In an open, dusty part of southern Afghanistan where fighting between Taliban forces and NATO troops is commonplace, and jobs are scarce, an organization is working to train Afghans to make them more employable.
The program seems simple enough — recruit Afghans, supply them with job training and send them back to their communities to make a living.
But the location — in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold and active insurgency against NATO troops — makes it more complicated.
The program is called Invest in Helmand and is run by Mercy Corps, a Portland, Ore.-based group with a branch in the UK.
The group started Invest in March 2011 and chose to work in conflict-susceptible Helmand because that’s “where there was most significant demand,” said David Haines, Afghanistan country director for Mercy Corps.
“We were approached by community members and shuras (local councils) to do something about the lack of training opportunities — there are no government training facilities throughout the province.”
Also, Britain’s Department for International Development, which helps fund the program, wanted to focus there because of the presence of British troops, he said.
The Invest program training includes mobile phone, computer and engine repair, carpentry, metal work, embroidery and tailoring. Training sites are in Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah, Gereshk and most recently Marjah.
Although the program is not even a year old, it has undergone some substantial changes.
“If I look at what we’re delivering now and I look back to the proposal 12 months ago, it’s like night and day, because obviously you learn a huge amount,” said Haines.
For example, Mercy Corps learned that students tended to stay for the duration of the course when they were recruited and referred to the program by their shuras and sponsored by the communities.
“It means there’s an undertaking on the shuras’ part that they will support the students to start the business and the students are much more likely to stay for the duration of the course because they’ve raised an expectation within their own communities that it’s a privileged position to be put forward to these courses. And so they have to make the most of it,” Haines said.
It also removes Mercy Corps from the picture somewhat, which is a good thing, he said. “There’s a switch from Mercy Corps directly implementing something in the community to facilitating people already in the community to do the same thing. It makes things a lot more sustainable and culturally appropriate.”
Another big change is more women are getting involved.
Mercy Corps specifically started with male students in order to gain traction within the community, demonstrate the benefits of the program and gain credibility, said Haines.
“People, in the rural areas particularly, are always concerned that either we’re trying to brainwash people politically as an international organization, or convert people to Christianity.”
After about seven months, the Invest program started training women, which required a separate location, and all-female teachers and security guards.
In addition, because it’s a conservative area with concerns about security, families were reluctant to have their daughters, sisters and wives go outside without a male relative. So Mercy Corps provides buses to take them to and from classes, said Haines.
The program now has 700 female students out of a total 8,400 and hopes to increase that number.
Students range in age from 15 to 60. About 70 percent are illiterate, and many come from conflict communities, said Haines.
“Most don’t have a formal education and would be employed as laborers in fields or construction. They sacrifice the income that they would be getting normally to study for three to six months.”
Since the start of the program, about 65 percent have gotten jobs or started their own successful businesses, he said.
One of the most attractive features to students is that the teachers come from the private sector within the local community.
In Marjah, for example, Mercy Corps looked for carpenters who were the busiest at local bazaars and made deals with them to serve as instructors. The carpenters get a free workforce; the students get trained and boost their employability by saying they trained under a well-known craftsman in the community.
The program also provides students with another economic option, rather than joining an insurgency for the money. “A big chunk of people who join the insurgency do so for economic reasons — it’s not ideological or religious or political — it’s purely economics,” Haines said.
The interaction students have with one another also helps lessen tensions, he added, since they are exposed to different social and economic groups. “The students just learn to get along, basically.”