Arzu Studio Hope: Embracing Social Responsibility

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Arzu Studio Hope is a rug company producing hand-woven rugs in Afghanistan. It’s also a 501 (c) 3 non-profit (in the USA) and an NGO providing social services (in Afghanistan). It’s also a “for benefit” corporation – as opposed to a “for profit” corporation – and a “social business enterprise.” It fits into several categories, but doesn’t fit into any of them neatly. That’s because it’s something new.

[A version of this article was first published in November, 2012 in Volume 33, No. 2 of Rug News andDesign Magazine.]

Arzu was conceived in 2002 in the mind of Connie Duckworth, a retired financier, while she was on her way home from her first trip to Afghanistan, which she had visited as a member of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. While there she had seen the desperate conditions under which so many women and children were living.

Flying Pink Scarf
Flying Pink Scarf
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When we think of the solutions financiers are likely to propose in the face of human catastrophe, we’re likely to remember something about rising tides and boats. And frankly, as our economy creeps along, we’re skeptical. And yet Duckworth’s solution, Arzu, came out of the same juxtaposition of public need and private practice.

Arzu would function as an economically sustainable economic enterprise – as does a company that produces goods at a profit – but would operate for the benefit of the communities in which it was located.

More specifically, it would operate to improve the lives of women in these communities, and the underlying economic enterprise would be the weaving of rugs, an activity in which so many of the women in these communities were already engaged.“Arzu” means “hope” in Dari, the lingua franca of Afghanistan.

Making Rugs and Doing Good

Arzu offers its weavers a bonus of up to 50% for meeting Arzu’s quality standards. To be an Arzu weaver, a weaver and her family must have signed a social contract with Arzu. That contract has three main provisions. First, the family must send all its children to school. The family must also “release” its adult women for literacy training. Finally, the family must “release” its pregnant women and newborns for pre- and post-natal medical care.

It’s important to note the distinction here. Arzu’s rug making operation pays a quality premium. The premium induces families to sign the social contract. But – conceptually if not practically – the rug making operation is not responsible for providing education or healthcare.

Arzu both provides some of these services itself, and assists the weavers and their children to access services available from the Afghan government or foreign aid agencies. But it does so in its capacity as an NGO doing social work in Afghanistan, rather than in its capacity as a rug producer. This is what makes it possible for Arzu to think in terms of a rug operation that is economically self-sustaining.

Women Apprentices Making Water Filters

Arzu conducts a variety of programs in the villages in which it operates that are external to, but work in harmony with, the rug making program. It’s built women’s community centers and homes. It has a low-tech water purification program. It’s established a park. These are all special projects that take place outside of the rug production program, and are paid for with donations raised outside Afghanistan.

Arzu addresses the issues of employment, education and healthcare, which it sees as interdependent. Its rug production process directly addresses the first by providing consistent employment at a premium wage. The same wage premium induces families to take advantage of education and healthcare opportunities.

This fundamental distinction between Arzu’s rug production activities and its social activities is one of the most important aspects of the work Arzu is doing in Afghanistan. If we keep the two activities conceptually separate, the Arzu model allows us – and more importantly, the weavers and their families – to see what is possible with a rug production process that pays a higher wage.

Because weavers are in short supply throughout the rug weaving world, and because Afghanistan, perhaps uniquely, has weavers who are unemployed and ready to return to the looms, it’s likely that wages of weavers in Afghanistan will rise. Weaving as practiced under the Arzu umbrella gives weavers – especially weavers in villages in which Arzu does not yet operate – a sense of what their life will be like when their wages go up. Arzu thus demonstrates the advantages that can flow from change.

Afghanistan has a “traditional” culture. “It” is resistant to change. “Change” in this context includes sending daughters to school and pregnant women to doctors. “Change” in this context means women have more influence in the family, that what they want has more weight, that things will evolve in ways that they see as more just. It’s difficult to avoid the generalization that the men are more resistant to change while the women are more open to it.

Cleaning  Rugs
Cleaning Rugs

Arzu offers the men as well as the woman in the family of the weaver advantages in exchange for accepting change.

It’s fair to point out that under the Arzu program the impetus for change is the link between the rise in wages and the acceptance of change, and that, in a world in which wages of weavers rise because of a shortage of weavers, that will not be the case. But it’s equally fair to point out that by living under change – with higher wages, greater use of educational and healthcare services, and an enhanced status for women – villagers are able to judge how threatening (or not) such change is. If experience around the world over the last century is any indication, men and women in Afghanistan are more likely to find themselves more nearly on the same page regarding change than they thought they were.

Arzu’s Rug Production Program

Since 2004, when it began operating in Afghanistan, Arzu’s rug production program has completed two distinct phases, and has now begun a third phase. The first phase (roughly 2004-2008) focused on the supply side. It was when Arzu established its footprint on the ground. It signed up weavers and trained people to assure quality. (It also engaged in various activities to provide access to social services. We’ll look at these in the next section of this article.) The goal was to “ramp up” the number of weavers to a critical mass. Arzu now has between 600 and 700 weavers in three villages in Bamyan Province.

The second phase (roughly 2009-2012) focused on the demand side. Until this time, Arzu had sold the rugs made in Afghanistan through special events of one kind or another – including trunk sales – and through its website. During this phase Arzu worked on increasing sales. It recruited a select group of high end retailers. It promoted its rugs to the architectural and design communities. The idea was to increase sales, so as to increase the number of weavers (and draw down inventory).

In its recently-begun third phase, Arzu is concentrating more on balancing supply and demand. Practically, this has a lot in common with the second phase, in that efforts to establish Arzu rugs in the marketplace continue unabated. But whereas the goal in the second phase was simply to grow sales, the goal in this third phase is more to balance production and sales.

In the UK, a group of graduates of Saïd Business School at Oxford University is launching OxEthica, a company that will distribute Arzu rugs in the UK – from shops in Oxford and London – with the intention of expanding distribute throughout the European Community.

Arzu’s Community Development Programs

As noted above, Arzu and participating families enter into a social contract. Families agree to send to school full-time all children, of both sexes, who are under 15. They further agree to allow all women in the household to attend Arzu literacy classes. Finally, they agree to permit Arzu to transport pregnant women and new-borns to clinics for pre- and post-natal care, as well as transport women in labor to hospitals for delivery.

Preschool Students Singing National Anthem
Preschool Students Singing National Anthem

Since most girls are behind educational attainment for their age, Arzu funds “fast track” classes to bring them up to speed so they can be mainstreamed with others of their age at a government school. For grown women, Arzu also conducts education classes in the village that cover literacy, basic numeracy and subjects including health, hygiene, nutrition and human rights. Arzu’s healthcare initiative focuses on childbirth. Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of maternal death (women who die giving birth) in the world. The care pregnant women need to lower the maternal death rate is available at clinics and hospitals, yet women in Afghanistan traditionally give birth at home. Arzu sees that women in families that have signed a social contract are taken to clinics for pre-natal care, are taken to a hospital for delivery, and that they and their babies are taken to clinics for post-natal care. With this program, Arzu has lowered the maternal death rate to zero among the families it serves.

The childbirth program is an example of the successful implementation of social change. In a culture in which women have traditionally given birth in obscurity, and at risk to themselves and their babies, Arzu has introduced specific changes that have reset the process. It’s worth asking how.

Part of the success of the program is that Arzu’s employees presented the goal to the community, and then arrived – through a process in which those affected by the change could take the lead – at a procedure to achieve that goal. Critical to the success of that process is that all Arzu employees in Afghanistan are Afghans, all drawn from the community.

Predictably, given this process, the solution respects local cultural norms. For example, because the women are transported in closed vehicles and are always accompanied by chaperones, their modesty is not compromised. The idea is that Arzu framed the issue in terms of universal values – the health of pregnant women and their babies – rather than in specifically western values.

Arzu undertakes community development projects outside those specified in the social contract it has with weavers’ families. One such project addresses the issue of clean drinking water. Arzu has enabled women in the villages in which it operates to build low-tech but effective filtration devices that are installed at places accessible to the public, such as government building and mosques.

Another project is the construction of women’s community centers. The centers provide women with stall showers, a laundry room with warm water, rooms for meetings such as the literacy classes, and a two-story loom room for weaving rugs larger than those that can be woven in the home. Arzu has one such center in operation and has virtually completed building a second.

Superadobe Cloverleaf Construction
Superadobe Cloverleaf Construction

Arzu is also pioneering the use of “super adobe” construction in Bamyan province. This involves constructing buildings out of flexible plastic tubes filled with mud. The tubes are stacked (typically to form a circular space), bound together with barbed wire, and then stuccoed. After completing the construction of three trial buildings, Arzu has begun the construction of the first dozen or so homes. In the area in which Arzu is building these homes, there are some 300 families living in caves (a pervasive problem in a country that has endured decades of war).

The clean water project, the women’s community centers and the “super adobe” construction project are all examples of Arzu projects that are funded with donations, and proceed outside of the rug production project.

This narrative only sketches what Arzu does. Arzu’s philosophy and activities are described in detail on its website, www.arzustudiohope.org. We encourage readers to visit the site.
Please send comments and criticism to: [email protected].

[A version of this article was first published in November, 2012 in Volume 33, No. 2 of Rug News andDesign Magazine.]

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