Afghanistan has been plagued by conflict and war for three decades, creating an unfortunate legacy: many of its 30 million people have few opportunities for education and employment, resulting in a low level of skills in the country’s workforce. Despite some economic gains in recent years, most Afghans continue to struggle financially, and an estimated 90% of Afghan families rely on informal employment to support themselves.
A recent project working with young apprentices and workshop owners suggests that strengthening informal businesses that employ youth apprentices may be a productive way to improve youths’ skills and income-earning opportunities. Apprenticeships are a common approach to vocational training in Afghanistan, but the quality of apprenticeships varies greatly. While construction is a strong economic sector in Afghanistan, working conditions in workshops may put youth at risk of physical injury. The need to earn money to support their families may lead apprentices to forego their formal education. Poor health and lack of education are likely to compromise apprentices’ long-term earning potential, so what avenues are available to reduce these risks?
For three years (2008-2011), MEDA operated the USAID-funded Afghan Secure Futures (ASF) project, which focused on building the capabilities of vulnerable children and youth apprenticed in small workshops in the construction trade. ASF offered a two-pronged approach, providing literacy and numeracy training to 1,063 youths and helping 363 workshop owners – largely in the metal working and carpentry trades – to improve and grow their businesses through training, business development assistance, and links to larger market players. Through the project, young Afghan workers gained valuable hands-on experience and safer working conditions, and their employers made new connections to potential markets and clients to expand their business environment and create more sustainable businesses.
For many of the youths, the project offered their first chance at any form of education whatsoever. “They come from very poor families,” reports Mohamed Yousef, founder of Aschiana (Persian for “the nest”), the organization that partnered with ASF to provide literacy and numeracy training to apprentices. “The costs for uniforms, stationery and transport prohibit them going to the schools. For a lot of the kids in the literacy program, the classes are a haven three days a week, for a couple of hours. The degree of drug abuse, domestic violence and disorder in their households is high.”
The classes run outside of regular business hours, at no cost to the owners, so there was no negative impact on their business. But initially, workshop owners were not supportive of the idea of literacy classes. However, Mr. Yousef says that now “the owners are seeing that, when literate, the apprentices can take orders and help run the stores without the owners there, freeing them up for social events or to be off site doing business development. Now they are seeing it as a matter of pride that their apprentices are going to class.”
ASF helped overcome the workshop owners’ initial resistance to literacy training by helping the workshop businesses grow. This built project trust and credibility with the workshop owners, and offered greater opportunities for apprentices to learn a wider range of marketable skills, as businesses accessed more reliable and more varied contracts. By linking small businesses to larger market players, business associations and financial service providers, ASF supported workshop owners in improving both the quality and quantity of their work. Increases in workshop revenue recorded during the project period were linked to increased incomes among apprentices, in many cases.
MEDA program manager Jennifer Denomy sees the learning generated by the program as a key outcome of the project. “ASF gave us an opportunity to try some new approaches and generate new learning in an under-served arena of development: the role of non-formal education and apprenticeships in alleviating poverty. This learning will help to advance other similar initiatives.”
The learning agenda of ASF is already starting to show promise. Staff from the USAID mission in Kabul attended the closing ceremony for ASF to learn more about the project. USAID is planning a substantial vocational training project in Kabul in the near future and they have approached MEDA to gather more information, with the intention of taking the ASF experience into account in their own program planning.
Project highlights: Making a change for young workers and their families
- Technical skills have increased: Youth have learned how to handle money, take orders, and improve their workplace relationships. 98% of youth were very satisfied with the literacy and numeracy classes they attended.
- Income has increased from a baseline of $9 US, to $20 US. A majority of youth said they had improved their ability to support themselves and their families, with 78% noting their income had gone up; 21% said it had remained the same. While it is difficult to know how much of this increase is attributable solely to project activities, the income rise reported is far in excess of the economic growth curve in Afghanistan. Qualitative statements indicate that the apprentices attribute their improved income, in part, to program interventions.
- Workplace conditions have improved: 87% of youth reported they now feel very safe in their working environment; 99% are now using safety tools at work; only 3% had sustained an injury in the workplace in the past year; and 68% now have access to clean drinking water on the job.
- Nutrition and food security has improved. Youth surveyed reported an increase in the consumption of higher value food stuffs.
- From their entry into the program, workshop incomes increased for 80% of the workshop owners, from a baseline of an average of $5,730 US per annum to $12,300 US.
One boy’s story
Najib, 16, has been apprenticed in a metal working shop for about a year. He had never been to school before the literacy classes provided through ASF. Before his father found him the apprenticeship, he sold candy on the street, making very little money. He now earns about 400 AFG ($9 US) a week, double the 200 AFG ($4 US) he was earning when he started in the workshop. His household has eight people – father, mother and siblings. Only he and his brother work (his brother is a car washer) so the money he earns represents an important contribution to the household income.
“The classes are the first education I have ever received. I want to learn about metal work, and eventually open my own shop, so I can help my family more. But you cannot have a shop or earn any money if you cannot read or count. The classes are helping me get ready to be a workshop owner.”