For two years, the people of Afghanistan have been grappling with one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than 90% of the population are living in poverty and reliance on humanitarian aid has increased by 60% compared to 2021. The socioeconomic crisis is amplified by climate-aggravated natural disasters and extreme weather, threatening what livelihoods are left. Every day, Afghans demonstrate their unrelenting resilience as they struggle to earn an income and feed their families.
Whilst humanitarian support remains critical – 28 million of Afghanistan’s 35 million residents are in immediate humanitarian need – it is by nature a short-term fix. In September last year, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) formed a new partnership with the UK Government, building on a long history of supporting the people of Afghanistan. The 15-month programme aims to help Afghans move beyond immediate humanitarian relief towards enabling communities to rebuild.
The £10.2 million programme is operating across nine provinces and since September 2022, has reached nearly 300,000 people. Through the partnership, AKF is addressing various critical areas of concern – agriculture and food security, livelihoods and economic inclusion, and healthcare. The programme is also working improve the quality and accessibility of education for children and young people.
Boosting agriculture and food security
In Afghanistan’s rural regions, agricultural livelihoods are under threat. The relentless cycle of droughts and natural disasters is being exacerbated by inflated food prices, and for rural communities, the reality of hunger is stark. In response, AKF has been supporting 15,000 smallholder farmers in the production of wheat and vegetables.
Ghani Bai lives in a village in Baghlan province where around 300 households depend on agriculture to survive. Recurring droughts and the high cost of certified seeds have stifled Ghani Bai’s community’s farming efforts, which now yield meagre harvests from once fertile lands. AKF provided Ghani Bai with quality seeds and fertilisers. He says, “I have sowed my land and now my plots are ready to harvest. I will earn enough from selling fresh vegetables to support my family and supply for the next season.“
“I have sowed my land and now my plots are ready to harvest. I will earn enough from selling fresh vegetables to support my family and supply for the next season.”
Ghani Bai – Farmer
For those who do not own their own land, finding work locally is extremely difficult. To stimulate the local economy, AKF is supporting cash-for-work initiatives to improve agricultural productivity whilst also offering employment opportunities.
In Baghlan, Khan Lala has felt the impact of reduced work opportunities. “I travelled to Kabul and other provinces to try to get a job but couldn’t,” he says, “I have had to borrow money to provide for my family.” Khan Lala joined a cash-for-work initiative, where he worked with other men in his community to restore a three-kilometre irrigation canal, enhancing water flow and enabling farmers to irrigate their rice paddy plots consistently.
Khan Lala is one of over 1,400 community members who have participated in cash-for-work opportunities facilitated by AKF. As well as directly benefiting from an income, their communities will continue to reap the rewards of their efforts to protect and restore their agricultural land.
Employment in non-farming sectors has also decreased, leaving families with dwindling resources. Micro and small enterprises face an uphill battle, struggling to survive in the face of economic instability and insufficient access to finance. Movement within the country is creating further disruption; since 2021, 3.25 million Afghans have been forced to flee their homes because of extreme weather events and economic displacement, taking them far away from their usual sources of income.
Across several provinces, communities have been exploring a new livelihood opportunity: beekeeping. AKF is supporting these endeavours by delivering equipment and technical training to 249 people, helping them tap into a new value chain. Beekeeping is a livelihood that AKF has been supporting in Afghanistan for many years. In Takhar province, Abdul Hakim has been keeping bees with AKF’s support since 2015. “Now that I have become a master in this field, I can export the best honey in the market,” he says.
“Now that I have become a master in this field, I can export the best honey in the market.”
Abdul Hakim – Beekeeper
Community-based savings groups (CBSGs) are another longstanding initiative that AKF upholds in Afghanistan. Amid the current crisis, CBSGs provide a financial lifeline, as well as a space for communities to come together and share experiences.
In a village in Daikundi province, most residents rely on seasonal incomes from horticulture, making it difficult to meet basic needs out of season. Women in particular have limited access to savings, credit, and employment opportunities. Through a CBSG established with AKF’s support, 14 women here can now see a path forward. Each member of the group contributes 100 Afghani (around £0.90 GBP) to the savings pot per month; members can then borrow money to buy medicine, food, and other essentials. Some members, however, have been thinking outside the box – Bahar took out a loan to open a grocery shop in her village. Her success has since inspired other members to use the money saved to establish small businesses and they have expressed their commitment to sustaining local livelihoods long into the future. Through this programme, AKF has supported 731 CBSGs like this one, reaching more than 3,360 people.
In recent decades, Afghanistan’s healthcare system has mostly been funded by the international community. Throughout the current crisis, this support has reduced, placing the healthcare system under unprecedented strain. This has contributed to alarming rates of neonatal, under-five, and maternal mortality. In addition, natural disasters have accelerated the spread of infectious diseases including measles, tetanus, malaria, and COVID-19.
In response, AKF has provided critical medicines to health facilities so that patients can be treated for free. Since the start of the programme, 27 hospitals have received vital medicines, successfully treating more than 34,000 women with maternal and reproductive health concerns.
To prevent the spread of diseases, AKF has also led health and hygiene awareness campaigns, working directly with communities to discuss the importance of maternal and child health, vaccinations, nutrition, and mental health. In a remote village in Bamyan province, mothers were struggling to access reliable healthcare information. Through AKF’s awareness campaigns, Maryam, a young mother, learnt about vaccinations and maternal and child health, and now advocates for these practices in her village.
As well as physical ailments, the daily struggle to survive has left millions of Afghans suffering with trauma. Whilst coping with the collective tragedy of the humanitarian crisis, Razia, a woman from Daikundi province, has dealt with personal tragedies too, including the death of her husband and young son. With AKF’s support, Razia has been able to meet with a counsellor who has helped her to better understand her mental health. The guidance she received has given her purpose and Razia has found solace in starting a new job as a carpet weaver. Her counsellor connected her with a vocational training programme facilitated by AKF, enabling her to kickstart her carpet business and become financially independent.
Hope amidst the crisis
AKF’s partnership with the UK Government in Afghanistan has helped laid the groundwork for rural communities across Afghanistan to continue building resilience amidst this crisis. The stories of people like Ghani Bai, Khan Lala, Bahar, Maryam, and Razia demonstrate the endurance of hope. Whilst the months and years ahead remain uncertain, AKF remains firmly committed to supporting the people of Afghanistan at every turn, enabling them to build a future beyond survival and towards prosperity.
The names of the individuals featured in this story have been changed to protect their identity.