In Uruzgan, a destitute province in southern Afghanistan, the local people define "rich" as "possessing a two-months supply of food." The worst drought in living memory and 22 years of ongoing war has left this region in ruins.
The majority of residents are dependent on agriculture as their sole means of livelihood, but crops have failed due to lack of water for the past several years and livestock has perished without adequate fodder and grazing lands. The people of Uruzgan have slipped into heavy debt in an effort to simply survive.
Debt is not new to Afghanistan, but the prolonged drought and instability of the region has resulted in a downward spiral of communities into total poverty and despair, with little hope of ever escaping. It is here that Mercy Corps is working with the support of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to reconstruct and rehabilitate the economic, agricultural and social infrastructure in order to promote long-term recovery and sustainable livelihoods.
Projects include rehabilitation or reconstruction initiatives, agriculture projects such as seed distribution, the establishment of 16 nurseries, and the development of 23 veterinary field units to provide basic healthcare and vaccinations for livestock. Another major component of the project is to increase access to drinking water and improve water management practices.
Mercy Corps has taken a cash-for-work approach to many of the program components, focusing on labor-intensive projects that require a large number of workers for implementation. The goal: to create employment opportunities and increase family purchasing power, while providing desperately needed improvements in rural infrastructures. This injection of cash into local economies will enable families to buy much-needed commodities and services, pay-off debt and minimize the need for migration in search of income.
With OFDA support, Mercy Corps is implementing numerous cash-for-work projects including the rehabilitation/reconstruction of 373 springs, 86 kilometers of roadways, 50 shallow wells, 14 karez, six culverts, and four schools. These projects will directly benefit 74,830 people.
When asked if the recipients preferred cash-for-work programs to other types such as food-for-work, the response was virtually unanimously in favor of cash. One man noted that he owed money to a doctor that he had to repay in cash, not wheat. If he had received wheat, he would have been forced to sell his wheat at a low rate in order to pay his debt. Receiving cash enabled him to avoid the cost of transporting the wheat to market and the loss of value he would make on the sale. With a cash payment, he was able to pay-off his most pressing debt and could continue to access medical care.