Just before my Christmas break I ate one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted – raisins from Kandahar. They were intensely-flavoured and sweet and, my host told me (with a mixture of pride and an implied warning not to finish the whole bowl), very expensive.
Afghanistan produces some very fine things indeed. I have stood in awe in front of the most intricate silk carpets, one apparently selling for about what I paid for my family car.
As poets and writers have known for centuries, Afghanistan’s fruits are some of the finest anywhere – especially pomegranates, melons, grapes and of course those raisins. There is wonderful jewellery fashioned from Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits.
Afghans take enormous pride in these things. An Afghan colleague beamed today when I told him how much my family had enjoyed and admired the various Afghan-made Christmas presents I’d taken back. “Afghan industry can help us make a better future”, he said.
It’s worth thinking regularly – as we do here in the Embassy – about Afghanistan’s economic challenges and prospects, not just the questions of politics and security which tend to dominate the headlines.
There is no silver bullet for Afghan prosperity. Mining has great potential but needs infrastructure, markets, and the right legal framework to ensure everyone benefits – not easy things to do quickly.
In agriculture, too many Afghans grow wheat which is ground into flour elsewhere and then sold back to them at higher prices.
Boosting the farm economy means expanding things like irrigation, and developing industries (like flour mills) and routes to market so things don’t rot on the way to where they can be sold for a good profit. In other words, those raisins need to be dried and packaged as well as just grown here.
But my Kandahari raisins were a good reminder of this country’s economic potential. Long-term, Afghanistan needs to rely more and more on the fruits of its own labour and less on foreign aid.
That’s a long journey, but one which Afghans want to make as much as we want them to.