An extraordinary thing happened in Afghanistan last week. And the West failed to notice. The American and Afghan governments collaborated to create an agriculture trade fair in the capital city of Kabul. The two-day event was much like the annual fairs in many U.S. states. Except it was far more significant and significantly more important.
An estimated 50,000 visitors attended. Fully 30% were women, few of whom were covered by traditional veils. Thousands of families came. There was music. Loud and boisterous at times, and modern. Teens clapped wildly and tried to reach the stage. There was dancing and singing. A children’s circus performed, boys and girls together. Huge amounts of food and cold drinks were consumed. Ice cream was everywhere. Kids squealed with delight. Local TV and radio captured every minute. The spirit present had been unfelt for two generations. It was simply fun. Afghanistan was happy those two days. Somehow it became a joyous, national breakout party.
Business happened too. “We sold every piece of equipment we brought and made connections for additional work”, said one of 180 exhibitors. Potential investors found opportunities: “It was great for business in Afghanistan” observed one. Farmers from all over the country witnessed demonstrations of new and better practices and of modern equipment. One said of the fair “It is as if a blind man enters and gets his sight”. Giant tractors performed. Efficient irrigation was shown, products and processing displayed, services advertised, connections made, clients identified, buying and selling done, markets found. Afghanistan also was proud those two days: “I haven’t seen a fair like this before. I feel happy as I walk and see Afghan products. Next time I will have a display myself," said a local businessman.
And, as anywhere else, commercial interests followed potential business. Fair sponsors included Coca-Cola, Afghan Wireless, Kabul Bank, Crystal Water, Alokozay Tea, two leading hotels, and the most popular Afghan television network.
Stunning is an apt description of what took place here last week. Remember, this is the Afghanistan that was nearly annihilated by 35 years of bitter, bloody, cruel warfare.
But there is more. The Fair itself was conceived, planned, built, and implemented in less than three months. To do this in any country would have been a major challenge. In Afghanistan it should have been impossible. But it happened, and it now serves to demonstrate that important things can be done here and can be done quickly. This already is changing perceptions and helping to change a pervasive fatalistic view of the future. Change can be made here. We just saw it happen.
Already demand has surfaced for events like this fair in other parts of the country. And now that the ground has been broken that will happen. A new confidence and optimism emanated from this fair along with commercial and business transactions. Large, public, positive, productive, and pleasant events can take place in Afghanistan without stifling precautions and overbearing concern for safety. We now have demonstrated that. One farmer observed: “Security is not the problem in Afghanistan, the economy is.” Surprisingly, the fair proved to be a long stride toward social reform as well as an impact on agriculture development. At this time and in this country, that perhaps is the most enduring by-product of this remarkable event.
And still more: Most unnerving to the security agencies here but to the delight of the population, the fair was launched the night before by a fireworks display on the hills above the city. Imagine! In this of all countries! Bombs, rockets, explosions, and fire all aimed at pleasure and not at people. The symbolism of this for the citizens of this capital was breathtaking.
But unless you had seen this article you would know nothing about these singular events. Yet they are more significant than a roadside explosion or a suicide bomber or a lunatic beheading some perceived enemy. Those depravities take place infrequently and among seriously disturbed tail-enders still mired in the thirteenth century. The fact of and the dynamics around this exhilarating public event puts a more accurate face on the new Afghanistan. The fact that events of such magnitude and meaning are less interesting to our media than death, destruction, and despair means that Americans never will understand fully what is happening in Afghanistan, the potential existing here, and the progress being made every day. The successful occurrence of this massive agriculture fair and its continuing impact is a remarkable story of change in Afghanistan. But Americans are unlikely to hear it since it won’t sell advertising time. At least you heard it here.
*This article was written by an American economic development expert living and working Afghanistan.