Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Series of Lessons Learned from Yesterday's Conference

Yesterday LCDR "Vic" Vale and I hitched a ride on a Blackhawk helicopter down to a construction and development conference in Khowst Province in the southeast end of the country. I'll be posting pictures from the flight there and back in the next day or two (I took a lot), but for now here's the Cliff's Notes version of what I learned while I was there:

Trees will win the war:
Afghanistan has a long history of success with tree-based agriculture. War is hard on trees, so after thirty years of conflict in the country there aren’t a heck of a lot of them left. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan grew some of the world’s best walnuts, pistachios, almonds, apricots, and pomegranates (including a seedless variety). The widespread destruction of the local forests and orchards has led to the usual problems associated with deforestation; topsoil erosion, water runoff, air pollution, and so on.

It is not far-fetched to say that trees will save this country. The international community has implemented numerous programs geared toward the planting of fruit trees for commercial use and fast-growing trees such as poplar for lumber and firewood. In some provinces there are even programs in place to replant wild forests, though their limited financial benefits have mostly kept these on the backburner in favor of more immediately profitable projects.

Grapes are one of the most successful crops in the country and have been for a long time. When Alexander the Great’s armies invaded, his staff identified at least a dozen different varieties of grapes. Seedless grapes were invented in Afghanistan. Much of the world’s raisins come from Afghanistan. Despite this legacy, there are many basic concepts they have not yet grasped. For example: trellises. In California whenever you see a vineyard it is trademarked by rows of trellises that stretch for miles and miles. In Afghanistan most grapes are grown on the ground, making them more prone to pest infestation and yielding less fruit.

Alternative crops are the key to eradicating opium:
Every year in Afghanistan, local farmers grow roughly $4Billion worth of Opium poppies. That $4Billion worth of poppies becomes $16Billion worth of heroin on the streets of Europe and the United States. Since the demand for this crop will remain high, the only best way to get the locals to stop growing it is a coupling of a “sharper stick and a bigger carrot.” The ideal way is to make sure that everyone knows that poppy fields will be burned while also making sure everyone knows that we will help them if they opt to plant alternative crops that will yield a higher profit instead. Opium is very easy to grow, so we have to work to incentivize the growth of more challenging crops (pomegranates, saffron, apricots, etc).

Afghans are very nationalistic about their food:
An Afghan will pay more for an egg laid in Afghanistan than they will for an egg laid in Pakistan. The anecdotal ethnic-suspicion-fueled rumors that Pakistanis try to poison Afghans help to drive this aspect of the market. There are a few programs in place to train local farmers and widows in the care and feeding of chickens, but they could all stand to be expanded.

There’s no shortage of water:
Despite the general impression to the contrary, there isn’t a shortage of water in Afghanistan. In fact, there is more water per capita in Afghanistan than there is in Switzerland. The problem is that all of the water flows freely out of the country and there are not very many people in the country with water management knowledge. The US Army Corps of Engineers has been trying for some time to get funding for a nationwide watershed survey in Afghanistan that will allow them to plan the construction of reservoirs, and dams as well as hydroelectric and irrigation projects. A number of international donors have expressed an open willingness to fund the myriad number of water usage projects that this survey will provide for. So far, nobody is willing to shell out the $4.5million required to conduct the survey itself.

Afghans love sheep and goats:
In addition to the plant-based agriculture, the local economy depends a lot on animal-based agriculture. This is primarily comprised of goats and sheep. Wool from the Ghazni province (in southeast Afghanistan) is world-famous. The main obstacle to developing this niche in the market is that the country lacks the infrastructure necessary to effectively distribute their products. Most Ghazni wool is exported and made into finished products in Pakistan. It’s not uncommon to find rugs in high-end department stores worldwide marked “Made in Pakistan, 100% Ghazni wool.”

In addition to the wool, Afghanistan makes some of the world’s best cashmere. Cashmere comes from certain types of goats and the Afghans have a shit ton of them. The main problem with their production is the manner in which they harvest it. To get the optimal yield of cashmere from your goat, you need to brush out the fine undercoat and use that part. When the Afghan goatherds do it, they shear the goats and then try to separate the fine undercoat from the long, coarse, topcoat. This is labor-intensive and consumes much of the profit that would come from the final product. How much profit? One ton of raw cashmere is worth approximately $12,000US. In a country where the average person earns barely one dollar a day, this is a very significant amount of money.

One of the more successful projects instituted by USAID (the United States Agency for International Development) has been the development of Veterinary Field Units. These are one-man travelling vaccination stations built into a truck with a solar-powered refrigerator that can move from village to village and treat livestock. Each one is basically a self-contained, Afghan-owned veterinary clinic. This leads to the next problem…

Charity is ruining this place:
Whenever a foreign donor comes along and gives something away for free, it puts a local out of business. Case in point: wheat seed. Last year there was a big push to distribute wheat seed to help the locals kick off their planting season. As a result, none of the farm supply distributors in the country carry wheat seed anymore. Since the international community is giving it away for free, there’s no longer any profit in it. As a result, we’ve inadvertently shattered a little piece of the privately developed supply infrastructure.

This same thing happens whenever we show up and do a VETCAP (essentially a free visit from Army veterinarians) or MEDCAP (Army doctors) or hand out food as part of a humanitarian aid project. While all of these things make us feel good in the short term, over the long term they undermine the locals’ ability to provide these goods and services for themselves. This is why we need to stick closer to our own policy of providing direct assistance in only the most extreme cases, while simultaneously supporting the development of infrastructure that will allow Afghans to buy Afghan products from Afghan sources. Our aim should be to increase the value chain and improve Afghan business practices. We need to stop fixing problems for a day or a month and set them up to be fixed for decades to come.

Women’s empowerment has a long way to go:
In a contest broadcast on Tolo Television Network, contestants were brought in to showcase their business plan proposals in the hopes of winning cash prizes to put toward the establishment of their businesses. The second place winner was an Afghan woman who had a very promising business model for a textile factory. Although she always appeared on television covered in her burkha, residents in her village were able to figure out who she was and set about regularly attacking and beating her father and her brother. Local police refused to intervene unless they were given half of her $10,000 prize as “protection money.”

This is a high-profile example of misogynistic sentiment in the country, but the driving forces behind it are not especially rare. While it is imperative that we strive to improve women’s standing in Afghanistan, it is vital that we remain sensitive to the long-standing cultural resistance to women’s rights. Too much too soon will only make it harder.

There was a lot of useful information that was put out and there was an official photo taken of the whole crowd that showed up (suitable for framing). Unfortunately Vic and I had to catch a ride home before the conference was over, so we missed a couple of the lectures.


  1. Thank you for this very interesting and well-written post!

    I studied anthropology in undergrad and I cannot emphasize the importance of your last point enough. In spite of the fact that it fair and just for women to have equal rights, it is extremely ethnocentric of us to impose our rules and beliefs on another culture. I believe that the advancement of society economically leads to reform not only in human rights but also in environmental policy, etc. You tend not to worry what you're doing to someone and/or to the world if you're focused on where you're getting your next meal.

  2. A while back someone in the office was going on about how we need to press the women's rights issue harder. I pointed out that going to a rural Afghan village and trying to push women's rights is akin to going to a small town in the American Bible Belt and trying to teach teenage girls about using anal sex for birth control. It's a great way to make sure that nobody will listen to anything you say ever again, and there's a good chance of getting killed in the process.

    A lot of folks think we need to turn this country into a modern, Western democracy. According to the Afghan lunar calendar, we're just starting the year 1388. IF you look around, you can see that that's just about right. In a lot of ways, this civilization is about 600 years behind us. We have to remember that even in the United States women's suffrage didn't become a reality until 1920 and there are still gender equality issues today. We can't expect these folks to make ideological changes overnight that took us two hundred years.

    While it's true that women were allowed to vote by the 1963 Afghan constitution, the overwhelming oppression by the Taliban regime set them back at least 80 years. Since the US invasion of 2001, there have been huge strides forward*, but we still have to carefully manage our expectations.

    *Among other notable facts, women are allowed to vote, there are female parliamentarians, and there is even a female Provincial Governor in the mostly Hazara province of Bamyan.

  3. Your "Charity is ruining this place" section is spot on.
    As is your above comment about not having to turn the region into a modern democracy.
    kudos :)