because of a lot of corruption issues as well.” He is also working with the civil society to create an anti-corruption strategy, he adds.

Mismanaging the Ministry’s money can have a significant impact on Afghanistan’s economy, he says. In the past, only about 47% of the half a billion dollars given to the Ministry was being spent. “That much money could have gone into the economy and it didn’t.” Yari set the target for this year at 90%, and with five weeks to go to the end of the financial year, the Ministry had spent 80%. “I’m not making this up”, he adds. “For the first time, my ministry – the Ministry of Public Works – now is leading government budget execution among more than 50 budgetary units.”

Open Government Partnership

Transparency is another area of reform in the Ministry. Yari is looking at laws and policies to monitor projects and survey roads. For the first time, Afghanistan can monitor “every single project” by the Ministry online, he adds. Anyone can track the projects’ progress, how much is being spent, and their locations, he says. “This has never happened.”

The Ministry is also recruiting younger talent, including attracting Afghani engineers who have studied abroad to return and work in the public service. “I’m bringing a lot of young people, giving them a sense of identity, motivating them on why it is important to do this”.

His vision to cut corruption and improve accountability in Afghanistan are part of the government’s commitments to the international Open Government Partnership, which it joined in 2017 – on his urging. Yari sent a memo to the President explaining why Afghanistan must be a part of it. “I strongly recommend to Mr. President that our government joins the OGP.” Yari got it approved by the cabinet, and within minutes, he publicly announced it. “I picked up the mic at the OGP summit in Paris and I said, ‘Afghanistan intends to join OGP’.”

The government has since made around 15 commitments on the OGP platform, the Minister says, ranging from people’s participation in project selection and project privatisation to how Afghanistan can open up its budgeting process.

Afghanistan’s commitment to the OGP has helped Yari negotiate reforms with his more resistant partners in government. “It may not make people happy – people who are lazy or don’t believe in reform – but it does put a lot of pressure on them,” he says.

And the fact that progress on the government’s commitments is openly tracked has helped spur ministries into action. “It creates a very difficult image even for them; so even if they are reluctant to do reform, it makes them take action – and that’s the beauty of it.”

Naturally, this constant and, perhaps lonely, battle has taken its toll. Yari questions the impact he’s making: “At times, you feel like it’s pointless; it’s difficult to see the light sometimes.” But being part of a network of international reformers and having the opportunity to learn from them has given him new sources of inspiration. “It re-energises us; it gives us that drive to push even further, and now we’re making even bolder commitments,” he explains. “Now I have a global network of friends really. We watch what other people are doing and what impact they’ve had.”

‘I don’t belong to any warlords’

Yari has made a remarkable return to his country from the “asylum seeker with broken English”, he says. “Whatever I dreamt, I’m actually doing,” he says. “I’m building roads for my people; we have more than 100 active road projects across Afghanistan.”

“I wouldn’t even dream of becoming a cabinet minister in the previous [government] because I didn’t have any political backing; I didn’t have any ethnic backing; I didn’t have any jihadi or I didn’t belong to any warlords. I wasn’t involved in anything,” he says.

But his story is an inspiration for all civil servants. One committed official can take on the Mafia, save $500mn, and build roads – and bridges – for a war-torn land.