The self-help groups of Jalalabad

14 November 2016

by Bruce Clark - Afghanistan Country Representative at Tearfund

BAAG member Bruce revisits Afghanistan & reports how an idea initiated for women is also helping men

I first visited Jalalabad in Afghanistan 20 years ago in 1996.  In those days my wife and I were working in Peshawar some 80 miles away on the other side of the historic Khyber Pass.  The work of our organisation focussed on assisting Afghan refugees in the then North West Frontier Province of Pakistan also inside Afghanistan.  Kipling famously described Afghanistan as “the magic land beyond the passes.”  We thoroughly enjoyed the regular road trips through the Khyber Pass with its rugged beauty and famous history. 

Twenty years on and after numerous visits to Jalalabad, including five months living there in 1999, this autumn I was returning by road from Kabul.  This particular visit was overdue and my first visit back to the area for nearly four years.  Nowadays I’m based in London with the British charity Tearfund, which has supported relief and development projects in Afghanistan since the 1970s.  My responsibilities include overseeing the development projects we support in Afghanistan and this was what brought me back to Jalalabad last month. I was to spend two days with Tearfund partner Serve Afghanistan and their Eastern Region Community Development Programme (ERCDP). ERCDP works with poor rural communities in Nangarhar and Laghman provinces to help raise their incomes and improve employment opportunities.

As with the beautiful drive from Peshawar to Jalalabad, the road from Kabul to Jalalabad is also stunning, including the descent down the dramatic Kabul Gorge an hour east of Kabul. The drive which used to take six hours can now be completed in three thanks to the paved road, one of the positive legacies of the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan since 2001.

During this visit I met with men’s self-help groups, a newer aspect of Serve’s community development programme. These groups began after an exposure visit to women’s self-help groups, which had been established by another Tearfund partner in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. Serve decided that self-help groups might work for men as well as for women, and this is proving to be the case. For cultural reasons, I could not visit the women’s groups. 

The two men’s groups visited were making great strides. With some initial facilitation help from Serve, these groups of about 20 men meet twice a month to discuss various topics and to save and lend money to each other for small business activities. These have included purchasing milking cows, keeping hens, setting up village shops and buying a flour mill. Sayed Khan spoke enthusiastically about the difference borrowing £500 to buy a cow had made. As well as providing milk and cheese for his eleven family members, on a good month he can earn an additional £30 selling the cheese in Jalalabad, now just one hour away by the resurfaced road. 

Yousaf Gul, the group’s cashier, explained the economic benefits to their group, including over £1,100 saved in four years. He also enthusiastically recounted how the group had recently motivated their village to widen the village footpath into a 1.5km road. Every household has agreed to take part, and the village will completely self-fund this venture. The new road will link their village to the next and provide access to the bazaar there, bringing further economic benefits. It was especially inspiring to witness the unity and increased confidence these rural men were demonstrating. 

Safa village itself had about 100 households with a population of around 1,000 people.  I observed little in the way of wealth or modern aspects of life walking through the village, although I was twice warmly invited to stay for lunch.  This reminded me again of the rich and generous Afghan hospitality, despite such meagre material resources.  So, while we regularly hear of major challenges facing Afghanistan – including unemployment, conflict, migration and corruption – there is another side to report. Part of this can be seen in the generous hospitality of the people. It is also seen in the increasing numbers of men and women experiencing real and sustained change in their lives though self-help groups. It was a privilege to witness one small but significant aspect of this other side to the Afghan story.