The Afghan Carpet Market
Afghan Carpets – growth but benefits for whom?
There is a widespread view that the carpet market is in need of revival. The evidence from Andkhoy, a carpet producing area in North Western Afghanistan does not support this. While much of the carpet producing capacity did relocate outside Afghanistan during the long years of political instability, this was not a dysfunctional and exceptional event that now requires that carpet production should be restarted. Rather it was part of a long-term transformation of the carpet industry that since 2001 has returned to Andkhoy fuelling a dynamic growth but with inequitable distributional outcomes.
The last thirty years have seen a decline in the role of the independent home based producer of carpets and use of traditional materials and designs. The growth in use of poorer quality machine spun wools from outside Afghanistan has been matched by the imposition of style and production patterns by an international carpet market into which key Afghan carpet traders have become linked.
Partly driven by the refugee experience and the drought many households moved into carpet production on a profit share or waged basis, expanding production but with declining returns to their labour. Although conditions have improved since 2001, the change in the structure of the carpet market has essentially reduced the ability of producers to negotiate better returns for their skills. It may also be leading to a systematic erosion of traditional artisanal skills of both design and execution. There are a number of key structures in the existing market driving this process and they must be recognised.
First there is a distinctly gendered basis of production with a dominant role of women as producers but their total invisibility in the market place that is controlled by men. Economic growth on its own will not address this fundamental inequality of market structure.
Second the majority of producers now work on a profit share or waged basis for which the returns to labour even under the best of conditions are unlikely to generate more than an income of US $250 – 300 a year. The return is between 6 and 12 percent of the final retail price in the west. This is enough to allow producers to survive but not thrive.
Third the market has become dominated in both production and absorption of labour by the Chob Rang carpet, made from wool imported largely from the middle east, vegetable dyed and with patterns based on a pastiche of motifs for western consumer culture. These designs have no relation to existing skills of design and weaving, are produced under wage labour conditions to exacting requirements for uniformity. The carpets are not traded within the carpet market, thus removing any opportunity for independence of action by the producer.
Fourth the Chob Rang market is almost entirely controlled by a few big traders with international connections who work outside the traditional carpet bazaar. Through their dominance and tactics within the market they reduce the opportunities for small traders to compete.
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