November 3, 2010
By David Smith-Ferri
Bamiyan Diaries – Day Five
In a small storage shed at the edge of town, we watched as 14-year-old Sayed Qarim signed a simple contract agreeing to borrow and repay a no-interest, 25,000 afghani loan (roughly $555). Daniel from the Zenda Company, the loan originator, counted out the crisp bills and handed them to Qarim, who smiled broadly and shook hands. Qarim, whose family farms potatoes and wheat, plans to use the funds to purchase a cow and her calf. “There are great benefits of owning a cow,” Qarim explains. “Our family gets to use the milk and we can sell the calf for a good profit.”
No one walking by outside on the narrow dirt road would have known an important business transaction had just occurred, one that could in fact help a young man and his family gain economic traction and greater security. The transaction didn’t take place in a bank. No village leaders were present. Only a 14-year-old boy, the representative of a private business company and a witness. And while the signed agreement constitutes a business relationship, the Zenda Company sees it as primarily personal.
Qarim was recommended for a loan by Faiz and Mohammad Jan, two other young men who live in his village and who have themselves recently received and repaid loans. Following this recommendation, Zenda spent much time getting to know Qarim, meeting with him, assessing his knowledge, his resources (such as access to grazing land) and his character, answering his questions and describing to him his responsibilities as a borrower.
Now that the transaction is complete, Qarim is required to send a picture of the cow and her calf as “proof” that the money was used as agreed. In addition, Hakim, another Zenda Company representative living in Bamiyan, who is fluent in Dari, the local language, will visit Qarim periodically. Along with Faiz and Mohammad Jan, he will try to provide whatever support Qarim needs to succeed.
Eighteen months ago, Mohammad Jan borrowed funds to purchase a cow and her calf. Three times in the
intervening months, he has fattened the cow, raised the calf, sold them and used the money from their sale to purchase another cow and calf. He has repaid the loan in full and netted a profit thus far of nearly 7,000 afghanis. Faiz has been equally successful, using borrowed funds to purchase lambs; he repaid his loan, took out another and now owns ten sheep and two goats, prized locally both for their meat and for their fleece.
Zenda Company’s small business loan program has evolved gradually through trial and error in Bamiyan and Hakim, a Singaporean medical doctor and ex-pat living now in an outlying village, is central to its success. Hakim (a name given to him by local people which means “learned one”) originally came from Singapore to Quetta, Pakistan, on the Afghanistan border, where he worked for two years with Afghan refugees. “I essentially lived within a refugee settlement and I was treated as a local.”
While there, however, Hakim wanted to do more than treat the symptoms of war. Six years ago, he came to Bamiyan as a development worker with an international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). Today in Afghanistan, NGOs involved in development work are as thick as wheat stalks in a field and their presence and operation has a significant impact in the country. But Hakim found that “the NGOs, too, have problems.
They hold all the aid power, because they have all the money.” Because of this, says Hakim, despite their intentions, despite their mission, despite even their best efforts, international NGOs in Afghanistan often have a colonial relationship with Afghan communities, encouraging dependence rather than local initiative and sovereignty.
And then there is the intractable question of results. As one Afghan person told us, “The world says it is helping us. Where is this help? None of it reaches the people who need it. Here in Afghanistan it has been going on so long that we have to joke and laugh in order to manage our anger and disappointment.”
Seven months ago, Hakim left his position with the NGO. When he first arrived in Bamiyan, he was invited to visit and later to move into a small village. “The villages are very conservative. The only way to enter the community, even for a visit, is to be invited.”
Hakim has been in the community now for six years, living as people in the village do, eating only what people in the village have to eat. Like a member of the family, he participates in work. “I help in the fields, too,” he says with a self-effacing laugh, “but I’m not very good at it. I cannot work nearly as long or as fast as others.