ANALYSIS

As FAO and China put efforts to support Afghanistan onagricultural development, a newcomer shares her story

By Zhaorui Meng, Media and Communications Officer,FAO Afghanistan

My first glance of Kabul
Afghanistan was once a pearl of the ancient Silk Road and while years of conflict has taken its toll, the country and its people have shown tremendous resilience. Before coming to Kabul, what I knew about it was mainly poverty and war. My new job at the Food and Agriculture Organizationof the United Nations (FAO)in Afghanistan givesme the opportunity to see the country from a different perspective.

(Kabul in summer 2019. Photo:©FAO/Zhaorui Meng)

Kabul in summer is green, peaceful and quiet. The mountains in the background are dotted with colorful housesthat shimmer in the summer heat. The100th Anniversaryof Afghan Independence Dayis just around the corner. The streets and alleys are full of national flagscrowded by commutersand pedestrians on their way to work. Theshopfronts are full of goodslaid outorderly for shoppers –indeed the whole city is in festive atmosphere.This is quite a contrastfrom the Kabul I had imagined. Only the heavy security presence and armed check points remind methat the country is still waiting for peace.

(Street markets in Kabul. Photo:©FAO/Zhaorui Meng)

Afghanistan’s agriculture and its challenges
As a landlocked farming and pastoralist country, Afghanistan enjoysa superior geographical location linking the East and the West where various culturesconverge. Three decades of conflict have,however,taken their toll with an increase in the number of poor people (more than 50 percent of Afghansare living in poverty – the majority in rural areas). Agriculture is still the backbone of Afghanistan’s economy, accounting for about 23 percent of its national GDP. Around 60 percent of Afghan households derive some income fromagriculture, and the agro-industry still employs about 40 percentof its national workforce. Agriculture is also a majorforeign exchange earner – as of 2016, agricultural products accounted foralmost 60% percentof total exports. However, due to frequent droughts and water scarcity, insufficient arable lands, lack of infrastructure, a difficult security situation, and the impact of climate change,the country’s agricultural development is facing enormous challenges.

(Wheat flourshop in Kabul. Photo: ©FAO/Zhaorui Meng)

Afghanistan and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Afghanistan was listed by the United Nations (UN) as one of the Least Developed Countries in the world in 1971. The UN is committed to help Afghanistan eradicate poverty at an early date and support the country to achieve its SDG targets. Afghanistan’s stability and prosperity is also vital to regional peace and economic development. As an important partner of China’s “One Belt, One Road Initiative” (BRI), Afghanistan was one of the early countries to sign the BRI Memorandum with China in 2016. Over the years, the Afghan people, together with the UNand other international partners, have jointly faced the challenges and endeavored to improve Afghanistan’s agriculture and livelihoods. Much has been achieved through international partnerships and collaboration in the cause of constructing a better Afghanistan, however a lot still remains to be done.
FAO Afghanistan works and achieves
FAO has been actively supporting Afghanistan’s agricultural development for many years. As the UN’s keytechnical agency specializing in agriculture, FAO is mandated to eliminate hunger, poverty and malnutrition. It has 194 member countries around the world with apresence in 130 countries, led by Dongyu Qu, the newly elected Director General who took office at the beginning ofAugust.

(FAO’s booth at the 2019 Agri-fair in Kabul. Photo:©FAO/Zhaorui Meng)

FAO began its workin Afghanistan in the 1950s. The current FAO Representative, Rajendra Aryal, has an indissoluble bond with Afghanistan. He first worked inAfghanistan in 2002 and joined the FAO area office in Herat in 2003. Aryalreturned to Afghanistanseveral timesin more recent years on backstopping missions, before transferring to Kabul to take up the lead role of FAO Representative.Today, the FAO Representation in Kabul has a pool of highly qualified and committed staff under his leadership that contribute to the growth of the agriculture sector together with the Government of Afghanistan and are working in nearlyevery province.

(FAOR Mr. Rajendra Aryal at an Agri-Fair in Kabul on 6 August 2019. Photo:©FAO/Zhaorui Meng)

FAO is not confined within the UN compound, but works out of Government premises, working side by side with the Government counterparts, which makes it unique in itself. It made me think FAO as ‘PinmingSanlang’, a Chinese expression referring to someone devoted to achieve something at any cost. For nearly two decades, FAO has worked closely with a wide range of partners, such as the Ministry of Agriculture,Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW), Afghanistan Food Security and Nutrition Agenda (AFSeN-A) Secretariat, other relevant government line departments, universities, international donors as well as international and local non-profit organizations. Taking into account of the agricultural development priorities of the national guidelines (such as the National Comprehensive Agriculture Development Priority Program),FAO has made great contributions to promote agricultural and economic development in Afghanistan, ensuring food and nutrition security of Afghan people.

FAO has mobilized significant resources to build a pool of projects to help Afghanistan address rural livelihoods, climate changeimpacts, and meet people’s food security and nutritional needs. As droughts and lack of arable lands are the bottlenecks for Afghanistan’s agricultural development, FAO’s irrigationprogrammes carried out nation-wide have largely contributed to transform its irrigation infrastructure. In just seven years, Afghanistan gainednearly one million hectares of new arable lands, which has largely contributed to the livelihoods ofmore than 12 million farmers. Wheat is the main crop for local people,and FAO’s wheat programme enabled the country to develop certified wheat seeds through the private sector. In addition, FAOhelpedthe country to improveits agricultural product standards and assisted in expanding Afghanistan’s access to domestic and international trade opportunities. For example, the establishment of a national dairy product standard and value chain through FAO’s intervention has tripled the incomes of Afghan dairy farmers in several districts. Meanwhile, FAOhas continued tofocus on strengthening the capacity of local women. The poultry project has, through the course of a decade,trained more than 70,000 rural women.Women were also trained to cultivate high-value crops such as saffron, which has considerably improved the economic status of Afghan’srural women, hence in the longer run, promoted their overall social development.

(Dairy farmer enterprise supported by FAO project.Photo:©FAO/Zhaorui Meng)

Agro-trade between Afghanistan and China
China regards Afghanistan as an important BRI partner. According to the Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan, the trade volume between China and Afghanistan has been maintained at an annual average of US$1 billion. China and Afghanistan have signed several agreements enabling Afghan agricultural products such as pine nuts and saffron to trade to China. According to the agreement between the two countries, since November2018, China has imported about 1,250 tons of pine nuts worth ofUS$ 14 million. Many Afghan tradershave been doing business with China for years and even established somesub-branch companies in several provinces in China. China-Afghanistan trade in the agriculture sectorshas resulted inmutual benefits: Afghan farmers and merchants made profits, and Chinese consumers enjoyed the delicious Afghan products.

(Afghan agro-enterprises sell their products to China. Photo: ©FAO/Zhaorui Meng)

FAO Afghanistanteam ensures delivery in any circumstances
In summary, I am highly impressed by the achievements made by the FAO team here.

During the first week here in Kabul, I also experienced the first explosion in my life, which was only about three blocks away from our office. I felt the floor shaking. With my heart pounding and the sound of the explosion still reverberating in my ears, I looked around the office, and was amazed to find my colleagues working with their usual calmness and patience. At this moment, I could not help but feeling so impressed by the courage, resilience, and motivation of the FAO staff under such a difficult situation. I pondered how FAO team could deliver supporting thousands and thousands of farmers and herders across the country in such difficult environment.
At this moment, I felt myself being a bit emotional; not because I was scared but somewhat sad, for the UN employees and local people who work and live in this environment. In this corner of the world full of unexpectedsituations, there is still a small group of unnoticed workers, risking their lives fordeveloping agriculture in Afghanistan! It is their silent effort that bringshopes to the future. To survive, stay and deliver, it requires not only great courage but also great wisdom. They are indeed my most beloved and respectful people.
As Rajendra Aryal, FAO Representative in Afghanistanrightly says, “I am impressed of what we have achieved in Afghanistan, and I’m more impressedwith thetalented local and international staff who have worked hard over the years to ensure our projects improve economies and livelihoods in the communities they touch. I hope that you will be impressed by both FAO and the remarkable agriculture talents of Afghanistan too”. “Given the success and good practices FAO has achieved over the years, there is an excellent opportunity for FAO and China to work together in Afghanistan under the SDGs and BRI frameworks and successfully contribute to bring economic growth and development in the country”, he further adds.
Life is precious, and a better life is hard to come by. Bearing this in mind, I hope to present this article to all my colleagues whom I truly admire in FAO Afghanistan, who have worked fearlesslyand smartly for the cause of economic growth and development.
(This special feature story is prepared by Ms. Zhaorui Meng, Media and CommunicationsOfficer,FAO Afghanistan, 19 August 2019.Email: Zhaorui.Meng@fao.org)

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