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Grants To Rural Afghan Villages Pay off


About 80 percent of Afghans live in the countryside, so what happens there is key to that country's future. Let's go now and hear now about a successful effort at involving communities in their own development. It's called the National Solidarity Program. Funded by international aid, it distributes small grants to rural villages so villagers can choose what projects they need most. They do this through democratically elected community development councils, councils that include both men and women.

Wais Ahmad Barmak is Afghanistan's minister of rural rehabilitation and development. He told us more when he joined us in our D.C. studio.

WAIS AHMAD BARMAK: The people have chosen infrastructure projects which they have believed that would improve the quality and conditions of their lives and within their communities. Now it's reach more than 70,000 rural infrastructure projects, which include: roads, bridges, retaining walls, protection walls, irrigation schemes, the schools, clinics. So these basic needs of the communities have been met. In the past 10 years, through this program alone, we have received $1.9 billion from international aid.

The other point I just wanted to make is that the number of women who have basically benefited, not only from these projects, but also the number of women who have been elected. Out of 600,000 members of these development councils that have been created across the country, 40 percent of the membership of these councils are women.

It's a milestone achievement in terms of, you know, promoting the participation of women actively in the development process. And also, in the decision-making processes that have led, I think, to the changes - the positive changes - that have been made on the quality of life and also on the social status of men and women in the Afghan society; especially in rural Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about another area that worries international aid organizations, and that's insecurity. For you, there must be places - and I could give you an example, one province right on the edge of Kabul, that's Wardak Province - of areas that are so dangerous even Afghan aid workers fear to operate in them.

The Taliban certainly wouldn't be giving the government a break. What are you able to do, even there?

BARMAK: Even in a place like Wardak Province, and there are many other examples of relatively insecure areas where people support us. And it's whatever we do to the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, it's basically benefiting those local communities for, 'cause the people support us.

MONTAGNE: You mean the people on except because the people...

BARMAK: Of course. Of course.

MONTAGNE: ...say we want the healthcare.


MONTAGNE: We want the electricity.


MONTAGNE: We want what the government, or - is giving us.

BARMAK: Yes. And I can share where, you know, an example, with you that it was a month and a half ago, my staff, they were traveling from Ghazni Province to Kabul. On the way, they were captured by some unknown, I would say, you know, element. And then they were taken away from that point on. And then some of my colleagues, they gave me the advice that I should have informed the security agency or Ministry of Defense, to help us with the release of these people.

You know what we did? We - because we have these community development councils in place, we have the people within these structures. So as soon as the - our communities, they were informed about this incident. Without even having us tell them, they just took the initiative and finally they located them in some of the remote villages. And then they just got them released. So I think that's a success story that we have created in the country now.

MONTAGNE: How do you see your situation now? What is your greatest fear?

BARMAK: The greatest fear is that once the military drawdown happens, and then the prospect of international aid decline - that's also looming ahead of us - then the gains we have made in the past 10 years, in terms of social development, in terms of economic development, and the democracy project that we created in Afghanistan to turn the country into a stable and prosperous and democratic society, we see a kind of, you know, a bleak future ahead of us.

If all these cuts, you know, happen then the programs I have - which have touched, you know, 80 percent of the Afghan population - and then in this way, I have connected the people of Afghanistan to the central government. It has created the legitimacy of the government, the state and the parliament, everything we've created in Afghanistan - at risk. And so, that's the greatest fear.

MONTAGNE: Wais Ahmad Barmak is Afghanistan's minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.

Thank you very much for joining us.

BARMAK: Thank you.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.