Gary Soiseth is a USDA agricultural expert in Afghanistan’s Wardak province. One of Gary’s main goals is to help the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) reach its people with agricultural services and support.
This past April, I attempted to coordinate a shura (meeting) between local farmers and officials from the Directorate of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (DAIL) in Wardak, a province just southwest of Kabul. DAIL offices are spread throughout Afghan provinces to serve as the Ministry of Agriculture’s one-stop local affiliate, delivering services such as extension. Just a few years ago, the Ministry had almost zero representation in the provinces. Today, DAIL offices are spreading outward from Kabul with limited capacity.
As the shura approached, insurgents issued threats of violence against any farmer or government official planning to attend the meeting or work with USDA. This threat—coupled with rocket propelled grenade (RPGs) attacks and sniper fire at similar meetings — sufficiently intimidated the farmers and DAIL staff alike. Needless to say, the shura fell apart and so with it another opportunity to build the DAIL’s reputation.
I was devastated. I had done everything possible to link the government (DAIL) to the local population. Determined to be successful in our next attempt, we worked for months at a new strategy. During that time, we staged various agricultural programs and workshops through the growing season. This allowed DAIL officials to forge relationships and get a feel for the community’s needs. Then, hedging our confidence, we planned the next shura for the end of September.
By then, we hoped the farming population had witnessed its government in action and might be willing to discuss their needs with the DAIL leaders, despite the risks. Once again, I arranged the logistics, including advertising and security. Even with the security, DAIL leadership would still need to physically conduct the shura, risking sabotage or direct attack by insurgents.
Despite the intense security risks, a crowd of more than 250 farmers spilled into one of the few buildings large enough to contain them. It was the first time in a decade that farmers met with their provincial agricultural staff. The farmers aired their respective and collective concerns and the DAIL officials shared their plans for projects and programs in Wardak.
After the shura, DAIL officials and I waded through a lengthy list of community needs and concerns, including better quality wheat seed and education in livestock health and pest management. Overall, farmers just wanted DAIL officials to be responsive and present in the community. The shura was a major step toward achieving that goal.
USDA’s work in Afghanistan is made up of many modest examples of progress like this one. I am proud to play my part in Afghanistan’s agricultural development on behalf of USDA, but I am more proud of the DAIL officials who risk their safety each day to bring progress and opportunity to their fellow Afghans.