In early June, ARZU STUDIO HOPE's CEO and founder, Connie Duckworth, traveled to Afghanistan alongside members of the US military, to look at opportunities for community development. While there, she met with leaders of numerous women's groups to learn about the programs they operate and to discuss possible small businesses ideas for women. She also checked in with ARZU's own community programs. Duckworth's organization, ARZU STUDIO HOPE, is both a purveyor of top quality artisan-made rugs from Afghanistan as well as a provider of vitally needed social services, including education for women.
A couple of weeks ago, I staggered off a C-17 troop transport, after 48 hours on airplanes, to feel the terra firma of Camp Leatherneck, Northern Helmand Province, Afghanistan beneath my feet. Two words registered in my brain: heat and sand. Temperatures hovered around 110 degrees and sand blew so steadily that even my teeth felt dusty. Why is this desolate desert location a place that’s so relevant to all of us? There are two critical reasons. First, Helmand is effectively the world’s sole supplier of opium and its bi-product heroin. Secondly, it’s ground zero for a real war that real men and women from 42 ISAF nations prosecute on a daily basis.
An obvious question might be why, exactly, would a mother of four from suburban Chicago be disembarking there, wearing a Shalwar Kameez and 35 pounds of body armor? The answer, however unlikely, does have its logic: this was simply another step on a personal journey to, in some small way, help transform the lives of some women in Afghanistan--one of the world’s most tragic and seemingly inhospitable countries.
The journey began in 2003, when I founded ARZU STUDIO HOPE with no real knowledge about Afghanistan, international development, rugs, or (looking on the bright side) the usual baggage that prevents any shot at forward progress in finding solutions to some of the world’s hardest problems. Arzu means hope in Dari. Optimism is a prerequisite for change.
ARZU STUDIO HOPE is an innovative model of social entrepreneurship that takes a holistic approach to sustainable poverty alleviation, achieved through artisan-based employment that empowers women. Women, earning fair labor wages, weave exquisite hand-knotted rugs at home and receive access to education and basic healthcare under our “social contract” struck with them and their families.
While structured as a 501(c)(3) in the United States and an NGO in Afghanistan, ARZU operates as a “for-benefit” corporation, using private sector practices to create jobs in desperately poor rural villages where little opportunity exists. In other words, we are a non-profit that runs like a business. Unlike a for-profit company where profits accrue to owners or shareholders, surplus cash is reinvested in programs for the benefit of our stakeholders, the Afghan women weavers, their families, and their communities. It’s an approach we believe is replicable in other locations and which can be extended to other kinds of products—assuming we can prove out the economics. And, sustainability is the core premise of ARZU’s model.
Our objective is to become completely self-funding, so that the cash flow from rugs sales covers all the costs of producing rugs, like the fair labor wages for women weavers, transportation, inventory, photography, maintaining a website, customer service, samples, etc. and at the same time, pays the costs associated with all the social benefit programs that we deliver in rural Afghanistan, like literacy, healthcare, clean water, nutrition, etc. I want ARZU to be as “profitable” as possible for a very practical reason.
Securing funding is the universal problem for all non-profit programs, whether domestic or international. Ultimately, grant funding and donations are finite; so unfortunately, when the money stops, the program stops. Public interest wanes; a new catastrophe takes center stage; budget cutbacks happen; the press loses focus; interesting new programs emerge; priorities change—there are always valid reasons why funding dries up. But, tell that to the beneficiaries left behind before the job is done. This is the reason we are intent on driving demand for our rugs. We understand that to be sustainable in the long run, we must ultimately be able to fund ourselves organically.
This March, shortly before the Marines deployed to Helmand as part of the surge, I was invited to meet with senior Marine officers at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego. Since the military’s mission has recently expanded from “Clear and Hold” to “Clear, Hold and Develop,” they were interested in hearing about the experiences we’ve had in creating economic opportunity at the grassroots level through ARZU. I was honored that, perhaps, some of the lessons we’ve learned in much more peaceful parts of the country might, in some small way, be helpful in one of the most challenging conflict zones in Afghanistan.
At the conclusion of my day at Pendleton, Major General Richard P. Mills, the incoming Commanding General of the Southwest Command in Afghanistan, mentioned that, once they cleared the area in Helmand Province, he’d like to see private sector programs like ours come in behind them. I nodded in agreement and went home, never really expecting to receive a most extraordinary invitation. Until a few weeks ago…
On Sunday morning, June 6th, I left home for the start of “Operation Magic Carpet Ride.” A Marine escort was to meet my commercial flight inbound for Kuwait City early Monday afternoon and put me on a military plane for Afghanistan. Thanks to thunderstorms in DC and sandstorms in Kuwait, which closed both of those airports, I narrowly made my connection on the C-17 troop transport and arrived at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province around 7 AM on Tuesday morning.
My first observation: nobody at Camp Leatherneck sleeps. These guys and gals work 24/7 with a few hours of rest sprinkled here and there. I fell into line. Armed with shower, a bite of breakfast, 35 pounds of body armor and a helmet, I boarded an Osprey and headed to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. To reach our destination on the ground there, we threaded our way in armored vehicles through crowded streets lined with stalls and bazaars. Just five days before, an IED along a similar route had killed two members of ISAF and five days after two large bombs exploded in the same bazaar area.
We toured significant USAID projects, including a high-tech egg hatchery, run on a truckload of diesel generators with private, armed security guards, and the grounds of a new walled industrial park, primed with water and sewer systems, but awaiting private capital willing to invest in light manufacturing facilities here. There’s a whole discussion one can have around the difference between “scale” and “impact.” I would argue that transformational change comes from the bottoms-up. It is a grassroots phenomenon. Real change requires the long-term buy-in and engagement of individuals, families, and communities. Like politics—it’s all local, and boils down to what actually works.
The next day, our helicopter (affectionately known as the “hitter” since it continually leaked hydraulic fluid from above) deposited us in Gereshk, home to Helmand’s largest population. In both of these provincial towns, our mission was to meet with the heads of the local Women’s Centers, to see the kinds of programs they operate and to discuss potential ideas for small businesses for women with members of the ISAF Provincial Reconstruction Teams—the Brits in Lashkar Gar and the Danes in Gereshk.
I was particularly impressed with the women leaders we met in Gereshk, including the head of the one of five Women’s Centers there and the principal of a 1,000-student high school for girls. The women were direct and vocal about the need for jobs for women and were clear about their willingness to assert themselves, even here in the heartland of the Taliban. It’s easy to recognize bravery and determination when you see it. As a result of this meeting with these women, a seed of an idea has started to germinate for a jobs program in Gerashk. I won’t spill the beans now, but we’re starting a pilot August 1, which will be an uber-collaboration between all five Women’s Centers, the Marines, the Danes, and ARZU STUDIO HOPE. It’s a public/private partnership on steroids.
Next, South African bush pilots dropped us in Bamyan Province in Central Afghanistan, home to about half of ARZU’s women weavers of the Hazara tribe, where my Marine hosts could see what they termed “the art of the possible” in Afghanistan. At an altitude of 8500 feet, with crisp, clear air, sunshine and temps of 75 degrees, we felt a bit like Dorothy, ending up in Colorado, aspen trees and all. Over the next couple of days, we visited weavers at work in their homes and toured ARZU’s Garden Center and Women’s Center, where all program ideas begin with “it can’t plug in.”
We heard women proudly read aloud and do math problems on the board. We met our teachers, managers, and trainers—all drawn from the local village talent pool. My personal highlight was watching about fifty little kids shrieking with laughter on our playground rocketing down the simple slide. From the outset, one of ARZU’s guiding principles has been: it’s about them, not us. How we view village priorities is somewhat immaterial; what matters is how the Afghans view them. We’ve learned to assume nothing upfront and to not prejudge outcomes. In essence, ARZU has become a living laboratory for expeditionary economics.
We’ve also learned early on to celebrate small victories. While, individually, none of these move mountains, taken together, they make a mountain. In sustainable community development, the victories are all small and the celebrations feed hope. And, like with anything in life, success breeds success. The small wins are important proofs of concept for average Afghans that positive change in their daily lives is possible. At the end of the day, we’re facilitators; it’s the Afghans who must decide whether to internalize change and integrate it into their daily lives.
At its core, ARZU is about empowerment and connectedness. When we bring their rugs into the spaces where we live and work, our lives are linked to those of the Afghan women who made them. Frederick Buechner described a vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need." For me, ARZU has become a true vocation—rich in psychic income, deeply nourishing and captivating to the point of (legal) addiction.
Please visit www.arzustudiohope.org to learn more, purchase rugs, and to donate to support their social service and outreach. 93% of ARZU STUDIO HOPE's expenditures directly support their work, which makes a donation to them a sound investment in bettering our world.