Before Miguel and I left for Pakistan, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Mercy Corps Afghanistan's Director of Programs, Jeff Shannon. He updated me on the programs going in the areas of the country that I was unable to visit, as well as giving me a glimpse into what Mercy Corps' hopes for the Afghan youth and families with whom we work.
All of the programs that I visited were in the northern provinces of Afghanistan — what can you tell me about the programs we have in the south?
Much of our work is an effort to put information into the hands of the people. In Helmand and Kandahar, we are arming farmers with the various standards that they will need to adhere to so they can export their fruits and vegetables to other parts of the world. For example, there are these little green raisins that grow out here that are huge in India but most farmers export them without cleaning them and with stems attached. Because of that, importers will only pay a fraction of what these farmers could get.
We are also implementing a pilot program that will give farmers in these provinces text updates on the market price for crops — so they can get the best price for what they have to sell. We are still trying to figure things out like how they register for specific updates in certain areas. As well, we are worried that if too many farmers get the same information and they all show up at the same market, that could drive the cost down and it wouldn't be worth it.
What can you tell me about the agricultural high school work we are doing in those provinces as well?
Basically, our goal is to have an agricultural high school in each province in Afghanistan. For right now, we have schools in Baghlan, Helmand and Kandahar. Many of these schools are falling part or have been destroyed, so we are working to rebuild the basic infrastructure. Those schools were also using materials that are twenty to thirty years old. We are partnering with a Czech organization called People In Need and Purdue University to help train teachers, develop better teachers' manuals and learning materials, as well as getting the students better textbooks.
Are we working on anything else for Afghan youth?
Yes, we are starting a Junior Leadership Program that will work towards mapping out a career for young Afghans. We're not only working in high schools, but also setting up training and mentoring programs with manufacturing and agricultural businesses, so that by the end of the training period these businesses will have a pool of skilled labor to pick from. These kids need a purpose. Without it, they'll turn to the things that are right there — drug production, the Taliban or other criminal activities. We want to give them skill sets that will help them understand community and having a sense of belonging. We need to train the next generation before we lose them.
What do you see Mercy Corps moving towards in Afghanistan?
We need to help Afghans meet their immediate needs while still allowing them to work towards their own future. Take our reforestation efforts, for example. We are giving these farmers in Takhar pistachio trees to plant on these hills where the soil quality has been compromised by [other kinds of] trees getting torn out and used to heat their homes. By giving them these trees, they can not only start earning money by harvesting these nuts, but by taking care of the trees, the soil will start to improve and we'll see the entire area thrive.
We want to make sure, though, that we aren't creating dependence. We need to help them with these projects but then slowly remove our support, so they can rely on themselves. We want them to get to a point where they don't need us anymore.