Breaking the cycle of debt in Afghanistan

April 28, 2017

Join our team on a journey to the remote village of Shah Dara in northeast Afghanistan. It’s a beautiful but harsh environment, and residents often find themselves caught in a cycle of debt just to feed their families. But 64-year-old Farid* has broken the cycle. He’s not only feeding his family — he’s now feeding hungry market-goers at an eatery he co-owns.

The drive to Cha’Ab district in northeast Afghanistan is long, bone-bumping, and, if it weren’t for the foot of snow that fell just a few nights ago, it would also be very dusty. This part of the country is basically rock and dust — a farmer’s nightmare anywhere in the world. Situated in a valley, the area is also vulnerable to floods, earthquakes and landslides. Yet agriculture is the main source of income here, and somehow people manage to eke out an existence despite the challenges.

Cha'Ab, Afghanistan

The road to Cha’Ab, Afghanistan along a river sub-basin. Photo: Concern Worldwide

This remote snowy valley might not be where you’d expect to find Concern, but we’re here, working with almost 10,000 people living in some of the world’s most difficult conditions.

Pure subsistence living

Shah Dara village has a busy market, but behind the bustle are many people living in poverty. There are no decent roads, no access to farm technologies, and many of the residents here struggle to earn an income. The result is regular food shortages, which lead the area’s most vulnerable people to take out annual loans during the lean season, and spend the harvest working to pay them off. If they are lucky, they might have extra cash after repaying their loans, but for the most part it is pure subsistence living — an endless cycle of going under, recovering, and going under again.

Shah Dara village market in Afghanistan

Shah Dara village market, one of the communities that the Concern Cha’Ab district team is working with. Photo: Concern Worldwide

This area of Afghanistan is highly exposed to the elements. During the winter and spring it is very difficult to reach the district center, other than by donkey or on foot. Flooding and landslides are common and result in livestock and agricultural land being washed away. After a flood, villagers struggle to rebuild their lives as they have no money to recoup their losses. At these times in particular, they rely on the support of the government or organizations like Concern.

Farid’s story

It is here in Shah Dara that we meet Farid*. At 64 years old, he has already exceeded Afghanistan’s average life expectancy of 59. Like most elderly people here, he has a storied face revealing many hard years, and eyes that highlight the struggles he has seen.

When we arrive, Farid offers us tea. Here in Afghanistan, sharing tea is part custom, part hospitality, and part addiction.

When we meet Farid, he’s chopping meat in an eatery that he shares with two others. It would be misleading to call his business a restaurant as the image that you might conjure up in your mind would be far from the reality. To enter the cafe, customers walk through a muddy yard with donkeys into a very basic, bare room, where they can sit on cushions laid out along the walls. The kitchen, the dining room, and the storeroom are one. When we arrive, Farid offers us tea. Here in Afghanistan, sharing tea is part custom, part hospitality, and part addiction. Farid is warm, welcoming, and friendly, and although busy, he generously gives up time to chat with us.

Eatery in Shah Dara village in Afghanistan.

Entrance to Farid’s eatery in Shah Dara village in northeast Afghanistan. Photo: Concern Worldwide.

In Farid’s home, there are 12 mouths to feed — his wife, daughters, daughters-in-law, sons, and grandchildren. After a flood in 2015, he lost his two cows and a jerib of land. All together, the residents of Shah Dara lost 40 farm animals and 50 jeribs of land in that flood. Farid is philosophical: “What’s gone is gone, there is no recovery,” he says.

After that flood, Farid joined a Concern livelihoods initiative. Our team provided Farid with nearly 90 pounds of wheat seeds, 77 pounds of flax seeds, fencing, poles and cement, and Farid used the materials to build a demonstration plot. In 2016, more than 1,000 pounds of wheat was harvested, along with 460 pounds of flax.

Breaking the cycle of debt

Prior to joining the program, Farid was one of the villagers who had no choice but to take out a loan to make ends meet. This year he has enough wheat to feed his family and sell can sell the surplus.

Farid is now able to feed his family. He does not have to walk for a day to get work to pay back loans.

He also has enough flax to produce oil and animal fodder to sell at the market. Although he saved some of the flax seeds to sow this year, he tells us he could not afford to keep any wheat seeds to sow next season. Farid also received 150 poplar saplings. These will reach maturity in approximately three years when they can be used for construction or to sell on.

Trenches in Shah Dara, Afghanistan

Trenches made by villagers from Shah Dara through a ‘food for work’ program run by Concern, with support from the World Food Programme. Photo: Concern Worldwide

Before Farid joined the Concern project, he used to travel to another district, a full day’s walk away, to find work during the harvest. Last year he was asking for loans to help buy food during the hunger gaps. Now, with the money he made from selling his wheat and flax, he has joined two others in opening this very simple eating house for market goers. His life is still one of subsistence, he has no savings and two of his sons just emigrated to Iran for work.

However, he is now able to feed his family without taking out loans. This means that he does not have to walk for a day to get work to pay back loans. While life is still difficult for Farid, he tells us that he is very appreciative of Concern’s work and is very happy with what he now has.

*Name changed for security purposes.

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