When I joined the Aga Khan Foundation in the U.S. as a Programs Fellow in September 2015, this was the last place I imagined myself: driving through a mountainous backroad in Kabul, passing hillside houses and little shops selling bread and meat, and watching kites soar above playing children. A world away from the nearby main road, lined with compound walls with the words “Kabul the Peace City” spray-painted across some of them, and the self-proclaimed “healthy and tasty” Afghan Fried Chicken restaurant.
Following a Fulbright year in Tajikistan, I joined the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) to gain a better understanding of its Multi-Input Area Development (MIAD) approach to development in fragile areas. Shortly after I started, I expressed an interest in learning about our work in Afghanistan, and began providing project management support for the Multi-Input Area Development Global Development Alliance (MIAD GDA) project in Badakhshan, Afghanistan’s northeastern-most province.
In the DC office, we lovingly refer to MIAD GDA as a “complicated beast.” A partnership between AKF and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the five-year project is working to turn investments in the private sector into social development programs that improve people’s quality of life. AKF’s U.S. office supports the Foundation’s office in Afghanistan, as well as its sister agencies in the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS) and the University of Central Asia – in working together to implement multi-sector activities that address community priorities in one of Afghanistan’s most remote regions. The project is unusual not only because of its multi-sector approach (the “multi input” in the name), but also because of the collaborative nature of its design and financing (hence “development alliance”).
In March, I accompanied the Programs Manager to Kabul to help facilitate MIAD GDA’s Year 4 planning workshop. For two days, we worked with more than fifty of our Afghanistan-based colleagues to review accomplishments and challenges from last year, and outline this year’s activities in health, education, natural resource management, market development, technical and vocation training, sub-national governance, and infrastructure.
Integrated development looks messy on paper. During the weeks leading up to the workshop, I prepared various templates for the different sector teams to note how the project was and would continue to progress. For myself, I made countless doodles mapping which performance monitoring indicators aligned with which sectors. Even before workshop planning began, I tried to contextualize such indicator monitoring, as well as report editing and number counting. I constantly asked myself, “Who are these people with whom I communicate via e-mail and Skype on a daily basis?” and “What does it mean to work on Afghanistan projects when I live in Washington, D.C.?”
In Kabul, MIAD GDA, and my relation to it, finally made sense.
As I prepare to move on from AKF, I appreciate having learned five things:
First, I think that the MIAD approach, in which different agencies coordinate and work alongside communities toward sustainable, systematic changes, is the direction in which development is headed. In Tajikistan, I saw the shortcomings of short-term, single-sector approaches: how could children who were not healthy or lived in a village that lacked transportation infrastructure attend the new school in the district? Why did there seem to be a gap between U.S. donors and Dushanbe-based implementing partners, and the small town in which I lived? What has impressed me most about AKF is its long-term commitment to the communities where it works. Even the complex MIAD GDA project is only one component of AKDN’s broader program in Badakhshan.
Second, AKF does an excellent job balancing safety with the staff mobility necessary to implement work. I initially did not believe that they would let me – not even a permanent staff member! – travel to Afghanistan, but I saw how much high-level deliberation went into determining whether or not the trip was “mission critical,” and AKF’s policies for keeping staff safe. In Afghanistan, AKF is successful because staff members are not confined to compounds. Staff integration in the regions where AKF works enables a community acceptance model that ultimately helps keep staff safe. A key factor in this acceptance is the AKDN commitment to hiring locally; over 90 percent of AKDN staff worldwide work in the country where they grew up.
Third, the staff in Afghanistan respond quickly and creatively to challenges that constantly arise. Shortly after the Programs Manager and I arrived in Kabul, we learned that our Badakhshan-based colleagues’ flight from Faizabad (which operates twice weekly) was canceled due to bad weather. I assumed the workshop would be canceled. Within hours, however, AKF staff had arranged for a video teleconference between Faizabad Provincial Hospital, which AKHS has managed and upgraded since 2009, and the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul, which is operated by AKDN. With this quick adjustment, we were able to follow our tightly-packed workshop schedule.
Fourth, the Aga Khan Health Services has established astounding video teleconference capabilities in Afghanistan. This is the underlying technology that makes MIAD GDA’s eHealth work possible, connecting medical expertise in Faizabad to Comprehensive Health Centers and a district hospital in more remote districts in Badakhshan, with life-saving results for many patients (in the project’s third year, there were 489 live tele-consultations). For two days, we did not experience a single technical glitch – not one dropped call, as occasionally happens in the DC office. With crystal clear images, we communicated as if we were face-to-face, even when the lights occasionally flickered off.
Finally, what AKDN is accomplishing in Badakhshan despite the constant insecurity is inspiring. It is impossible to capture on paper all of the stories and photos that each of the sector teams shared when I asked for a brief outline of accomplishments. I still struggle to keep track of how many books have been distributed to high-school libraries, or how many bridges have been built.
I left Kabul thinking it was surreal to be in a place I read about in the news every day, wondering why more people don’t write about the city itself, or its people. I felt encouraged about my work, and touched by the kindness of the airport security officer who asked my manager if she’d like to check her unopened Diet Coke rather than throw it out.
By Anna Khandros, Programs Fellow for Aga Khan Foundation in the United States for 2015-2016.
Source: AKF USA