Extending the Horizon for Woman’s Aid Projects in Afghanistan

August 13, 2009

KABUL – Off the dust-coated Kote Sangi road in the Afghan capital stands a worn beige sign on stilts with blue painted letters advertising the Women’s World Market.Behind the sign, however, neither a market nor any women are to be seen.

Instead, what six months ago was a darkened shopping mall with few open stores and even fewer female customers is now a bustling cement shop filled with men searching for construction supplies.

The Women’s World Market, which opened in 2007 to donor fanfare, was designed to give women the opportunity to own their own shops, earn income and learn about business in a secure, women-only environment. But its out-of-the-way location – in a western Kabul district best known for selling construction materials – meant store owners had little neighborhood foot traffic to draw upon. This problem, coupled with high prices and a shortage of distinctive products on offer, meant the mall never caught on with Afghan customers.

The now-shuttered mall is among the more visible efforts that have been aimed at empowering Afghan women but have failed to fulfill supporters’ hopes. Hindered by what development agencies acknowledge has been poor planning, insufficient appreciation of the environment’s myriad complexities and an aid mentality focused on quick cash infusions rather than longer-term investment, many economic programs for women in Afghanistan have struggled to find their footing.

An estimated $16 billion in reconstruction and development funds has entered Afghanistan since 2002, though international donors have yet to distribute billions more in pledged assistance. Exactly how much of this money has gone to empowerment projects for women is hard to know, since two-thirds of the development money has been spent outside the government’s budget and much of the aid has never been reported.

Since 2002, the United States, Afghanistan’s largest donor, has directed $570 million to programs benefiting Afghan women and girls, with $175 million more likely to be approved for the coming fiscal year. Women’s health programs have received the largest share; $20 million has gone to economic initiatives.

Compared with these sums, the women’s mall was a small affair. Muzhgan Wafiq, the young Afghan entrepreneur who won tenants and donor support for the market, said that she spent more than $20,000 of her own savings to start the shopping center. The German aid agency G.T.Z. spent about $40,000 on the refurbishment of the two-floor mall, along with some advertising. And the small-business support arm of the U.S. Agency for International Development provided $10,000 to register the market as a business association.

In retrospect, the market’s backers say, they should have focused more on the feasibility of the project, given the awkward location. But the property was available and affordable, a rare combination in Kabul, where land rights are tangled and real estate is expensive. The thinking was that if they built it, women would come.

In the end, however, the strength of the concept was not enough. By the start of this year, it was largely abandoned by the nongovernmental organizations and entrepreneurs who were initially willing to pay the monthly rent, which ranged from 2,500 to 5,000 Afghanis, or $50 to $100.

Part of the challenge in creating successful economic programs, say both the women who participate in them and the development experts who create and implement them, is a lack of follow-through. While there is no shortage of training sessions for women in everything from agriculture to handicrafts, there are often few buyers for the goods that women are learning to produce.

Women’s silk scarves, for example, sold for as much as $20 at the women’s mall, with Afghan necklaces and handmade purses running from $5 to $15. High-quality goods made with foreign buyers in mind can garner such prices, but in a country where incomes are low and similar items can be found at local markets for a quarter of the price, the mall’s wares were a tough sell for Afghan customers.

Ueli Muller, who oversees G.T.Z.’s Women Employment Promotion Project, said that the question being asked before any economic program gets support today, no matter how well-intended, is: What are the market linkages? And where are the customers? That sort of thinking has led G.T.Z. to consider helping 100 women in Afghanistan’s north buy land for a cooperative and to explore a possible fair-trade carpet label aimed at European consumers.

In a country where unemployment is estimated at about 40 percent and donors are financing more than half of the government budget, sustainability is the buzzword. The goal is to assist women in building the skills they need to find and create jobs so that economic benefits follow the training.

Afghan organizations funded by foreign donors say they are starting to see evidence of this attitude within the international community.

“We used to give them sewing machines and after three months, the training was finished,” said Maryam Rahmani, country representative for the Afghan Women’s Resource Center. “Now we don’t just give them a kit and leave them; we are working with them to register with Afghan Women’s Business Federation, giving them marketing and business skills, and linking them to markets to sell their products.”

One challenge facing this evolution toward longer-term, market-based thinking is that aid professionals creating economic programs rarely possess the private-sector expertise critical to helping them stand on their own.

“Development workers don’t understand value chains,” said Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s former finance minister, whose long-shot presidential campaign has placed women’s education and economic strength at its center. He and others who focus on private sector growth say that development projects must do more to connect women with the commerce that is already happening in their country. “These training things are useless because what is the job at the end of it? We are not going to get out of poverty or out of insecurity unless we focus on women’s economic empowerment.”

This is a message that resonates with many aid groups. Unifem, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, is reassessing its approach to women’s economic efforts in Afghanistan since its country director, Wenny Kusuma, took a close look at a program aimed at providing livelihoods for rural women.

Visiting the program’s beneficiaries, most of whom had received goats and chickens, Ms. Kusuma found that few, if any, still owned the animals whose milk and eggs had been intended to provide their families with income. Some had sold the animals and others had been forced to give them to male family members.

“What we know we will not do is more of the same,” Ms. Kusuma said. “There is no future with women’s rights if we do not put women’s economic access, opportunity and rights at the center.”

The aid community is still trying to figure out how to support women’s economic progress in a country where women face insecurity, limited mobility and literacy rates below 15 percent, she added.

Ms. Kusuma and other development experts say that part of the challenge is short-term donor funding cycles, which encourage aid organizations to establish programs without being able to judge their effectiveness and then seek to show immediate results. “For me, there is one dimension which is consistently lacking: it is the long-term view, long-term planning which allows for a more holistic approach,” Ms. Kusuma said.

Unifem’s new strategy is to help women advocate for sounder economic policy and better market access for themselves.

All of this rethinking is welcome news to many Afghan officials. “If it does not stand up to the test of sustainability, it is not real capacity building,” said Afghan’s finance minister, Dr. Omar Zakhilwal, who previously ran the country’s investment support agency. “Empowering women in a real sense is not just sending them to a conference in Geneva and giving them an award for their bravery. The point is to strengthen women within the family.”

For her part, Ms. Wafiq said she, too, had learned from her missteps and was ready to try again, this time in a better location with new services, like a guest house and wellness center, and more experienced businesswomen. She hoped to be open once more for business by the fall and was seeking donors to back her idea the second time around.

“Business needs a lot of passion, creativity, and hard work,” Ms. Wafiq said. “I am ready to try again because I don’t want to accept that I failed; I will keep trying until I reach success.”