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New graduates yield unexpected returns

Afghanistan, May 15, 2012

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  • More then 3,600 students graduated last month from our INVEST vocational training program. If previous classes are any indication, 80% of them will find jobs or start businesses with their new skills. Photo: David Haines/Mercy Corps
  • Looking at the "parking lot," it seemed like the entire city of Lashkar Gah came out to see these young men and women commemorate their studies. Photo: David Haines/Mercy Corps

INVEST, our vocational training program in Helmand, Southern Afghanistan, has been running now for a little over a year. And last month, we graduated 3,615 students from the fourth semester — over a thousand of them were young women, many of whom had no education before enrolling in these courses.

The program targets out-of-work youth and offers them skills and financial literacy, enabling them to make their own way in the world. Since we opened the program to women, they’ve come to class with little knowledge of the world outside their tightly controlled home lives. They often begin with low self-confidence and little belief that there may be a future for them. They graduate as confident, ambitious young adults who want to contribute to society and make a difference in the world.

Over 80% of the INVEST students, men and women both, will go on to start businesses or get jobs. It’s a percentage that, for me, defies belief when you consider that these are not youngsters who have grown up in comfortable middle class environments in the West; instead, they were born into and lived through two decades of conflict. Almost all have lost close relatives to the fighting, many have seen their homes destroyed and many have fled the places where they grew up, just to survive.

Not only have they achieved something amazing — proving wrong the common misconception that Afghanistan is a failed state with no hope — but they have also had a significant impact on their society. The Governor of Helmand has stated that since this program began a year ago, the crime rate amongst young people has dropped, domestic disturbances have fallen and drug usage has dramatically decreased. He puts it down to one thing: These young people now have hope.

Working in development can be frustrating as progress is often maddeningly hard to pin down. But it is instances like this when you see that Mercy Corps and the international community can really make a difference. By tapping into latent talent and ambition, it is possible to harness enthusiasm and turn it into results. It is on days like this that doing this work really feels like the privilege that it is.

When we started this program, I was reading a book about changing lives for the better, and one line really stood out for me: “What matters is uniting people behind a common purpose, setting high expectations and sticking with it.”

This concept encapsulates the INVEST program, with its small but dedicated team and its large and committed student body. I get such a buzz when I see students that I have known personally now running their own shops or working for the Government or pursuing further study. Now that we have a new crop of graduates, I am looking forward to seeing what amazing things they will achieve, and how they will inspire the next generation of students.