Scents & Sensibility

How the author helped Afghans build a thriving soap and body-oil business—and overcame the incompetence of America’s aid establishment

Late in the fall of 2005, six months after my initial contact, I received a document informing me that ALP/S’s “Proposal Review Committee”—meaning the handful of guys I had sat around a table with so often—had decided not to accept our proposal. Given our progress and their promises, I was floored. The reasons listed in the letter were:

* ALP/S is looking for large-scale proposals, and of a proven business model …
* ALP/S’ client, USAID, is asking that it focus its efforts in Helmand province, as opposed to Kandahar.

I interrupted my reading to stare blindly at the window. Then why did they drag us through this whole saga in the first place? I wondered.

* The ALP/S funding framework has been created to support primarily the cost of building a production facility and its ancillary costs, and less that of operating costs.

Yet, when I asked ALP/S early this year for funds to build a facility, they balked, saying they did not know if they were allowed to pay for any new construction, and that in any case, the resulting building would then be the property of the U.S. government, not Arghand.

To be fair, ALP/S was subject to the mercurial temper of its USAID masters. Chemonics employees complained that the agency kept moving the goalposts, a charge that one of them detailed in a letter written after he resigned in disgust and left Afghanistan. For months after the start of Chemonics’ contract, according to several former employees, it had been nearly impossible to hammer out even a basic plan to govern ALP/S activities because USAID kept changing its mind. And while the organization in charge of the crucial alternative-livelihoods dossier was treading water—at roughly $45,000 per month per person—the Afghan south was falling prey to resurgent Taliban and drug smuggling.

ALP/S did try, desperately, to spend money. One outlay was for a feasibility study of a large dairy and milk- processing plant in Helmand province. A consultant from Kansas whom I knew was brought in; he asked me for advice. I could have told ALP/S for free that such a project was not feasible. For starters, an industrial dairy would produce exactly the opposite effect that the program wanted: It would reduce, not increase, alternative livelihoods, since it would put out of business all the small-scale farmers who sold the milk of their two or three cows. Moreover, the market for milk products in the sparsely populated province was too small to support an industrial dairy. The answer was a small collection dairy, adapted to local circumstances, with precautions taken to handle the deteriorating security situation. The Kansas consultant’s costly study declared an industrial dairy to be unfeasible. And that was the end of that story.

“Cash for work,” otherwise known as paying people for short-term unskilled labor, is standard for ALP/S. The Chemonics Web site boasts that ALP/S “has provided immediate cash-for-work opportunities, drawing thousands of workers away from poppy cultivation.” This sounds great—except during poppy-harvesting season, when the $4 to $5 a day ALP/S pays can’t begin to compete. This year, the opium harvest absorbed the entire southern Afghan workforce, for wages of up to a locally staggering $25 a day.

What, precisely, Chemonics was accomplishing for its $119 million was a growing mystery.

By contrast, ordinary individuals rolled up their sleeves. Between chorus practice and cross-country running, my 16-year-old partner, Mari Oye, whipped up a Wellesley High School Afghanistan Club, attracting other students who wanted to make a difference in the world, as well as earn a few community-service hours. She and her classmates held car washes and bake sales to raise money, and boned up on Afghanistan to explain the project. They also served as our sales representatives, securing retail accounts in two Boston-area boutiques; we made the first sales of our soap during Christmas 2005. The students arranged for me to speak at the Wellesley Free Library, setting up an exhibit of Afghan crafts as a backdrop. Thanks to the students, our cooperative was a local phenomenon.

Suddenly, indeed, our soap-factory-in-the-sky was becoming reality. I realized I had better get some structure. A group of friends and acquaintances who had been following my Afghanistan adventures rallied around to constitute a board of directors. After hearing my talk at Wellesley, a classy lawyer volunteered to join. The articles of incorporation and bylaws she composed were as elegant as a mathematical proof.

And things went on like that.

One scene sums up for me the outpouring of spontaneous support we have received: a bright kitchen/breakfast nook in Denver. Six women—brash, loud, competent— sitting around a table, with coffee mugs and plates of brunch food before them. They are marketing executives, called together by a transplanted Canadian friend, a former government official and museum director. I am dressed in a traditional black-velvet Afghan vest, sewn with mirrors and loops of silver braid. “Forget about soap,” laughed one of the women. “Where can we get our hands on those clothes?”

I passed around our rock-like bars of soap, then the mundane rectangular bars from the shelves of a local health-food store. “You’ve got an incredible product here,” the execs agreed. And they launched in. The marketing strategy we hammered out around that table, along with the design principles for labels and promotional materials and the time frame for moving into the North American market, have governed the cooperative’s business model ever since.

Something about our story—perhaps its sheer improbability—speaks to people. A French Canadian television network aired a news segment about us, shot partially in a village that became the front line in fighting against the Taliban last year. The next day 50 e-mails clogged our “info” box. Many of the people who wrote have become mainstays. One designed our Web site. Given the new Quebec link, we needed a French version. A translator offered her services. Two women decided to open a shop to retail our products and others like them. A Canadian CPA completed our 2006 tax filings and sent box after box of supplies to Kandahar: a plethora of tools and work gloves, 10 packages of toys for the children of cooperative members, carefully selected by his own son. Our retailers have hosted fund-raisers.

There was no denying it: People in the West want to help. But it seemed that often they weren’t sure how. What we were providing, I came to realize, was a way for them to do so—a way to get stuck in. Not everyone can drop his or her life and move to Afghanistan. We serve up alternative options, so people can participate according to their abilities and means. Even consumption—that overindulged American pastime—can help, if engaged in thoughtfully. The dollar bill is a phenomenal force for change, I now know, if spent on products and processes that respect the environment and promote dignified livelihoods, rather than destroying them. I have come to feel that what we offer people in the West—an opportunity to participate—may be just as meaningful as whatever benefits we bring to Kandahar.

It was the unflagging effort of a maverick Afghan American Chemonics employee (who didn’t last long) that finally did win us an eight-month contract with ALP/S worth almost $80,000. And by the time we completed our end of the bargain—a month early, on March 1 of this year—our cooperative had become a darling of ALP/S. We had exceeded all our production goals; we were providing sustainable alternative livelihoods to our members as well as the farmers from whom we bought raw materials; we were selling out in nine shops in the United States and Canada, and had 70 more waiting in line; and we were expanding. In a war zone.

During visits by six different members of ALP/S, we were repeatedly assured of a follow-on contract. After only a few bouts of irritation and several humorous exchanges with the latest program director, I submitted our proposal.

One day in early May when I was waiting for news of its status, yet another ALP/S officer dropped by, this one freshly arrived. In tow he had a former Chemonics vice president and an extra vehicle full of bulletproof-vested, gun-toting security personnel—something I had repeatedly asked ALP/S to avoid, as it makes waves in the neighborhood.

The two men had little notion of what we did, so I took them on a tour. They made enthusiastic noises and at the end asked me what I wanted from them. I was a little taken aback. Some feedback on the status of our proposal would be nice, though this was a different ALP/S employee’s responsibility. The gentlemen said they would “take a look and see what it needed.”

This sounded sickeningly familiar. I was under the impression that our proposal had been complete for weeks. Now I would probably have to start the application procedure all over again, at the whim of yet another incoming ALP/S manager.

The letter I received from him a few days later confirmed my premonition. It requested a ream of further documentation, such as a breakdown of the raw-materials cost of a bar of soap and our financial accounts from previous years. “Maybe even more importantly,” the letter went on,

we need to show the real raison d’etre for all of this. It’s because there’s real demand for your products. Demand is not your problem, Sarah, satisfying it is. You’ve already established a vibe in the market. You’re selling in Manhattan and sundry other swanky places. You’ve had plenty of free publicity in media with the appropriate reach to capture the attention of the chattering class whose hands you’re washing. The wind is now behind you and you’ve an opportunity to make a significant contribution to establishing Afghanistan as something other than a squalid state exporting only smack and terror. This is what USAID wants to hear.

Peppering this and subsequent communications were colloquialisms like “the first thing we’ve gotta make plain …”

I replied, providing the requested information, but also a statement of frustration. I was swiftly scolded for my tone: “unbusinesslike, unmannerly, and just plain unaesthetic.”

A few days later, after another volley, I received a lapidary note from the head of ALP/S: “Sarah, Please ignore the other emails, those not written by me. The encouragement of staff initiative can have exasperating consequences.”

I was, for once, utterly speechless.

This kind of management is what our government was buying for $45,000 or so a month? This is what it was offering Afghanistan?

For a night and a day after receiving that note, I turned things over in my mind. The decision I was reaching put a hard lump between my heart and my stomach—not least because my own salary was to be covered in the new ALP/S grant. I took my cooperative members’ pulse. Several of them, I could tell, did not approve. They are Afghan and practical. Take the money while it’s being offered, I could hear them think. Tomorrow may bring calamity. But one of them, Nurallah, spoke out loud. “My advice is this: You should never kiss anyone’s hand for money.” His sentiments echoed mine exactly.

And so I withdrew our proposal. “We’ll make it, somehow,” I thought, putting my faith in our far-flung family. And we are making it, thanks to the members of our cooperative, private foundations, individual donors—and the Canadian International Development Agency, which is somewhat more imaginative than my country’s own.

Presented by

Sarah Chayes is the founder of the Arghand Cooperative and author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

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