Rebuilding Afghanistan’s Villages, Rug by Rug
Thursday, January 12, 2012
When Connie Duckworth flew into Kabul for the first time in 2003, the city below “looked like Berlin after World War II,” she says. Since that visit with the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council-a non-partisan initiative tasked with supporting Afghan women-Duckworth has devoted her life and career to rebuilding Afghanistan, carpet by carpet. Duckworth founded ARZU, a nonprofit, artisanal rug company where every item produced and donation received helps pay the salary of local weavers and funds social programs to lift rural families out of crushing poverty.
Afghan women need all the help they can get. The combination of gender segregation, violence against women, limited access to health care, and extreme poverty make Afghanistan the worst place on earth to be a woman, according to a survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation released this summer. And, lest we forget, it’s ground zero for a war that just turned 10 years old.
The challenge of getting anything done in Afghanistan, particularly the rural areas where Duckworth chose to set up shop, is compounded by a lack of infrastructure, widespread corruption, and a lack of cooperation between religious and ethnic groups. “When we started there was no central bank,” adds Duckworth. “You couldn’t wire-transfer money into the country.”
So if you can make it in Afghanistan, you can make it anywhere, she says. “I always have viewed community development and international development from a business perspective,” says Duckworth, voicing an unsurprising mindset for a woman whose first career was a 20-year tour of duty at Goldman Sachs. Afghanistan is “a proxy for how can you innovate and experiment with new models to empower women globally…You have to develop local, small basic grassroots activity or you don’t have a shot for peace.”
ARZU’s approach has enabled the organization to grow from 30 to 700 weavers-spread across 13 villages, two religious sects, and four ethnic groups-in just seven years. The core principal of ARZU is a family’s subscription to a “social contract.” The family of every woman weaver working for ARZU must agree to send its kids to school full-time. Heads of households must allow their wives to attend ARZU’s literacy classes for two hours a day. In exchange for compliance, workers receive a living wage and the chance at a 50 percent bonus for high-quality work.