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Reaching the most vulnerable Jaclyn Dolski, Aga Khan Foundation

The Aga Khan Foundation launched a five-year program in remote mountain areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan with the aim of enhancing food and nutrition security of marginalized pastoral communities in high altitude villages. The story below illustrates my first-hand experience visiting some of these communities in Tajikistan and meeting the families whom we work with.

Food insecurity in Tajikistan

Tajikistan is an agrarian country of nearly nine million people, three-quarters of whom live in rural areas. Despite agriculture accounting for 60 percent of employment, Tajikistan has the highest rate of malnutrition among the 15 former Soviet republics. Recurring natural disasters expose low-income families in rural communities to chronic food insecurity while vast plots of agricultural land are being degraded by pervasive deforestation, soil erosion, and droughts. Approximately 31 percent of young children in the mountain communities of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) experience moderate or severe stunting, attributed to poor hygiene, inadequate knowledge and education, poor health services, and household food insecurity. In response, AKF seeks to address both immediate and long-term food and nutrition security of communities in GBAO, the most remote and isolated region of Tajikistan.

Sejd Village

We experienced a slight traffic jam on our way to Sejd, a remote village in the mountains of GBAO. Once we arrived, I was greeted by Gulrukh, a 39-year-old father of five. Three generations are living together under the same roof—Gulrukh shares a house with his parents, wife, sister, niece, and children. Traditionally, the youngest son stays behind to take care of his parents as they grow older. This has proven to be particularly challenging for Gulrukh because of the lack of job opportunities in the village and his father’s poor health. Akbarsho is 80-years-old with a tumor, and has been using a catheter for the past three years that often needs to be changed and replaced:

I am the only man of the house– I need to stay here to take care of him. There are always issues with his tube so I need to be here to fix it.

Gulrukh’s mother, Azizbegim, is nearly 72 and cannot hear properly nor move around the house without assistance. That being said, she’s the type of person you meet and immediately feel close to. The entire time I was there, I don’t think she stopped smiling once. Despite the children being at critical growing stages, the family is often forced to make a meal out of only tea with milk, salt, butter, and occasionally bread. With no source of income apart from the grandparent’s monthly pension of $50, the family is being supported by AKF as a most vulnerable household.

Winter is very difficult. We have to barter for wood to heat the house. My children go to school, but I can’t buy warm clothes for them. We struggle to find enough food.

To address their immediate needs, AKF provided Gulrukh and his family with locally-produced nutritious food items for the lean season including dried mulberry, apricot, juices, fruit jams, beans, potato, cabbage, and nuts.

Over the long-term, investments in citizen-led innovations like an all-season greenhouse and climate-resilient agriculture help local women and men find new solutions to their common challenges. Read about this work in AKFC's brief: Feeding a hunger for solutions in rural Tajikistan.

Ensuring no one is left behind

Global progress on poverty is slowest for the poorest of the poor. There are many challenges to reach the most vulnerable, whose environments are often characterized by damaged infrastructure, low population density, and minimal economic opportunities. These complex factors result in slower and smaller improvements, causing development organizations to often skip them altogether. However, while such factors make for a more difficult work environment, they also reflect a greater need for assistance. After meeting people like Gulrukh and seeing the daily struggles he and his family face, it is clear to me that we are working in the right place. I am incredibly proud of AKF’s commitment to support such communities, regardless of the challenges and hope that we can lead by example in the development world.

Jackie, a Montrealer, was placed in Dushanbe, Tajikistan through AKFC’s fellowship program.

Since 1989, Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) has been helping to develop young Canadian leaders in the field of international development through its International Youth Fellowship program.

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