Afghanistan speaks; Mercy Corps listens

Surveyors play an important role in designing programs that address Afghans' needs
By Cassandra Markham Nelson

In a remote village in northern Afghanistan, twenty women crowd into the local school to voice their opinions on how a road construction project should be implemented in their community. Contrary to some stereotypes of being passive and quiet, these Afghan women are not the least bit shy in expressing their opinions.

"Both the women and men have a lot of ideas about what their communities need," according to Humaira Sayeedy, a Mercy Corps survey team leader. "It is our responsibility to ensure they have a means of participating."

To this end, Mercy Corps employs teams of surveyors in northern Afghanistan. The teams are composed of both male and female surveyors, as only women can enter the households and speak with female beneficiaries.

"The survey program is very important because we want communities to understand that they are part of the project and responsible for it long term," explains Aminuddin Hamedi, Mercy Corps' Community Liaison Manager. "We make people think so in the future they can find their own solutions."

For a large European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) funded program in Konduz, surveying has played a critical role. One major objective of the rural reconstruction project is to provide employment opportunities to local people. By conducting surveys Mercy Corps is able to identify if the goal is being met.

"It is very important that Mercy Corps talks with us to ensure we have the opportunity to work on the road reconstruction project. If they did not, the commanders here would take all the work for their families and make the decisions," says Mohammed Nasseem, who is working on the road project.

Some of the key objectives of surveying are to assess the community's vulnerability, identify the needs and ideas of the community, and identify what resources the community can contribute. "Surveying is critical to ensure Mercy Corps has a complete picture of the situation," says Hamedi.

In Takhar province a team of 10 surveyors is going door-to-door, interviewing families. Female surveyors are admitted to family compounds and interrupt women spinning yarn for income to get their input and involvement. This is an unannounced visit to the village and observations of the team seem to contradict many of the responses of the villagers to the survey questions.

Humaira Sayeedy is persistent in ensuring she collects only valid responses. When a family she is interviewing insists they are too poor to afford any animals, she presses them to explain why there is fresh cow dung in their compound.

"These people are all very poor. You can't blame them for not always telling the truth," explains Humaira. "But still, it is my responsibility to get the correct information. Surveying cannot just be a simple question and answer session. You must look as well as listen."

Cassandra Markham Nelson is Senior Media and Information Officer for Mercy Corps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.