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In Afghanistan, a small player brings big changes

Thu, 11 Jul 2013 14:46 GMT
Author: Marco Niada
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For nine years I have been funding the construction of schools in Afghanistan, and I travel there  every year to monitor their implementation. I operate in the province of Bamiyan, in the highlands of the Hindu Kush, the so-called Valley of the Buddha, named after those statues which were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. The population, ethnic Hazara and Shi’ite, suffered the Taliban’s fanaticism more than any other group, seeing entire villages destroyed and suffering mass executions.

Perhaps this is why the region has remained impervious to Taliban resurgence until today. This has enabled me to work quietly and steadily and be part of a process of development that is beginning to show visible results. Since 2004, when I came to Bamiyan for the first time, thanks to the opportunity presented to me and my wife Maria Rosario by Filippo Grandi, then director of the UNHCR  (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) in Afghanistan, our small organization, Committee Arghosha Faraway Schools, has made great progress. Named in 2005 after the first school built in the remote valley of Arghosha, at a height of 3200 metres and 30 km north of the legendary lakes of Band e Amir,  our association, in addition to myself and Filippo, includes my wife and her brother, Paolo Lazzati. In nine years, we have funded the construction of 8 schools, (with the ninth coming this autumn), three courses of professional training for 300 teachers, three courses of computer use and English for 30 neo-graduate girls, and built a library in the biggest of the schools, Chardeh, which houses over 700 girls.

Our projects focus on the female population, as out of 3,500 students attending the schools, 2,500 are girls, 4 of the 9 schools that we built are for girls only (the others are mixed), while of the 120 teachers on the Afghan state payroll teaching in our schools, 30 are women, a very high level by the standards of Afghans. Shuhada, the Afghan NGO that plans and and builds the schools that we fund, was also founded by a woman, Sima Samar, now chairman of the National Commission of Human Rights in Afghanistan and, in the past, vice president of the first Karzai government. Our other tutelary female is Habiba Sarabi, Governor of Bamiyan, the only woman governor of an Afghan province. Sarabi is a big supporter: on April 13th, despite the commitments between Kabul and Bamiyan,  she came to attend the inauguration of our eighth school in Dar and Ali, on a rainy but cheerful day for the more than 350 pupils who will go on to study in a stone structure replacing an old one made of mud.

This year I decided to prolong my stay in Afghanistan in order to understand the impact of our commitment to education during all these years of operations in this wonderful country. In fact, I had second thoughts, since the media and experts continue to bombard us with negative messages about the future of the country, in view of the withdrawal of foreign troops. Did we throw our money into the furnace? I owed an answer to our donors, given that in all these years we have raised and spent $ 1.1 million. And I owed it to the Afghans: in fact we have involved about 20,000 people, mostly farmers and shepherds, sending their 3,500 children to school every day. Instead of spending the usual week in the country, coinciding with the opening of a new school, this time I took a month's vacation to travel to the four corners of Bamiyan province, visiting all the schools. I travelled over 1,600 km (1,000 miles) by car on rough roads,  between 2500 and 3500 metres above sea level, I flew over the valleys of the Hindu Kush by plane and helicopter, looking over crops and recently built homes.  I met the principal representatives of the province: Governor Sarabi, the mayor of Bamiyan, Khadim Hussain Fitrat, the dean of Bamiyan University, Sakhidad Saleem, local journalists and managers of various departments, from Economy, Labour and Tourism/Culture. I also met  our Ambassador in Kabul, Luciano Pezzotti, since Italy has various cultural projects and cooperation in Bamiyan, from the restoration of the Buddha, to that of the ruins of the citadel of Gholghola, and including some road works.

After much wandering I am convinced that despite the doubts and uncertainties, the province of Bamiyan is moving in the right direction and that the money we spent was the best investment of our lives. The welfare of the inhabitants of the valleys continues to improve, though slowly. Agriculture in the wealthiest areas begins to mechanize, replacing wooden ploughs with tractors. All around you can see new fruit trees and masonry structures to store potatoes, known throughout Afghanistan for their top quality. Over the last 5 years in Bamiyan 3 banks have established branches, and half a dozen hotels have been built, with the aim of attracting  what is still a weak flow of tourists, mostly Afghans. The herds and flocks grow visibly. Many people have a Chinese or Iranian motorcycle. It is now rare to encounter barefoot children in the villages, while 10 years ago they were the majority. All adults have good quality shoes. In many schools girls in the higher grades, who once covered their eyes and lowered their gaze, now still keep their heads covered, but look you straight in the eye and ask questions directly. In one school they even complained about the poor quality of English teachers and asked me if I could find better ones, maybe a native speaker ...If you ask higher grade students what they want to do when they grow up, everyone is aiming for university. In one particular school, Zarin, the girls have made it clear that they have no problem with going away to study in large cities such as Kabul, Mazar, Herat or even Kandahar, which is ridden with Taliban infiltration. The majority of students want to become doctors or teachers and even much-needed engineers: you often hear children shouting in chorus "inginaar", a term which for them has to do with everything that is modern, from engines and bridges to canals in the fields. The girls have raised their head in recent years, and although soberly, they now take care of their appearance, sporting stylish shoes and handbags, even if they have to walk for more than an hour on rocky paths to reach a destination over 3,000 metres above sea level. Infant mortality has been reduced drastically by virtue of the construction of polyclinics. According to data from Mohammed Reza Ada, director of the provincial Department of Education, 85 schools were built in the last 7 years, also thanks to our small contribution. A total of 353 are now operational, with 142,000 students attending, compared with 82,000 in 2005. Moreover, girls rose from 39% to 46% of all pupils. Today, in many areas, the female component has reached a majority.

As a sorcerer's apprentice who embarked on an experiment both for fun and out of curiosity, to discover the unexpected effect of his actions, I realized the powerful impact that education has on people's lives. First, there is a concrete and visible result: about a mile south of Arghosha, our first school, a dam has been built to manage the valley’s water supply, while a mile further north, a clinic has been built by the New Zealand military (PRT), drastically reducing mortality at childbirth. The same happened in Kamati, a school at the foot of the highest Hindu Kush mountain, the Koh e Baba, where a clinic was built a year ago by the Swiss NGO Help Schaffausen and a system of canals is now in place. In Chardeh, which is next to a school for 1800 boys, there is a large outpatient clinic built by US Aid and even a bazaar, which has flourished in recent years. In Sar and Qul, a bridge was built two years ago over a stream which the girls had had to wade through for the previous three years. A clinic was also built a couple of years ago. Zarin, Sar and Qul have also attracted large NGOs such as Save the Children: The Japanese division of the famous organization has in fact built the walls surrounding the buildings.

We are a small organisation, but nonetheless we have moved in the right direction at the right time, especially with the right people operating  in the field. In some instances, we were even able to lead the way for big charitable organizations. And our activity is proving successful. Just before leaving the country I was able to lay the foundation stone of our ninth school, Ghorab, in a moving ceremony for the students and residents of the valley. The school completes a structure built years ago by Care International that was no longer big enough to accommodate the growing number of students, who were forced to study in tents.

Our small size has allowed us to be more flexible than others,  maintaining at the same time a tight control over everything we do. We are also in continuous contact with our Afghan operators who are by now old friends. From them we demand absolute honesty and transparency. So far there has been no need from our side of any sort of guidance on that matter, judging from some anecdotes -- like that of a truck carrying bricks that 5 years ago shed its load on the way to the building site, which I only found out now, since they have never asked for a refund and were ashamed to talk about it. Or the rigour that Shuhada has shown, when some farmers in a valley wanted to sell the land where the school was to be built instead of donating it, as all villagers do. Our local correspondents suggested that we hold on, threatening to go to another valley to build the school. That was a very effective threat and finally we got what we wanted.

My long journey into the centre of Afghanistan has convinced me that for us the crucial year  2014 will be a year like any other. The building of our tenth school will symbolically celebrate the tenth year of our presence in the country. We will continue to work as long as our Afghan friends ask us and our donors allow it. The best antidote to those who destroy is to build. Of stones in Afghanistan there are plenty, and we won’t leave any stone unturned.

The author is Chairman of Arghosha Faraway Schools. To know more visit www.arghosha.org

This article originally appeared on Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy's leading financial newspaper, on May 24, 2013.

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