In the Afghan provinces of Herat and Kandahar, Cordaid and the Norwegian Refugee Council have started a new business development programme to create job opportunities for displaced people and returning refugees.
The programme is called RAWNAQ. “It means prosperity”, says Sunil Rahimi, programme coordinator based in Cordaid’s office in Kabul.
More prosperity for the Afghan people, that’s Rahimi and his team’s mission, especially for those who had to flee their homes because of a longstanding conflict that has caused unimaginable damage and suffering for almost twenty years.
Building capacity for positive change
For over twelve of those years, Rahimi has been working with various organisations to improve the lives of a great number of people through organisational capacity building, among many other efforts to bring about positive change in his beloved and – unbeknownst to many – stunningly beautiful country.
RAWNAQ is funded by the European Union’s development cooperation department and will run for 3,5 years. As the lead organisation of the consortium, the Norwegian Refugee Council works on identifying the displaced people and returnees who could participate in the programme. Cordaid provides support to businesses through technical coaching and mentorship.
Opportunities for the internally displaced and returnees
The project aims to create job opportunities for internally displaced persons and returnees from the neighbouring provinces or the surrounding countries Iran and Pakistan. The goal is to create 1200 new jobs and safeguard another 800.
Rahimi: “Through a vast array of activities. We support businesses at different scales and levels, and we provide technical support and training in two phases.”
The first phase consists of business development training. When the trainers notice that a business owner is truly committed and interested in the programme, Cordaid will support them with technical coaching and mentorship. This should enable them to start creating more jobs for the people in the region.
The second phase is a coaching trajectory for either 3, 6 or 9 months. In this period, Cordaid identifies the detailed technical challenges each business faces and recruits dedicated consultants to help resolve these problems, in close collaboration with the business owner.
“More than 40% of the youth in Afghanistan is unemployed and almost 90% of Afghans live below the poverty line. That’s a staggering number.”
To help kickstart businesses, the consortium also provides interest-free loans and grants. Participants can apply after they’ve completed the first phase. Once approved, the business owners can apply for a loan at a private bank. When the loan has been granted, the programme will take care of the interest rate. In return, the businesses will be obligated to recruit a specific number of displaced people or returnees from the programme’s database.
Though seemingly a very well-thought-out plan, the staff will need to execute the programme in some of the most challenging circumstances in the world. Rahimi gives a quick recap of the current situation in his country.
“We’ve been in lockdown for a while. In Herat life has returned to normal, for the most part. In the first period of the pandemic, it was tough. Most of the refugees who were residing in Iran were forced to leave and return to Afghanistan. Now, the number of returnees has decreased significantly, and the shops have opened again.
Unfortunately, in Kandahar and the neighbouring provinces, the security situation has deteriorated and the local media are reporting the displacement of another 35.000 people. The region of Herat is much calmer and more industrialised.”
What is the effect of all these problems in Afghanistan on the employment rate?
“Well, they’ve created a major challenge. More than 40% of the youth in Afghanistan is unemployed and almost 90% of Afghans live below the poverty line. That’s a staggering number. We need to support young people by teaching them all sorts of skills to help decrease this number and increase the employment rate.”
Why are you focussing on Herat and Kandahar?
“NRC is very active in both Kandahar and Herat and Cordaid also has a strong presence in Herat, with a regional field office and a good reputation. In Kandahar, we work with a partner organisation, also with a strong local presence.
“Afghans first need to observe peace with their own eyes. They need to see a change in the behaviour of the people who are fighting, from all sides.”
Another reason to focus on these two provinces is that they are the main borders with Iran and Pakistan. Kandahar is a vital importing and exporting zone and Herat has a very active border with Iran. Lots of refugees return from both Iran and Pakistan.”
Do the current peace talks between the government and the Taliban incite any hope for more stability in the near future?
“Without peace, we will never have a thriving economy or prosperity. But people here…they don’t really believe in the honesty of the parties that are negotiating for peace. Those who do believe peace is possible, believe it’s just a temporary arrangement and a way for the warring parties to divide their powers. Dismantled armed groups will just resurface somewhere else, is what many think. Without a true cease-fire, these peace talks will not impact the lives of people in Afghanistan. There is still a lot of violence all over the country.
The bigger cities are relatively peaceful. But we mustn’t forget about those who live in far regions. My relatives who live quite remote, they experience violence every single day.
So, Afghans first need to observe peace with their own eyes. They need to see a change in the behaviour of the people who are fighting, from all sides.
On top of that, they have been ignored by government entities for too long. And people who can’t count on the support of their government might be compelled to join groups like the Taliban. Unemployment is also a factor. They simply have nothing to do. They don’t have a proper education, they can’t find a job, they basically don’t have a life. In the insurgency, they find a connection, a purpose.”
“People who live a decent life can also provide proper education for their children. This will lead to a new generation with more opportunities than the previous one.”
That sounds like a Catch-22. Peace is a prerequisite for economic development, while economic opportunities are a prerequisite for stability. How do we go further and how can we make positive change in Afghanistan happen?
“By making our development efforts multiple and sustainable. By supporting businesses and creating opportunities for IDPs and returnees, we can make lasting changes. By the end of the programme, the participants will be equipped with a long-term plan.
This way, we develop stable pockets in the country. When their income increases, businesses will expand into other areas. They will hire more employees and people’s lives will start to change.
People who live a decent life can also provide proper education for their children. This will lead to a new generation with more opportunities than the previous one.”
Women’s right has always been a pressing topic in Afghanistan. In what way will the programme contribute to the empowerment of Afghan women?
“Female IDPs often have a strong ambition to start their own business. We encourage them and they respond really well to what the programme offers them.
We need to make sure our services reach as many women as possible. Now, the percentage of female participants is between 24% and 30%.
In Herat, we might reach a higher number of women because the city is culturally more open-minded when it comes to women owning businesses and working for a living. In Kandahar, it’s quite different. The region is more conservative, and women usually don’t have these opportunities.”
When the project ends in 3,5 years, what do you hope you have achieved?
“I would like to see many displaced people and returnees, people without almost any opportunity before, secure a decent job. I would like to see positive change in the business mindset of more than 160 small and medium enterprises thanks to our support. And I would like to see them innovate their production and maximise their profit and sales, which will result in community capital formation and job creation.”