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Rebuilding Afghanistan's Villages, Rug by Rug

Before it was a ground zero for the war on terror, Afghanistan was known for its beautiful carpets. One nonprofit sees rugs as the key to rebuilding.

When Connie Duckworth flew into Kabul for the first time in 2003, the city below "looked like Berlin after World War II," she says. Since that visit with the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council—a non-partisan initiative tasked with supporting Afghan women—Duckworth has devoted her life and career to rebuilding Afghanistan, carpet by carpet. Duckworth founded ARZU, a nonprofit, artisanal rug company where every item produced and donation received helps pay the salary of local weavers and funds social programs to lift rural families out of crushing poverty.

Afghan women need all the help they can get. The combination of gender segregation, violence against women, limited access to health care, and extreme poverty make Afghanistan the worst place on earth to be a woman, according to a survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation released this summer. And, lest we forget, it’s ground zero for a war that just turned 10 years old.

The challenge of getting anything done in Afghanistan, particularly the rural areas where Duckworth chose to set up shop, is compounded by a lack of infrastructure, widespread corruption, and a lack of cooperation between religious and ethnic groups. “When we started there was no central bank,” adds Duckworth. “You couldn’t wire-transfer money into the country.”

So if you can make it in Afghanistan, you can make it anywhere, she says. “I always have viewed community development and international development from a business perspective,” says Duckworth, voicing an unsurprising mindset for a woman whose first career was a 20-year tour of duty at Goldman Sachs. Afghanistan is “a proxy for how can you innovate and experiment with new models to empower women globally…You have to develop local, small basic grassroots activity or you don’t have a shot for peace."

ARZU’s approach has enabled the organization to grow from 30 to 700 weavers—spread across 13 villages, two religious sects, and four ethnic groups—in just seven years. The core principal of ARZU is a family’s subscription to a “social contract.” The family of every woman weaver working for ARZU must agree to send its kids to school full-time. Heads of households must allow their wives to attend ARZU’s literacy classes for two hours a day. In exchange for compliance, workers receive a living wage and the chance at a 50 percent bonus for high-quality work.

“These people are so desperately poor that while they weren’t totally sure that we would pay them what we said they’d pay them, they were willing to take a chance,” Duckworth says. “The first time we paid the 50 percent bonus, word spread like wildfire and we became oversubscribed.”

ARZU staff also pay the women directly, in plain sight of their families. “What’s happened culturally is the balance of power in the household starts to shift,” Duckworth says. “When women are the sole wage-earner[s] and supporting a family group of 10 or 15 people, and there’s no employment for men in the area in which we work, she suddenly is treated with great respect.”

Duckworth ticks off ARZU’s other accomplishments like items on a grocery list. The group has created 1,000 jobs and avoided the security risks of putting foreign nationals on the ground by training an all-Afghan staff to carry out local operations. ARZU has figured out how to heat its workshops by burning briquettes made from shredded paper discarded by the U.S. Embassy instead of contributing to Afghanistan’s deforestation problem—they even sell leftover briquettes to local government offices. Digital collaborations between American and Afghan designers have produced carpet patterns that appeal to a wide variety of tastes while preserving traditional techniques.

This success hasn’t gone unnoticed. ARZU’s model won the 2008 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, and was recognized by the Edison Awards last year for best new product in the lifestyle and social impact category. Now Duckworth is hoping to turn ARZU’s $10 to $15 “peace cord”—a wristband woven from military parachute fabric—into the next Livestrong bracelet. And she’s focused on ratcheting up sales and distribution to arrive at the elusive goal of profitability—the one remaining piece of the social enterprise puzzle that ARZU has yet to crack.

Photos 2 and 4 courtesy of Thomas Lee; Photo 3 courtesy of Sgt. Heidi Agostini, USMC; Photos 1 and 5 courtesy of ARZU

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