WANTED: one very rich man with philanthropic inclinations. True, my looks aren’t what they were, reading glasses dangle round my neck, no one praises my girlish figure and I cook the same 10 meals over and over? a former domestic goddess with a GSOH.
Still, when I confess to my husband that I am looking for a wealthy benefactor, he looks sad. ‘You’re never satisfied,’ he says. And he may be right, because what I have in mind is way beyond the means of a farmer with 1,000 acres. Think Bill Gates (worth $53 billion in the latest estimate of Forbes magazine), Warren Buffett (just a chicken leg behind). Think Howard Schultz, Mr Starbucks, or Richard Branson, who probably lacks the disposable income. Because I’m not talking about coffee mornings and sponsored bike rides. I’m talking BIG BUCKS. You see, I’m looking for someone who will buy all the poppies in Afghanistan.
It came to me in that twilight hour at three in the morning when, suddenly wide awake, I decamp to the guest room for my rendezvous with the World Service. For an hour or so, I listen and doze to programmes about life in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Friends wish I would try Sominex instead because my conversation’s hit a melancholy lull, but I feel it would be derelict to abandon my dawn patrol with the World Service, especially now that I’ve figured out where Afghan-istan is: a landlocked country wedged in between Pakistan and Iran, sharing a dog’s ear of border with China, and one country away from Iraq.
So here are a few nuggets of my World Service world. Five years after the launch of the war in Afghanistan, much of the country is in the hands of the warlords and opium magnates. American and British casualties are mounting. Most Afghans are worse off now than they were five years ago.
And this year saw the largest harvest of opium poppies in history. As much as 92% of the world’s illegal heroin now comes from Afghanistan, with street prices drop-ping and consumption increasing. Under the Taliban, opium production had virtually disappeared. Now, the Taliban tax poppy farmers to finance their military operations. The illegal opium economy lies at the nexus of an extreme level of poverty and escalating violence.
A few weeks ago, I got in touch with Mcins Sans Fronties (MSF) because our annual Literary Christmas Evening raises money for these brave doctors. For two years, we’ve earmarked the money for a women’s clinic in Kabul. I was told that it’s now closed and MSF, who stayed in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet war of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s, and the brutal repressions of the Taliban through 2001, have now withdrawn completely. The risk is too great.
As a farmer, I think the only hope is an agricultural solution. A brave billionaire (or an enlightened NATO) to buy the opium crop at the market rate, harvest what is needed to meet the severe global shortage of opium-based medicines, and pay Afghan crop dusters to napalm the rest. Is this any crazier than the EU subsidising tobacco farmers, any dopier than buying grain crops that will be dumped and burned? Satellites show that 408,000 acres in Afghan-istan grow poppies. The revenue is £3 billion. Even with all the pitfalls, this would be a cheap subsidy for peace. At the crack of dawn, it sounds like common sense.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 26 October, 2006.