Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced up to $20 million for capacity building efforts within Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), the department responsible for managing that country's agricultural economy.
"The United States recognizes the importance of Afghanistan's agricultural economy in creating jobs, helping the nation achieve food self-sufficiency, and drawing insurgents off of the battlefield," said Vilsack. "After decades of conflict, Afghanistan lacks many of the personnel and knowledge resources needed to deliver much-needed services to its people, more than 80 percent of whom rely on agriculture for wages and sustenance. Today's commitment with MAIL will help Afghanistan's government build critical capacity at the local level in agricultural extension and expertise."
Vilsack met this afternoon with Asif Rahimi, Afghanistan's Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. In a letter of intent presented at the meeting, Vilsack plainly laid out to his counterpart how MAIL could avail itself of up to $20 million in funding from USDA by clearly establishing reconstruction goals aimed at boosting agricultural productivity, rebuilding agribusiness, improving irrigation, creating jobs, and enhancing technologies. The funding, said Vilsack, is not guaranteed, and MAIL must continue to demonstrate its commitment to transparency.
"USDA experts will partner with Afghan Ministry experts, local officials, and entrepreneurs partnerships critical to success," said Karl Eikenberry, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, who participated in the event. "We will also ensure that our efforts are aligned with the National Agricultural Development Framework outlined by Minister Rahimi, and also with Afghanistan's National Development Strategy."
While in Afghanistan, Vilsack traveled to Helmand province, in which more than half of the country's poppy is grown, to talk with USDA employees and civilian and military forces from many countries, about their efforts to educate and assist farmers in the province. In the last year, their efforts have helped farmers move 33 percent of the province's hectares from poppy to licit crops, such as wheat and apples. He also toured a bazaar in Nawa district in Helmand, as well as a juice factory in Kabul.
On the final morning of a three-day visit to Afghanistan, Vilsack also paid tribute to USDA employee Steven "Tom" Stefani, who was killed in Afghanistan in October 2007 while serving as an agricultural expert in Ghazn provincei.
In a tribute ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Vilsack laid a wreath at the base of a memorial for Stefani. He then walked to the Embassy's flag pole, where the U.S. military ceremonially presented an American flag in honor of Stefani. With colors in hand, Vilsack announced that USDA would establish the "Tom Stefani Award for Reconstruction and Stabilization in Fragile States." USDA will grant the award annually to one or more employees as a way to recognize their efforts to rebuild the agricultural sectors of post-conflict countries.
"Like so many other dedicated USDA employees, Tom requested to serve in Afghanistan because he wanted to work to improve the lives of the Afghan people who had suffered through years of strife and conflict," said Vilsack. "His contributions were real and lasting."
Before his death, Stefani had wanted to build a playground for the children of Ghazni. His family, to honor that memory, set about collecting contributions toward purchasing playground equipment, and USDA is assisting with shipping matters.
In December 2009, President Obama outlined his Administration's strategy to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qa'ida and to prevent their return to either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Along with an infusion of troops was a simultaneous increase in the number of civilian technical experts deployed to Afghanistan, including more than 50 USDA agricultural experts.
Since 2003, USDA has deployed 94 people for medium- and long- term assignments in Afghanistan and provided roughly $229 million in food aid to the country. Agricultural experts work instructively with Afghans through a variety of activities meant to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan government, rebuild agricultural markets, and improve management of natural resources. USDA projects to-date have included installing windmills to pump water for irrigation and livestock, training veterinarians to detect and treat parasites, rehabilitating a university's agricultural research laboratory, stabilizing eroded river banks and irrigation canals, developing post-harvest storage facilities, rehabilitating degraded orchards, mentoring provincial directors of agriculture to help them improve their services to farmers, and reforestation.
In addition to agricultural experts, USDA also manages programs that train Afghan agricultural officials and professionals in the United States. USDA-led programs such as the Cochran Fellowship Program, the Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellows Program, and the Faculty Exchange Program have brought 50 Afghans to the United States since 2004 for specialized training lasting from two weeks to five months in duration. These public and private sector policymakers, scientists, and academics have upgraded their technical skills in a wide range of topics and then shared this knowledge with their students and colleagues in Afghanistan.
General information about USDA's programs and activities in Afghanistan can be found at
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