Now is the time for the Eradication of Poverty

16 October 2013

by Chris Beales

On International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Afghan Action's Chris Beales shares his views

The eradication of poverty links directly to income and employment. So here’s a thought. The answer to unemployment isn’t jobs, it’s skills.

In countries where menial jobs often pay meagre wages, the need to acquire real, practical, marketable skills is the best way for people to get out of poverty and have a greater say in determining their own lives. This is acutely true in Afghanistan, where a desperate shortage of skills among the indigenous people sees the import of goods and services worth nearly US$6500 million at the end of 2012, while exports were a mere US$375 million.

Afghanistan is not all bad news. Despite the continuing, opportunist criminals at large and deep seated corruption ,the general health of the population has increased slightly, the average life span has risen in the last decade from 44 to 50 and millions of children are now able to go to school. Nearly 65% of the population is under 24 – this is a country of youth hungry for change. 

And change is needed, desperately.  40% of men over 15 can read and write but only 12% of women.  25-30% of children under 14 are engaged in child labour. And all this after well over $50 billion has been spent on non-military aid since 2002, with another $16 billion committed for the period 2012-16. 

“The World Bank says that since 2002 some $55 billion of aid has flowed into the country, and billions of it has flowed out again to pay the salaries of foreign staff and profits to foreign contractors. The World Bank estimates that, in projects that use foreign contractors, only 10-25% of funds given are spent on the ground in Afghanistan.” (The Economist, July 2012)

It seems to me that, alongside these huge issues, small steps can still make a difference. I’ve been involved for 8 years with a project in Kabul, Afghan Action’s Training & Business Incubation Centre, providing education and skills training for over 1000 young men and women to date, as well as on-site healthcare and a nourishing midday meal. Before the economic downturn, we had 180 people on site and we were making carpets for Habitat and John Lewis, as well as holding our own sales and events.  But the crash nearly did for us.

We’ve slowly rebuilt, and currently have 51 people on site. 17 trainees are learning how to sew and make clothes and uniforms for local schools, hospitals and companies. They are also making quilts for people living in dire poverty and squalor in tent camps around the capital.  Our target is to find 200 sponsors (@ £20/quilt) to provide for the cost of training, materials and delivery of 200 quilts.  If you can help, please let me know.

We’re now at an important point of change. Our partners in Kabul need to grow the sewing and clothing side of their social enterprise and move towards greater sustainability and self sufficiency. So we’re aiming to produce clothes and uniforms during working hours (8am to 4pm) with provision for education and training after 4pm, plus a vocational skills training programme in local secondary schools, “bolted on” to the existing academic studies. Education is improving but young people do not necessarily progress on to good employment because they haven’t acquired the skills the Afghan economy most needs – ICT, administration, book keeping and accountancy, catering, engineering, construction, transportation, logistics, teaching, healthcare or whatever.  Too many of these jobs continue to be filled by foreign skilled labour.

None of this is rocket science. But tell me this? Why are the NGOs not working together – instead of competing for resources? Why does no one hear what so many Afghans are asking for – a chance to train, to work, to learn, to earn?

Afghanistan isn’t exceptional in this respect – we’re only just learning (or relearning) in the UK the importance of providing our own youngsters with technical vocational skills as well as academic qualifications. I’m a fan of the new movement to create University Technical Colleges, getting local companies involved in contributing to the curriculum and providing work experience. And I suggest this could work well in Afghanistan.

To pay for vocational skills training, we need to provide well trained staff and pay for overheads and running costs. Actually, it’s not a lot - for only £40,000 a year over 200 trained and equipped youngsters could be finding good, sustainable, much needed jobs.

Perhaps I’m being simplistic. But in 8 years of doing this work I’ve learned that a little can go a long way. And I’ve also learned that grand words make not a scrap of difference to people’s lives until they translate into action. And now is the time for action.