By Mario A. Montes
NMSU Experts Guide Afghanistan Project
Making progress on economic development program
It began in August 2007 with a hurriedly gathered fund proposal. Talk among interested parties gave the proposal a 5 percent chance of success. Why wouldn’t they? History had always favored the larger land-grant universities with this type of project. But despite the negativity toward success, New Mexico State University counted on something special – its longtime work in agriculture and water systems in the arid lands of New Mexico. And it was this special work that helped secure a $20 million project that basically would build a Cooperative Extension Service operation in Afghanistan, more than 7,000 miles from Las Cruces, N.M.
Fast-forward to November 2008 and the AWATT or Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by NMSU in collaboration with other universities, has taken substantial steps toward establishing “an economic development program” for this war-torn nation.
Since May, NMSU experts have made contacts and hired several key people in Afghanistan. They have established a base of operations in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
“We’ve rented a compound and have now hired seven to eight Afghans who come to work at this compound,” said Roger Beck, professor of NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service and lead project manager, who returned from Afghanistan Nov. 2. “We had our team in place in July. We have now done our PRAs, our participatory rural appraisals. We are right at the jumping off stage of really getting the project going next year.”
Even though NMSU researchers have done agriculture and water projects in Jordan and Iraq, Afghanistan presents its own set of problems for the Afghan team – namely the resurgence of the Taliban threat, kidnappings and bombings, which have spread to once safer areas of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s dilapidated infrastructure and its cultural mores have also factored into some of the management problems. But despite these “in-the-back-of-the-mind” factors, the team has had success in “effecting change from the ground up and getting the people to help themselves,” said Beck and Jeanne Gleason, NMSU professor and director of Media Productions, who is introducing multi-media technology to help train and literally leave a lasting image of Extension Service processes.
One of the first steps the project had to tackle was gathering information and identifying individuals who could serve as Extension agents, Beck said. The participatory rural appraisals served to meet this purpose. Farmers and community leaders in Afghanistan were invited to attend meetings so they could relay to experts and Extension agents their agriculture and water needs.
“It’s getting input from locals,” Beck said.
Gleason was recently in Afghanistan when some of the meetings were being held. Her photographs show crowded rooms of farmers and community leaders listening intently to their teachers. The chief of party is the lead Afghan project leader, and Abdul Qayyum Khan has been instrumental in picking out about 12 Extension agents from these PRA meetings to go out into the villages to gather information on agricultural and water needs.
“We cannot go to the villages,” Beck said. “It is not safe for us. They can come into central locations, but we can’t go to the villages.” Of the 12 selected, the project got approval to take them to India for further Extension training, Beck said.
“That’s what we call the capacity building phase of the project, building local capacity. And I would say that’s at least a third to almost half of the project. That’s what will stay after we leave,” Beck said. “This long-term capacity building or human capital development is the key to the longterm economic growth of that country – the people, the people,” Beck emphasized.
Both Beck and Gleason were adamant that the Afghanistan project is not a data collection research project but a project to “effect change.”
“It’s about doing things. Effecting change from the ground up and getting the people to help themselves,” Beck and Gleason said.
The next step for Beck was returning to Afghanistan early in 2009, and he went with the hopes of making more contacts in other areas. The areas he selects are made with care, because some areas are too dangerous. Eventually, the team hopes to establish four regional offices in Afghanistan. They currently are working in the provinces of Balkh and Nangarhar, in the cities of Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh, and Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar. Afghanistan has 34 provinces and has a population of about 31 million, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Web site.
“Our mission is to work throughout the country,” Beck said. “Next time I go out, I want to establish relations in Herat … This part is in western Afghanistan and is influenced by Iran.”
Beck and Gleason agree they have gotten very positive feedback from the Afghan people. Many agencies and research groups have started and ended projects in Afghanistan, sometimes leaving Afghans to believe these projects come and go and “they talk, they talk, they talk,” Beck said, remembering some of the comments made to him.
Beck relayed a conversation he had with the Afghan deputy minister of agriculture: “The deputy minister of agriculture told me, ‘Roger I really appreciate your work, because everyday I deal with foreign agencies that come in here and talk about what they are trying to do, but your group really understands what we really need,’” Beck said. “We are hearing really positive things.” Beck added that they will be setting benchmarks on their progress but “hopefully we can have local Afghans take ownership of what we’re trying to do and that they in turn keep an eye on these things and keep them going.”