Ask More of Business

Asking More Commentary: Perspectives from Mendoza College of Business

Commentary Post - Carolyn Y. Woo

Poverty and hope both found in Afghanistan

August 17, 2009

On July 27, 2009, Carolyn Y. Woo, Martin J. Gillen Dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan, as part of a ten-day journey to observe the work of Catholic Relief Services in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Woo, a CRS board member, traveled from major cities to remote villages in the two countries, seeing first-hand CRS’s relief work aimed at improving education, agriculture, water resources and other significant humanitarian needs. The following Asking More Commentary entry offers a personal account of Dean Woo’s visit and her personal observances of the countries, the people and CRS’ relief efforts.

July 31, 2009


Everything is extreme here in Afghanistan. The roads are precarious, and we would climb to as high as 10,000 feet on the Bayan Pass. The environs are an infinite rock-scape. We visited the poorest district of the poorest province (Ghor).  The decades of war and conflicts have left the former capital of fruit and nut production to barren and eroded land. Sometimes it feels like being in the Old Testament when goat herds, camels and cows move along with shepherds. We stayed in mud houses with roofs propped up by poplar logs.

As always on these trips, the hospitality of people who have little is truly astounding.

 This morning, we visited a very large village with 900 households. The village was devastated by a seven-year drought. CRS undertook projects involving water management, irrigation and roads construction to enable agricultural production and connection to other villages and markets for trade. To thank us, the village head offered us bread baked that morning from the wheat grown in the village, hot milk that was milked earlier, hard-boiled eggs from chicken raised there and other items.  It was a virtual feast.  I have also learned now to leave food untouched that I don’t want.  Someone can eat it later.

CRS is simply incredible.   The group is much respected where it works because its staff members truly listen to the villagers.  It does assessments, identifies critical needs based on the people’s input and provides sustainable solutions that work better and at lower costs.

The water projects are amazing: These include repairing the sources of water (broken dams, blocked access); building underground pipes to transport the water, and preventing soil erosion and enabling water conservation through plantings. CRS also introduced “smart” planting practices such as crops that are robust and can generate revenues. Other than agricultural needs, CRS also provides water pumps for daily use as well as instruction on sanitation and hygiene. The health and well-being of the village is raised to a level of quality and safety that dignify lives.

In a gathering of the village council (of men), we talked about the benefits of water being available in the village.  With undiluted enthusiasm and in unison, the group cited WATER as its most precious asset and pledged all efforts to safeguard its availability.  To prepare for the winter, they will check the pipes for potential freezing and construct a little shelter to protect the tap stand.  The village elders formed a water council comprised of four people who attend to technical issues and four who will take on social disputes.

When asked about the benefits, they gave 19 points recorded on their “brainstorming sheets” tacked to the wall.  These include significant reduction in the cases of intestinal distresses, time (about five hours) now available  for women to do other things such as attending literacy classes, prevention of injury incurred on the water-fetching journeys, ending conflicts among villages at the streams, freeing up donkeys to do other tasks, and cultivation of gardens made possible by overflow from the village reservoir.  Water also enabled the people to wash better prior to prayer.

We visited with several women enterprise groups (20 members in each, from 18 years of age and up) who have started their own businesses under the guidance of CRS staff member Suzanne. One was a bakery and the other a home décor business (curtains, drapes, matching cushion covers).  I had a GREAT time.  Both are very successful: The bakery achieved its three-month planned volume in one week, and the home décor group in one month.  The bakery business was headed by a woman who lost a 5-year-old son to starvation.  Others have children who suffer the developmental consequences of malnutrition.  Both groups have plans: The bakery can see the need for an additional oven; the home décor group wants to open a retail store rather than just supplying existing businesses.  They study new pattern books to expand their offerings.  They want more accounting and marketing training and some are taking literacy classes.  They want food and education for their children. They are getting respect from their husbands.

I was so proud of them; my heart swells to see the “ATTITUDE” that they have cultivated.  They know that there is a future; that THEY can make it happen: for themselves, their children, and their community. But I must say, there is NO idle woman.  These ladies clean house in the morning; walk up the mountains to collect fuel (sticks and branches) for the winter; sew and bake in the afternoon; cook dinner and sew and cook some more (sometimes through the night)!