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Strengthening Agricultural Extension for Female Afghan Farmers

This success story written by Taryn Devereux, a Gender in agriculture specialist , is part of the "Young women and Youth's Gender Perspectives in Agricultural Development" series that spotlight young professionals' experiences for women's empowerment in agricultural development. From research to private sector, mass media to civil society work, YPARD 2015 Gender series features, every month, young "gender champions" from different regions of the world. This series is part of YPARD work as special youth catalyst in the GAP : Gender in Agriculture Partnership.

I write this post from Kabul, Afghanistan, where I am currently working for the next few weeks on behalf of the University of Maryland for their Women in Agriculture (WIA) program, which is part of a consortium of universities that run the USAID-funded Afghanistan Agricultural Extension Project (AAEP-II). I’ve been here less than a week and have already visited a demonstration garden in Kabul, traveled to another project site in Balkh to visit Farmer Field Schools (FFS) and the women who run them, experienced my first earthquake, met with the AAEP-II and USAID leadership based here in Afghanistan, and talked to WIA team members and female Afghan extension agents about their experiences with the program. This is the pace of WIA, and it speaks to the drive and dedication of the team.

The Afghan Women in Balkh. One of the programs Taryn is working on

Normally you can find me working from the University of Maryland campus, helping to coordinate the program through grant management, arranging travel for various team members, facilitating communication between the two offices, and coming up with ways to improve an already impressive program. The success of previous program activities coupled with the intense need felt by communities here has compelled our team to seek new sources of funding to increase the number of trainings and expand our geographical scope.

What I like most about WIA is its attitude towards women and development. Unlike many other NGOs and government agencies that pass through Afghanistan – distributing items and checking off boxes – this program operates around the idea that for the work to be meaningful, it must effectively transfer over to Afghan women after funds have ceased.

Today a group of about forty female FFS leaders and students gathered together to celebrate the end of the program cycle. They spoke about the technical training they had received which has improved their household gardens and diets, and also the social networks created among women in their communities. They described feeling confident in themselves and their abilities, and were excited to share knowledge and experience with other women.

WIA also provides female university students with practical experience, in order to increase their employability and ultimately increase the number of female extension agents in Afghanistan (currently approx. 19). Broadly speaking, the program increases institutional capacity within the university system and government ministries, so that FFSs, demonstration gardens, and extension networks can find a permanent home in the future.

I am excited to be here. Previously I’ve done research and extension work in Colombia, Paraguay and Kenya, and worked in gardens and on farms in the United States and France. The research I’ve done has examined climate change adaptation strategies among smallholder farmers, and in particular, the social networks by which men and women learn about new information and technologies. I transitioned into extension work as a way to apply my academic training in real-world settings, and sought out projects that work with women.

The need to promote women’s leadership and advancement in agriculture has been written about extensively on this website and elsewhere, and advocated for passionately by people around the world who understand its importance. It’s often said that women are agents for change within households, and addressing their needs, priorities and challenges is critical for meaningful change to occur.

I try to be very conscious of my role as a Western woman promoting “development” abroad to other women, and what that means to the people I work with. I grew up in a working class family in a small Gulf-side town in Florida. Through a combination of hard work and good fortune I attended university and eventually obtained my Masters in Development Practice, focusing on tropical agriculture and gender studies. While my background equipped me with a healthy skepticism of privilege and class dynamics, traveling internationally has broadened that context and introduced me to a wide spectrum of cultures, belief systems, values and narratives. I question my government and my own role in participating in development projects abroad, and I try to think critically about whose best interests are really being met.

I’ve seen hardworking men and women contracted by the government to improve their countries, working alongside global citizens, get entangled in the bureaucracy and protocol demanded by the institutional framework. I also see people with the least of resources come together to make major changes for good in their communities.