Afghanistan's bumpy road to recovery

An Afghan farmer prunes his fruit tree. His next challenge: navigating Afghanistan's crumbling roads to get his products to market.

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Kai Ryssdal: Afghanistan's one of the world's poorest countries. It's also one of the hungriest thanks to war, drought and a lucrative black market that makes poppies and heroin more profitable than food.

Today, the Afghan government and the United Nations appealed for $400 million in food aid. But maybe they'd have been be better off asking for road aid, because as Gregory Warner reports, the challenge isn't really about growing local crops. It's about getting those crops to market.


Gregory Warner: Gulam Yazdani is pruning his peach trees. The 65-year-old farmer leads me and my translator Najib around his small orchard. We're in a fertile corner of eastern Afghanistan, not far from the bustling city of Jalalabad. But getting the fruit from these trees to those buyers in the city is a challenge.

Gulam Yazdani: The first problem of ours is the road.

The road from here to Jalalabad is as bad as it was during the war years. And the farmers have no good packaging. They're transporting the fruit in burlap sacks.

Yazdani: Whatever we take to the city will be like big bruises in the fruit and that really affected the price.

Yazdani can't compete with Pakistani farmers who come from much farther away, but undersell him with better fruit. We leave the farm and begin the long drive back to the city. Our driver crawling along the dusty road weaves slowly around potholes as large as my arm.

The Bush administration has promised to repair this road by 2011, though we don't notice any signs of construction. We do pass some six year olds with shovels and then, a quarter mile later, an elderly man, also with a shovel. Then more kids.

Najib, my translator, says it's a business.

Najib: It happens all over the country, wherever we got rough roads. We've got kids, we've got men. Usually we've got kids, you know?

The kids, or men, claim a pothole or two, and start filling it in for tips.

Najib: A small road construction business for them.

So we stop at one guy, who agrees to answer our questions. Nabi is 80 years old, with a white beard thick as sheep's wool.

"I fill holes," he says simply. He used to be a farmer until he broke his hip. Now, each morning, he limps out to a pothole -- it isn't hard to find -- and shovels in dirt when cars pass. It doesn't seem to make the road better, but it stops it from getting much worse. He makes about 15 cents a day, he says.

Nabi lifts his sweater to show where his broken hip makes a lump. When a car passes slowly and honks, without tipping, he scowls like a New York cabbie.

"Look," he says, "most people drive by, they don't give anything." It's not really much of a job, but he's got 12 daughters and no other way to support them.

I ask him if he knows any English and he looks ashamed. "I'm illiterate," he says, so I feel bad for asking. But then, he thinks of a word he knows:

Nabi: Bush.

Warner: Uh, Bush? Like, George Bush?

Nabi: Bush.

I ask Nabi if he's worried about Bush's promise for road repair putting him out of a job. He just shakes his head. "God will provide," he says.

In Kabul, I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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