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Afghan carpet makers

Miranda Kennedy Jul 18, 2006


CHERYL GLASER: Think of it as Crate & Barrel meets the Arabian Nights. In Atlanta today, a delegation of Afghan carpet makers will get together with importers at a major trade show. It’s the first time Afghan carpet merchants have met face-to-face with buyers in one of the world’s biggest markets. There’s more riding on this than just the hopes of a few small businesses. The Afghan government thinks the carpet industry could give a lift to the country’s struggling economy. Miranda Kennedy reports from Kabul.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Talks between government commerce officials and Afghan carpet makers started off amicably over glasses of green tea. But before the tea could even cool, simmering anger escalated into heated debate.

Thirty years of conflict in Afghanistan cut traders off totally from their export markets. Afghan carpet makers send their wares to Pakistan where they are finished and where much of the profit is earned.

The carpet makers complain their profit margins are wafer thin. Mohammed Nabi, a haggard looking carpet trader, takes the floor to demand government help.

MOHAMMED NABI (translator): The government isn’t giving us the facilities we need to be able to finish making our carpets in Afghanistan. We can’t even get a loan here, because the banks have no capacity. How are we supposed to be able to compete when we can’t even export our products directly to the US? My business is running at a loss for the fourth year in a row.

You hear the same story from all kinds of businessmen here. But government advisor Sultana Parvanta is not sympathetic.

SULTANA PARVANTA (translator): We’ve talked about this many times before. The fact is we’re trying. At the same time, I really want you, the private sector, the carpet producers, to take more initiative, take more responsibility, because you see, look around you, look at the city. So much is broken, how do we begin and where do we begin putting these pieces together.

The meeting ends with pleasantries and handshakes, but both sides are frustrated because there are no solutions.

But Mark Ward, with the US government’s aid agency, says this kind of dialogue is a good start. The US is funding a $6 million project to teach Afghan carpet makers how to go directly to exporters like they are now in Atlanta.

MARK WARD: They need some help learning how to talk to government, and government needs some help learning how to talk to them. And it’s educating the government here about the value of the private sector.

Ward says if Afghanistan is ever going to survive without international aid, it has to develop a healthy private sector. But he believes if they do things right, Afghanistan’s $150 million carpet industry could double in value in 10 years.

In Kabul, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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