Real Economic Development in Afghanistan: Women Rug Weavers Create Hope

Slideshow and Interview with Arzu Rugs CEO Connie Duckworth

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A successful woman-run rug business has been operating for the last five years in Afghanistan. Arzu Rugs currently employs 600 people and provides direct economic support to almost four times that many. Arzu means “hope” in Dari. In addition to the well-paying jobs created by the rug-weaving work, the company funnels its profits back to the community in the form of medical care, education, and social services that touch the lives of an estimated 100,000 Afghans.

Arzu was created by Connie Duckworth, a former partner at Goldman Sachs and an M.B.A. graduate of the Wharton School. Arzu Rugs’ innovative model combines the talents of women weavers in Afghanistan with private business, government, and the non-profit sector.

Senior Fellow for CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative Susan Thistlethwaite talked with Connie about why her own Christian faith helped motivate her to start Arzu; what she has learned about Afghanistan, Islam, and women; and what she calls the “social entrepreneurship” model. They also discussed what she has learned from this work in Afghanistan about how sustainable economic development can best be done by working through the religious and cultural mores of a theocratic society. Duckworth’s work with Arzu may provide important clues for an economic solution to the Afghan conflict.

Here’s the full interview:

Susan Thistlethwaite: Afghanistan is very much in the news these days, as the United States is trying to better define its goals in that country. Can you talk briefly about your links to Afghanistan, for instance when you started going there, why, and what it is you do there?

Connie Duckworth: I have to say, like most things in life, it’s been a journey. I retired as a partner at Goldman Sachs right after 9/11, and was asked to join as the business representative, a bipartisan commission specifically formed to help ensure that Afghan women have a seat at the table in the new Afghanistan. It was the engagement with that commission that put me on a military plane, in January of 2003, to fly into Kabul, Afghanistan and to have the opportunity to really see firsthand the devastation that war creates, in this case almost 25 years of constant conflict, and the impact—especially on women, who suffered so many hardships under the Taliban.

ST: Now you decided to start a rug business. Why rugs? Why did you decide that that was the best way to help these Afghan women?

CD: When I first went to Afghanistan, I really didn’t know what I was going to be doing. I thought I’d be observing. I certainly didn’t realize that five years later I’d be in the rug business. But the tipping point for me was our last stop before leaving, to a bombed-out building, where I saw dozens of widows with young children living in winter conditions with no heat, no windows, no running water, no furniture. For me, that cemented in my mind that I personally needed to do something, and the “what to do” was the question. I had no experience in international development; I knew nothing about rugs, and little about Afghanistan. But what I do know how to do is to start and run businesses.

So, I looked at this problem through a business lens and thought: jobs. What these women need are jobs to put food on the table and to start to lift themselves out of poverty. What I recognized, once I got started in this—and we picked rugs because it was clearly the best legal opportunity to create a high quality export product—what we realized is that a job alone is not enough. That women who have been so deprived needed a base, of education, health care, clean water, community development, in order to really profit from the job itself.

ST: You then created Arzu. Now there are some revealing statistics about Arzu. It’s celebrating its fifth anniversary. Tell us about how many jobs, and how many women weavers, and the percentages of its impact in Afghanistan.

CD: June was our 5th anniversary, and from our first small steps employing 30 women weavers, we have created over 600 private sector jobs, 85 percent of which are held by women. A third of those women are widows, which that category is really the most vulnerable in Afghanistan. And those women directly support over 2,100 family members. We’re now in 11 villages across Afghanistan, and the ripple effect from the community development projects in those villages impact the lives of about 100,000 people.

ST: Arzu is, importantly, a jobs program in weaving rugs. But there are also other social benefits that are part of the Arzu project. Would you tell us about some of those other social benefits?

CD: Yes, that’s right. The starting point is a job, but there’s a lot more to it than that because to support this family, to help them pull themselves out of poverty, it’s necessary to offer education, basic health care, clean water. If a woman is too sick to work because she’s been drinking bad water, or the child can’t go to school—and in this country still a quarter of children die before their fifth birthday—it’s important to attack all of those different issues simultaneously.

Let me give you an example of one of our programs. We’re a small program, so we fill gaps. We look in the surrounding area for every other NGO, any other government program available, and we connect all the pieces. So in looking at the maternal death rate, which is Afghanistan’s biggest health priority, second highest death rate in the world, we saw clinics being built in neighboring villages or distant venues, but no way for the women to get there. So we created transportation systems, and we track the pregnant women. We pick them up in four-wheel drive vehicles, we take them to the clinics for pre- and post-natal care, and take the babies back for immunizations. Something as simple as providing transportation makes a world of difference, and since we’ve been running this program, no woman registered in our program has died from childbirth.

ST: This has been enormously challenging on so many levels. If you can single out what you think have been your greatest challenges and then what do you think have been your successes, what have you been most proud of—I know the reduction in the maternatl death rate alone makes you proud, and I know it does—but just give us a feeling for what its like to found and then run a successful business with rural Afghan women weavers.

CD: Basically, everything is a challenge. Leave no stone unturned in the challenge department. Trying to operate in Afghanistan with virtually no infrastructure—that means no roads, no electricity, no water, in some of our villages no Internet connectivity, and no cell phone telephony—think of that. So, they’re the infrastructure constraints. Security is another big issue, and that’s sort of a generic term, and it can mean anything from open insurgency in parts of the country to banditry along the roads to random suicide bombings or typical violence driven by the drug trade. The third challenge is differing local religious and tribal customs, which can severely limit the rights of women.

And so our successes I’d say are the 101 ways we overcome on a daily basis the challenges in each of those areas. But I think the thing that I’m most proud of is that Arzu is a small example of what the Center for American Progress calls “sustainable security.” And what that means is really thinking about the ultimate security of a post-conflict country, first from a development standpoint, then a diplomacy standpoint, and then a defense standpoint.

ST: You’ve mentioned the specific situation of Afghan women several times. What have you learned about Afghan women in working with them? Can you make any valid generalities? What concerns you, what gives you hope?

CD: First of all, I think Afghan women are probably as a group among the most brave women in the world. The fact that these women are still standing after the years of abuse is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. And whenever I think I’m having a bad day, all I have to do is read some of the histories that we’ve taken from the women in our program, and I realize that on my worst day, that day would be one that in their dreams they would never actualize.

But what my work in Afghanistan has also confirmed is something that I have really believed for a long time, and that is that what women have in common outweighs the individual differences of religion, culture, and geography. And I think the common bond is motherhood. Motherhood creates a sense of universal hope for one’s children, and it’s the hope that even if my life is bad, my children will have a hope for an education, to be raised in good health with adequate nutrition, and will live in safety.

ST: You have called your work “social entrepreneurship,” and certainly, the public-private partnership that you’re describing here is a key as you say to sustainable security. Tell us more about social entrepreneurship as this model. What do you mean by that?

CD: As a social business enterprise, Arzu operates like a competitive for-profit business, but a key difference is that we distribute our cash flow entirely for the benefit of those women and their families in Afghanistan. So the difference between Arzu and a typical for-profit company is that the profits are returned not to the owners of the company or the shareholders of the company, but instead to the women, their families, and their communities.

And our ultimate objective, which is one I keep as a mantra on a daily basis, is “cash flow positive.” And what that means is we want to achieve a level of sales that will fully fund all of Arzu’s operations, both production and all of the social benefit programs. The needs on the ground in Afghanistan are endless. There are endless things that can be done, and we are trying to create a sustainable model of development that does not rely on private charity or public funding, but rather can become self-supporting. It’s an ambitious dream, but one we are well on our way to achieving.

ST: I know you to be a person of faith. What can you tell us about the role your faith plays in your work for Arzu, and then what also have you learned about Islam as you have been working in Afghanistan?

CD: Arzu itself is an act of faith, both literally and figuratively. On a practical level, I have faith in the possibility of real change that happens at the grassroots level, and like most Americans, I really had very little exposure to Islam. My work in Afghanistan has afforded me the privilege of learning more about the beliefs held by a billion people around the world, and what I have found is that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all share a common heritage and many common beliefs. In each, there is a sense of responsibility to help others, through charity, through goodwill, through understanding, and I have faith that each of us can make a positive difference in the world. It can be large, it can be small, but any effort matters.

ST: Now you’ve been in Afghanistan five years. How has Afghanistan changed since you started working there? Not just security, but specifically women’s rights? I’m thinking here of what we read in the United States about girls’ schools that have been burned or bombed, poisoning suspected. What can you tell us about what’s changing for women, and where your concerns lie as well as your hopes.

CD: Five years ago when I first went to Afghanistan, what I saw was a disaster of epic proportion. And it really was a disaster at the economic level, civil society, education, health care, environmentally, even mental health. But the watchword of the day then, especially on the part of women who had been so brutalized by the Taliban, was security. There was a strong eagerness to rebuild. There was big hope combined with big expectations. On my subsequent trips over the next couple of years, many of the burqas came off. Boys and girls were both flocking to the schools that were reopened, and the conversation on the part of women largely changed.

Instead of security, they were talking about their desire for more education, for better health care. They were talking about their new constitution, and their right to vote. And two tangible signs of progress, if you want to call it that, struck me. One was gridlock traffic: I don’t know where all those cars came from, but suddenly, it was rush hour. And there were pervasive cell phones. But today, it seems to me we’re coming full circle. We’re back to the issue of security in large parts of the country. Women are the nation-builders, and for this country to succeed ultimately, the rights of women must remain front and center.

ST: How much chance do you think there is that this—and I know you’ve spoken on this model of social entrepreneurship at business schools—do you think that business schools and other business leaders are starting to get it, of what social entrepreneurship is like? What’s been the reaction of some of the young people at business schools where you’ve spoken? What are your hopes for this model taking off?

CD: Arzu is really an example of this growing movement of social entrepreneurship, and what’s so exciting to me is that young people, students in business schools around the world, are keenly focused on an understanding that the traditional wealth pyramid is no longer viable. And when we talk about the wealth pyramid there’s a lot of discussion about the bottom of the pyramid, and you think of the big base supporting the small pinnacle. But when I look at this, I see an inverted pyramid, and I think the reality of what we have in the world today and the source of most of the world’s conflict is based in the economics, and you have billions of people on top of, pushing down on, an unsustainable pinnacle that is the western developed world. And until we rebalance wealth between the haves and the have-nots, this wealth model is simply going to collapse under its own weight.

ST: So that’s a cautionary tale, but the hope is young people in business schools are starting to get it.

CD: I really think that’s the case, and not just the young people, but there’s a movement of social entrepreneurship, and I have to say there are many seasoned businesspeople who’ve left successful careers, who are retiring, who really see the opportunity to bring those private sector skills to the table, to work with the public sector, to work with the third sector, the nonprofit/NGO sector, to help solve some of these most intractable problems. And I believe—because we’ve tried and failed—no single approach is going to work here. These problems can’t be solved by the public sector alone, by the private sector, or just by the nonprofit sector. We all must work together and triangulate to create new and innovative solutions.