Can NEI Solve the Problem of Malnutrition in Afghanistan?

mantoo foodAccording to research from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), malnutrition is a major problem in Afghanistan. Approximately one-third of the country’s population isn’t getting enough calories on a daily basis, and about 20% of Afghans aren’t getting enough protein. The figures for malnutrition in children are even more troubling: more than 40% of Afghan children under five years old are stunted (or smaller than the average for their age), which is one of the world’s highest rates of childhood stunting. In addition, 10% of Afghan children are acutely malnourished, and thousands of children die every year because they don’t have access to adequate food and nutrition.

Childhood malnutrition naturally has serious consequences for physical development, but it can also lead to problems with cognitive development and educational achievement. Without the nutrients needed for healthy brain development and functioning, many malnourished children struggle with learning issues throughout their lives, even into adulthood. This is a particular challenge for a country like Afghanistan, which is working hard to increase literacy rates and education levels as part of its post-conflict rebuilding process.

With child health experts calling for greater nutritional investment in Afghanistan, a number of NGOs are stepping in to help tackle malnutrition and the underlying causes of Afghanistan’s food insecurity. Nutrition & Education International (NEI) is one such example: a non-profit organization that is working to promote soybean cultivation and nourishment in Afghanistan in association with local government agencies, universities, and the WFP. Read on to learn more about NEI’s work and its history in Afghanistan.

What is NEI?

NEI logoNEI is a non-profit organization on a mission to eradicate malnutrition in Afghanistan with a surprising weapon: soybeans.

Containing nine essential amino acids, soybeans are a rich source of protein and other nutrients, making them excellent fighters against malnutrition, which is essentially synonymous with protein deficiency. In addition, soybeans are a cost-effective crop to grow, and so are relatively easy to incorporate into Afghanistan’s agricultural practices.

NEI’s primary objective is to help Afghanistan establish a self-sustaining soybean industry by developing a full soybean value chain. The idea is that by introducing seed multiplication, soybean cultivation and processing, and soy market development, NEI can help poor families improve both their nutrition and their economic circumstances. According to NEI’s president, Steven Kwon, a functioning soy economy is one of the most practical remedies to address Afghanistan’s ongoing struggle with chronic malnutrition.

A history of NEI in Afghanistan

2003—Steven Kwon makes his first visit to Afghanistan. Soon after, he develops the soy nutrition initiative and establishes Nutrition & Education International as a non-profit NGO.

2004—Six varieties of non-GMO soybeans are successfully cultivated and tested in Afghanistan’s Balkh province.

2005—Following the successful testing of NEI’s soy program in 12 different Afghan provinces, the government of Afghanistan adopts the program as a national project.

2006—For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, 1,000 tons of soybeans are produced through the efforts of more than 2,000 Afghan farmers across nine provinces. In addition, two soy milk processing facilities are established, and NEI begins its humanitarian soy milk distribution program, which delivers nutrition-rich soy milk to 3,000 high-risk families.

2007—Soybean production expands; more than 3,000 farmers across 15 provinces are now cultivating soybeans.

2008—Three more soy milk processing facilities are established, as is a containerized soy flour factory.

2009—Soybean production expands beyond agricultural operations to include home and community gardens, thus helping individual families and small communities supplement their protein intake independently. NEI’s soy milk distribution program is now reaching 5,000 families, and a newly initiated winter soy nutrition campaign provides 100 tons of soybeans and soy flour to 2,500 high-risk families in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

2010—NEI purchases and distributes 100 metric tons of soybean seeds to farmers in 21 provinces; by this time, Afghan farmers are producing enough soybeans to sustain their own families. Afghanistan’s first-ever soy flour factory is built in Kabul with a capacity of 300 metric tons. NEI also increases its efforts to create a soy market in the country by launching its business arm, Soybean Nutrition Services Afghanistan (SNSA), and concentrates on providing seed resources, training farmers, and further developing the market for soy. A grant from the government of Japan enables NEI to pursue these aims.

2011—Three more soy flour factories are built, and NEI receives a second grant for its soybean production project from the Japanese government.

2012—NEI enters into a partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme to promote soybean cultivation in 100 districts across 20 provinces. More than 6,000 new farmers are trained in soybean cultivation, and 2,000 metric tons of soybeans are produced.

2013—NEI celebrates a decade of work in Afghanistan, and commits to a further 10 years of developing Afghanistan’s soybean industry in order to eradicate malnutrition.

2014—Two more soy processing facilities are established. NEI receives a grant for its work from the Republic of Korea.

2015—NEI’s founder meets formally with the President of Afghanistan to discuss the future of Afghanistan’s soybean industry.

2016—Construction on a sterilized soy milk factory is completed. 17,000 new soybean farmers are trained in 31 provinces, and soybean production reaches a record high of 6,000 metric tons.

What Are BRAC’s Most Important Focus Areas in Afghanistan?

Guided by its vision of a world free from poverty, exploitation, and discrimination, Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC) has been empowering poor and marginalized people and communities since it was established in Bangladesh in 1972. Today, BRAC is the world’s largest development organization, operating across 11 countries and touching the lives of one out of every 55 people on our planet.

BRAC has been working in Afghanistan since 2002, when it launched its first programs in post-conflict Kabul. Within seven years of its establishment in the country, BRAC was the largest NGO operating in Afghanistan, with a range of projects and initiatives focused on the following four priority areas:

Capacity development

BRAC logoImproving the competencies of government, civil, and private organizations is a critical part of Afghanistan’s journey toward resilience and empowerment. To address this need, BRAC launched its capacity development program in Kabul in 2003. The program consists of a suite of training courses for people and institutions involved in Afghanistan’s development process, including government ministries, local and international NGOs, UN organizations, and donor agencies. The idea behind the program’s establishment was to help provide the agents of Afghanistan’s development with the necessary tools to carry out their mission more effectively and with the highest degree of professionalism.

Designed to be engaging, participatory, flexible, and results-oriented, the training courses cover four key subjects: management and development, finance and accounts, health, and education. The capacity development program employs experienced professionals from around the world on both a part- and full-time basis to provide the best possible level of coaching to participants. As of September 2016, the program had developed 166 different course offerings and had provided training to over 61,000 people, of whom more than 19,000 were government and NGO staff.

Education

Reforming and improving Afghanistan’s education system is a major goal for the majority of local and international NGOs working in the country, and BRAC is no exception. BRAC’s education program actually reaches seven countries in total, making it the world’s largest private, secular education system; it was launched in Afghanistan in 2002.

In broad terms, the education program aims to bring systemic reform to Afghanistan’s schools and school system, working to improve students’ access to education and their academic performance. Using a community-based approach to education, BRAC schools offer a second chance to children who have been left behind by the formal education system due to barriers like poverty, displacement, discrimination, or violence.

Leveraging innovative teaching methods and materials, the BRAC system acts as a complement to Afghanistan’s mainstream school system through initiatives like need-based training and student mentoring. In addition, the community-based approach brings broader benefits, such as strengthening rural or isolated communities by providing them with their own school, and helping local governments become more aware of and more responsive to educational challenges.

In 2015 alone, BRAC opened 666 new community-based schools and 250 pre-primary schools. That same year, nearly 30,000 children graduated from 962 BRAC schools around the country. Teacher training is also an important part of BRAC’s education work. In 2015, 1,734 government school teachers received training from BRAC, as did 1,501 mentors working with students at 100 hub schools.

afghanistan school

Health

Decades of civil conflict have severely compromised the delivery of health care services to Afghans across their country. Since 2002, BRAC has partnered with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health to help the government provide basic health care services to its citizens, with a particular focus on achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals of reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and fighting infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest rates of tuberculosis infections.

BRAC’s health program brings together services across the full spectrum of care, including preventive, promotive, curative, and rehabilitative initiatives. Using trained frontline community health promoters, BRAC works to bridge the gap between underserved communities and formal healthcare systems, thus making it easier for disadvantaged, socially excluded, and isolated populations to access the basic care they need. In 2015, an estimated 1.3 million Afghans received health care through BRAC initiatives.

Rural development

Since 2003, BRAC has worked as a facilitating partner with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) on its National Solidarity Program (NSP). Created to address some of the most severe problems affecting Afghan infrastructure—including a lack of capacity, in terms of both personnel and knowledge, at grassroots administrative bodies—the NSP seeks to empower and support Afghan communities in identifying, planning, managing, and monitoring their own development projects. A key aspect of the NSP is facilitating the democratic election of community development councils, who play an integral role in launching projects in their own communities.

Already MRRD’s biggest community development initiative in Afghanistan, the NSP is also reputed to be the second-largest program of its kind in the world. BRAC supports the NSP by assisting community development councils with all aspects of their projects, including the use of NSP block grants intended for rural infrastructure development, and connecting these projects with other potential funding sources. In 2015, 614 infrastructure sub-projects were completed, and eight-month training programs were provided to more than 10,000 members of community development councils.

What You Need to Know about the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan

brussels conference on afghanistanHeld in early October 2016, the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan was a significant opportunity for the international community to review and discuss Afghanistan’s recent progress, and to renew its commitment to ongoing aid and development support for the country. Hosted by the Afghan government and the European Union and attended by delegates from more than 70 countries and 25 international organizations, the two-day conference concluded with international leaders pledging $15.2 billion for Afghanistan’s development over the next four years. The Brussels Conference was an important follow up to a similar meeting held in Tokyo in 2012, at which the international community committed to 4 billion euros per year in civilian aid for Afghanistan through the end of 2016.

One major highlight of the Brussels Conference was a presentation from representatives of the Afghan government on the many achievements and accomplishments that international support has made possible in Afghanistan over the last few years. Thanks to strong financial aid contributions from international sources, Afghanistan has made significant progress in a number of critical areas. Key achievements include:

Health care and education

It is impossible to improve what has not been measured. Recognizing this, Afghanistan recently conducted its first ever national Demographic and Health Survey. This comprehensive review provided new baseline information on a range of health issues, including maternal and child health, fertility, vaccination rates, and rates of diseases like malaria and HIV.

In 2015, approximately 58 million health care visits were provided to citizens, an increase of roughly 3 million over the previous year. Care for mothers and babies was a particular focus, with health workers attending about 1.2 million antenatal services and 7 million birth delivery services.

In 2015, nearly 1 million new students enrolled in Afghan schools. A total of 9.4 million students are currently enrolled in primary and secondary education; furthermore, nearly 40% of these students are girls and young women.

Public services

Herat, AfghanistanTo help address some of the bureaucratic obstacles that make it difficult for Afghans to access basic public services, Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Republic of Azerbaijan to launch a new initiative called Asan Khedmat. The idea behind Asan Khedmat is to create centers that can deliver both government services and auxiliary services from the private sector in an efficient, responsive, and transparent manner. The first Asan Khedmat center recently opened in Kabul. Residents of the city now have access to 21 services—including driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations, wedding certificates, and national ID cards—under one roof.

Irregular and unpermitted urban settlements are common in Afghanistan’s major cities, often leading to contentious property disputes, stress, and fear for residents. Afghanistan is seeking to resolve these issues through a recently launched, nationwide program that aims to survey, register, and provide occupancy certificates to properties located in these areas. Around 6,000 properties in cities like Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul have already been mapped and are currently undergoing the registration process.

Securing livelihoods

A government jobs creation program known as Jobs for Peace was rolled out last year in several Afghan provinces. With the goal of improving short-term food security for families, the initiative disbursed more than $70 million to people in more than 5,000 communities, creating at least 2.6 million days of labor. Jobs within the program included maintenance work on rural area development projects and cleaning work in urban centers.

Given that many Afghans earn their livelihood through agricultural activities, support for farmers is a crucial part of Afghanistan’s overall economic health. Some of the achievements that have helped farmers in recent years include the Agricultural Development Fund loans program, which has disbursed $61 million to more than 31,000 farmers; the rehabilitation of nearly 2,000 kilometers of irrigation infrastructure, which has improved water access for close to 500,000 hectares of agricultural land; and the recovery of 6,000 hectares of illegally seized land by the Land and Water Administration, which is working to provide farmers with land tenure security and protect them from seizure.