By: Heidi A Heltzel Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section: Business
Transforming Communities Through Commerce
Where does hope lie? It lies in a rug, and more specifically, at ARZU Studio Hope. This “for benefit” organization provides sustainable incomes to Afghani women by sourcing and selling the rugs they weave. Aptly named, “arzu” is an inspirational Dari word that means “hope.” It is also a common Afghani woman’s name. ARZU, in this case, stands for much more than its name implies. ARZU Studio Hope’s founder, Connie Duckworth, says she brings to the table “an understanding of business and a strong belief in the economic empowerment of women.” She adds, “Women are community builders, and the carpets are the vehicle for transforming lives by providing a means of financial support.”
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in the United States, and an international non-governmental organization (NGO) in Afghanistan, ARZU has developed “transformational commerce” through implementation of a social experiment. ARZU employs a socially responsible economic and business model by producing a product with a purpose, which creates sustainable solutions to intractable problems – like unemployment and poverty. It is one experiment that should serve as a model not only to the nonprofits of the world, but to the for-profit community as well.
Duckworth’s background is impressive. She hails from the rough and tumble financial world in New York City. A retired Partner and Managing Director at Goldman, Sachs & Co., she was named the first female sales and trading partner in the firm’s history during her twenty-year career (1981-2001). She currently serves on several boards and is the recipient of numerous awards, including being named the 2008 Skoll Foundation honoree for Social Entrepreneurship for her work with ARZU.
It all started in 2003 when Duckworth, an active member of the US-Afghanistan Women’s Council, took a trip with the group to Afghanistan. While there, she was appalled by the poverty and standard of living. She returned to the United States with the idea that she wanted to help the women of Afghanistan earn a living wage, and she identified three primary goals, each with the intent of playing a direct role in poverty alleviation. First, create jobs as a starting point so that families could put food on the table today. Second, create an investment in the future by requiring education. And third, deliver maternal health care that would decrease the maternal death rate.
Duckworth freely admits that when she started ARZU she knew nothing about Afghanistan, rugs or international development through foreign aid. She also noted, a little tongue-in-cheek, that “ignorance is bliss,” and says that she has learned a lot on the job. Duckworth feels strongly that with regard to global poverty, pure foreign aid won’t get the job done. However, developing self-sustaining economic activity at the grassroots level is the answer, and vibrant economies drive peaceful nations.
She added that this is a big shift from the old-school thinking that NGO’s typically utilize.
Through ARZU, Duckworth has set out to prove that it is possible to self-fund 100 percent of whatever the organization does. Her experiment is working, in large part through the incorporation of basic, old fashioned techniques, specifically, applying common sense rules while utilizing creativity, collaboration, respect and incentives. Initially thinking that the garment industry would be a good source of income, by engaging in a field that would be considered appropriate for women’s work in the Afghani culture, she began speaking with friends who knew the industry well. To her frustration, she quickly became aware of serious limitations to this effort, such as security issues and the lack of electricity; in this gender segregated society, most women would not be allowed to leave their homes to work in a factory. So, Duckworth was forced to shed her preconceived ideas and start again. She renewed her efforts with extensive research that included studying export industries, while considering roles that would be socially acceptable for women.
That is when she hit upon the carpet industry. A rich and ancestral part of Afghanistan’s history, rugs are a centuries old artisan craft that provide both beauty and function. Woven in the home, these rugs were losing their place in the world, becoming lost under the dust and rubble of more than three decades of violence due to civil war. To achieve her goals, Duckworth quickly realized that collaboration would be essential for her success.
Collaboration. That single word seems to be the catch phrase of today, even though it’s far from a new concept. Collaboration has always made the economic engines of the world churn. When asked about the role of collaboration with regard to starting up a new venture, Duckworth’s response was simple, “partner or die,” stating that collaboration and partnership have been absolutely critical for ARZU to succeed and grow. However, she is taking the concept of collaboration to a whole new level, as her efforts are inclusive of domestic and foreign governments, businesses and local communities. One of her first collaborative acts was asking Afghani locals for their help in naming the new venture, and her ongoing interaction with the locals has become primary to ARZU’s success. New ideas are constantly being vetted, and her team carefully listens to local villagers’ needs. Through this effort, she is able to keep the goals and objectives of the organization grounded and realistic, and therefore achievable.
Despite the challenges in finding trustworthy and loyal employees in a war-torn nation that is fraught with corruption, applying respect and incentives has led to a faithful employee base.
The rug operations are conducted in rural areas. While logistically more challenging, there is less corruption, and it is easier to find a positive reception and eager individuals who want to engage in a venture that will work toward rebuilding their country, rather than tearing it down.
Once the seed money from USAID was received, she began reaching out to Afghanistan’s local councils and provincial leaders to implement the business opportunity. Duckworth requires the local leaders and heads of households to agree to a social contract that must be signed by each of the weavers. If the local leaders do not want ARZU in their community, she moves on to another village. Lack of interest, however, does not seem to be a problem. In fact, she now has a waiting list of weavers who want to become enrolled in the program. These contracts enable Duckworth to realize her goal of supporting the communities today, while building a future for tomorrow’s generations.
The social contract provides a significant economic incentive, stipulating that the women will be paid a fair wage for the rugs, plus a 50 percent bonus for the highest quality work. As a result, the women earn an average annual income of about $1,200, or a wage three times that of the average household income in Afghanistan.
The first 30 weavers were contracted in June of 2004 in a small village outside of Kabul. Currently, ARZU has approximately 700 weavers working in seven different villages. Additionally, there are 52 staff members in Afghanistan and 13 more (full-time and part-time) in various parts of the United States. In all, 95 percent of the jobs that have been created are held by women.
In an effort to invest in the future, the contract also provides a social incentive by requiring that all children under the age of 15 in the household (both girls and boys) must attend school full-time, and that the women must attend literacy classes for about two hours a day. ARZU does not have the resources to build schools, so they collaborate with the Ministry of Education, which provides certification for ARZU’s educational programs and classes.
The program has been so successful that its availability has been expanded to women and children outside of the ARZU program. One of the most rewarding outcomes, for Duckworth and the women, is when they see thumbprints on the contracts transform into signatures as the women learn to write their own names.
Despite being in a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (UNICEF, 2009), ARZU can also count among its successes that, of more than 300 women under their care, not one has died during childbirth. This success is due in large part to their partnership with the Ministry of Health to provide community health worker training and basic midwifery training to local villagers. These trained villagers then return to their communities where they work on a family-by-family basis and provide nutrition, sanitation, antenatal and postnatal education. This program currently serves over 10,000 villagers across Bamyan Province.
In the U.S., corporate support for ARZU’s efforts has been received through grant funding, volunteers, support for primary or major distribution channels, and a large customer base through the placement of both standard and custom rug orders. The purchase of rugs provides working capital and is essential to seeding ARZU’s programs.
As ARZU continues to grow, so does its impact on the Afghani culture, society and economy. Well on its way to achieving its initial goals, ARZU is now expanding its reach to new objectives, including farming and environmental sustainability. These efforts focus a lot of attention on water conservation and reclamation. Water is not only a valuable commodity in Afghanistan, but is essential to both farming and the final processing of rugs to bring out the luster of the dyes. Even a new women’s community center and a community garden/greenhouse and sports/wellness complex have been initiated.
For all of these achievements, and more, ARZU’s successes are being noticed by nonprofit, for-profit, and U.S. government organizations. Check out www.arzustudiohope.org to learn more about their operations and how they are expanding their programs, and to get information on how to purchase a rug for your home or business. Each rug comes with its own story and provides the purchaser with the satisfaction of knowing that the purchase is contributing to poverty alleviation and is transforming entire communities through commerce.