Realizing that the children of Afghanistan have been sorely neglected by the development community, a new program, Developing Infrastructure for Conflict Children, has taken an innovative approach in dealing with some of the challenges facing development in places like Afghanistan. Spokesperson Tom Gilbert explains.
“One of the biggest challenges we face here in Afghanistan in doing any kind of construction is getting the rights to the land. With all the confusion and corruption surrounding titles and deeds, we were challenged by those in the development community to come up with some solutions that were outside the box. So we were able to synergize our collective thought leadership and develop some sustainable alternatives to the traditional approaches to these issues.”
Gilbert and the DICC team also wanted to reach a part of the population that isn’t often reached by the aid dollars coming to places like the graveyard of empires: its children.
“We were really inspired by groups like Operation Pencil and the Cat in the Hat Language Arts Program to come up with some Afghan-first solutions to helping to reach this really unreached population. I’ll never forget the first time we met as a group and someone suggested helping out the kids. There are few things that can make you feel as good as knowing you’re planning to do something good for someone else, especially when that someone else is a kid. So we decided to build a playground.”
But the program was still faced with issues of land rights, until one their Afghan staff suggested something that his American counterparts had never considered.
“Farzad…he just goes by one name, like all the Afghans that work with us in the Embassy do, suggested that we look at using cemetery land to build the playgrounds. He said the land was already there, and he couldn’t think of any reason why anyone could object, since it would be for the kids,” Gilbert said. “One of my other staff, who wasn’t as open to Farzad’s suggestions as the rest of us, raised objections to it, but then someone quickly pointed out that Farzad’s an Afghan, so we should go with his idea. Plus it really solved the issues of land rights for us, since no one really owned the cemeteries that we could tell.”
It wasn’t the first time that Farzad’s cross-cultural insights were an inspiration to the team.
“Farzad’s family left Afghanistan in the 1960s, and he was born in Kansas City in the 1970s. But he’s always known he wanted to come back to Afghanistan, since he said he never felt like he fit in back home. He doesn’t speak Dari, since his parents wanted to raise him like an American, but he’s got this instinct for dealing with his people that we find invaluable. He’s helped us on a lot of projects, making sure they’re really culturally sensitive.”
As it turns out, that cultural sensitivity was going to be crucial for the successful implementation of this groundbreaking approach.
“We did a pilot project in Ghazni’s Deh Yak district. None of us got to visit the site, since it’s really dangerous for us to go anywhere except the Duck and Cover, or sometimes the Embassy pool if the RSO signs off on it, but the Afghan contractor we hired sent us a lot of pictures of the ribbon cutting. Then we didn’t hear from him for quite a while.”
Like so many projects in Afghanistan, this one met with some difficulties.
“We thought we’d picked the right guy for the job: he was from Zabul, which is right next to Ghazni, so he knows the area really well. But he didn’t implement the community outreach plan we provided. That’s the only reason we could think of why the people in that village reacted the way they did. They set fire to one of his construction vehicles, then threatened to kill him and his workers if they ever came back.”
Fortunately, the DICC leadership team were prepared to deal with this kind of setback.
“We’d had similar situations take place in other places where we’d tried to implement other kinds of projects, so we were prepared to do some capacity building with this contractor. We brought him in for some re-training and to give him talking points so he could re-engage with village leadership.”
DICC staffers walked him through how he could connect the project to the community its benefits.
“We went through how no one would need to go through a complicated deed process. Since the cemetery was already here, and maybe had a fence, it would make a perfect place for kids to play. Farzad, with his innate understanding of Afghan culture, was really helpful in this meeting. Just in case, though, we did have one our translators sit in with us. He was really efficient: at one point our contractor talked for like five whole minutes, and our translator told us he said, ‘I will do my best. And thank you, Americans, for helping my country.’ It’s amazing how many words these Afghans can use to say something that simple.”
Tom Gilbert and the DICC staff are hopeful for the future of the program.
“We feel really good about the contractor after that capacity building meeting we had with him. We gave him the Power Point handouts, some maps, and a couple of fraud prevention posters for his office walls. He really seemed to appreciate all the gifts, and our translator told us he said he was going to work very hard to help those people see how much better their community would be with a playground in the cemetery. We all feel confident that our plan’s going to really do some good.”