Retired Skadden partner Dana Freyer (NY/Corp. Compl./ADR/ ’71) has come full circle — back to Afghanistan, a country once known as "the Orchard of Central Asia" but whose landscape has been devastated by decades of war. Dana, who served as a partner in the firm’s arbitration, ADR and corporate compliance programs practices, first developed a love for the country after college when she served on the staff of the Afghan ambassador to the United Nations; her attachment grew with a 1970s, post-law school, Pan-Eurasian road trip with her husband, during which the couple was awed by the beauty of the country’s lush fruit and nut orchards, vineyards and woodlots.
After the devastation of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan that followed, Dana and her husband returned to the country in an effort to identify the most pressing needs of the Afghans. They met with local elders, leaders and farmers to discuss whether restoring farmland would help alleviate poverty and build livelihoods — the answer was yes. One condition to their efforts was that Afghan women be allowed to benefit from and become owners of the enterprises that the organization would help farmers develop. The Afghan leaders agreed, and, in 2003, the couple and two Afghan friends — one of whom also served as a senior economic adviser to President Hamid Karzai — founded Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA). The organization now has 150 Afghan staffers, including 40 women, devoted to aiding the country’s people through a range of horticultural and farm-forestry programs.
"Here was a country in ruins, with a devastated economy — a country where 80 percent of the people are farmers," Dana says. "They were returning from being refugees without any means of establishing livelihoods. It was clear to us that unless people had jobs and a way to earn a living, stability would be hard to achieve, and other efforts at rebuilding the country — education, women’s empowerment — were contingent, to a large extent, on women and men having livelihoods and sustainable incomes."
GPFA’s founders believed strongly in the importance of investing in people and building their talents, enabling them to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Also recognizing the dearth of skilled citizens in Afghanistan, the organization dedicated itself to hiring and training only Afghans for its staff, which includes managers, administrators, and financial and technical experts (with the exception of its American executive director, who lives in Kabul).
In 2009 — the year Dana retired — GPFA (among other organizations) helped create 90 new timber-producing woodlots in the country’s conflict-ridden Wardak province. Those efforts allowed 5,692 families across 52 villages to clean and restore irrigation systems, increasing irrigated land by 24 percent. And the organization’s work helped Afghans in conflict-ridden valleys of Kapisa and Parwan provinces break ground on two dozen farmer-owned root cellars for fruit and vegetable storage, enabling producers to sell their produce off-season and command higher prices.
With the help of materials and training from GPFA, Afghan farmers now can build poplar woodlots that yield $40,000 in timber from a half-acre of land, and the farmers’ success encourages their neighbors to pursue woodlot enterprises. The project is a boon for a country that saw most of its trees cut down for firewood and defense purposes during decades of war. Since 2004, GPFA has enabled more than 25,000 farmers (including more than 8,000 women) to plant more than 9 million trees, dramatically increasing their families’ income without resorting to cultivating opium poppies, which are used in the production of heroin. The organization estimates that its work has benefited more than 250,000 people.
In addition to working directly with farmers and communities, GPFA aims to strengthen the capacity of local institutions to revitalize forests, improve water management and reverse the impact of environmental degradation.
"We’re working hard to build the organization and the staff, to expand programs to reach more Afghans and to educate Americans and others about the needs of the country’s people and what is being done to meet those needs," says Dana.
The organization — and Dana herself — has been met with considerable praise for its resounding success. Dana was honored with a 2010 Purpose Prize — a national award given to "social entrepreneurs over 60 who, in their encore careers, are using their experience and passion to make an extraordinary impact on society’s biggest challenges." In its 2005-09 report, the Clinton Global Initiative featured GPFA as a case study on economic empowerment. Dana and her work have been profiled in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as well as on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
"I don’t call my status ‘retirement,’ as I have merely reallocated my time," says Dana. "Retired lawyers have skills, expertise and networks that enable us to accomplish things we could not imagine we could possibly do. If we draw on those resources, we can have a huge impact in making the world a better place. If, while pursuing your career, you engage in activities outside your professional pursuits that interest you and that you’re passionate about, upon retirement you can use your skills and networks to help advance those causes and interests."