Tag Archives: NGO

‘Streets of Afghanistan’ Exhibit in Istalif

Yesterday we premiered the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition in the village of Istalif, a remote village in the Shomali Plain north of Kabul. Four years ago, I envisioned a collaborative photography exhibition between Afghan photographers and Western photographers that had deep affection for this country. Instead of a gallery show, I imagined surrounding the viewer in the image to bring the art off the wall, and into the viewers world.  I wanted to see people’s reaction as they interacted with lifesize images and hoped that it would change American perspectives of Afghanistan – that if we saw it as a country with a beautiful spirit and culture that we would be more invested in it from a humanitarian perspective.

Yesterday I saw that vision come full circle as we brought the exhibition TO Afghanistan, among Afghans themselves to surround them with the beauty and spirit of their country and communities.  28 photographs lines the market streets outside of the mosque on the first day of Eid in the village of Istalif and the reaction was nothing short of amazing.

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Afghan Risk Equation: When the “Because” Outweighs the “Why?”

Last year, I was driving in Panjshir with a colleague when in response to one of my endless “why” questions about Afghanistan, he eventually replied, “In Afghanistan, there are too many whys and not enough becauses.”

Recent Taliban attacks like the one on medical aid workers brutally killed in northeast Afghanistan last week and the suicide bombing in Kabul’s city center on Tuesday are heartbreaking reminders of the dangers to NGO personnel working in Afghanistan. They also highlight the risks associated with Mountain2Mountain’s (M2M) own work in a country where violence and insurgency continue to escalate.

As I prepare to return to Afghanistan next month in the wake of such devastating headlines, I am compelled to examine the question family, friends and supporters ask me every day here at home. “Why?”

The response is as simple, and as frustrating, as the question.

“Because.”

Because Afghans deserve a chance to rebuild their ravaged country and shape its future.

Because all of us are safer when Afghanistan is stabilized.

Because Afghan women and girls are the key to long-term prosperity and stability.

And because they can’t do alone.

The old adage, “If we don’t, then who will” never resonated as soundly as it does today.

This call to action is answered daily by thousands of aid workers across the world who work tirelessly alongside local communities.  Afghanistan is not alone in regions of the world that pack a heavy dose of reality every time you read the headlines.  Yet every year more volunteers join the ranks of established NGOs and burgeoning nonprofits like our own. It’s not from ignorance or naïveté that we passionately dive in.  It’s from a belief that we can change the world.  That one person can make a difference in another’s life.

My own efforts in Afghanistan stem from a desire not just to tackle women’s rights, education, maternal healthcare and jobs, but to also humanize the population.  All too often, The Afghan people are painted with the same broad stroke that encompasses both the Taliban and those who live under their control. Across the country, Afghans are trying to rebuild their families, their communities and their country.

So it is that the question ‘why’ and the answer ‘because’ often lead to a larger question.  “What Do Afghans Want?”

The vast majority of Afghans want peace and stability.   They want access to medical care and education for their children.  They want jobs that will enable them to contribute to their families and communities. And they want to thrive independently, without handouts from donor nations.  They want security, representative government and a crackdown on corruption.

It is up to all of us to offer Afghans hope and a stake in their future.   It is up to us to work alongside them in an effort to achieve the same things we want for ourselves and our own families.

When we focus on that the 85% that unites us instead of the 15% that divides us, the ‘Whys’ are quickly drowned in the chorus of “Why Not?”

In the weeks ahead I’ll be blogging from Afghanistan, sharing the stories of Afghans working alongside the international community to rebuild and reinvent their lives.  As you read these stories, I hope you’ll agree that the benefits of staying the course far outweigh the risks.

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Transparent Trust

The conversation of donor trust has been on mind lately.

Donors are the enablers.  They enable our development, our projects, our programs to get off the whiteboard and into reality.  Without funding, our programs couldn’t be implemented, much less flourish over generations.  Donors are the ‘man behind the curtain’.  Without them, we would only be talking, and we’d much rather be DOING.

Yet it’s a huge leap of faith when a donor commits his or her money to an organization that they are not connected to.  Hell, its a huge leap of faith to give money to your own brother/sister/uncle/cousin.  The donor is saying, “I trust you with my hard-earned money.  I believe you will use this money wisely to change lives, empower communities, and make the world a better place.”   It is up to us, as an organization, to inspire trust by our words.  Develop trust by our actions.  Sustain trust by our transparency.

Our founding ethos was to connect communities and cultures within our projects.  Creating dialogues and cultural exchanges.  In short, making sure we share our project communities with our donor communities.  It is difficult when we are operating halfway around the world, in a country surviving nearly 4 decades of conflict, to bring donors into our project communities.   Video, photography, and documentation become integral to showing donors how their money is spent and who it is affecting.  Art and photography exchanges between US and Afghan classrooms is another connection and one that allows us to connect students specifically.

In addition, collaboration is one of our core values.  We work closely with local organizations and communities to create sustainable programs.

Collaboration is key in conflict regions.  We seek advice, and often partner with other NGO’s, local organizations, business partners, and the like to make sure we use money effectively and wisely, but also to make sure that our projects can have accountability outside of our organization.  Ensuring that more than one perspective has been heard when making decisions, and more than one set of eyes sees our projects.

We are not infallible.  Mistakes will be made, but we will own up to mistakes, learn from them, and work to ensure they don’t reoccur.  Sweeping our mistakes under a carpet will not help us grow as an organization, or help nurture trust with donors.

This full disclosure relates to the financial documentation as well.  Financial disclosure through our 990’s posted online and our financial statements upon request.  Board members that can understand the breadth and depth of our projects and overall vision, that can speak openly with donors.  Board members that have a say in our long-term strategy and work to provide oversight to ensure we stay on track.

I believe that if we can grow Mountain2Mountain with an internal and external policy of open communication and transparency, we can develop bonds with our donors and projects that will build a sustainable organization to support the women and children of Afghanistan for generations to come.

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Hand in Hand in Afghanistan

The news broke that President Obama had accepted General McChrystal’s offer of resignation an hour before I was scheduled to do a live interview on CNN about Mountain2Mountain and our work to create education and opportunity for the women and children of Afghanistan .  We watched the news all morning, waiting to hear if the interview would be bumped and engaged in a discussion about how NGOs relate to the US military presence in Afghanistan.  We wondered about how the change in leadership will affect us and talked about the important relationship between the military and aid organizations.

While we do not work with the military directly, President Obama’s decisions about military leadership and strategies in Afghanistan do have a direct impact on us.  We follow the news closely, knowing that our relationship with the military is a symbiotic one; the success of one mission is tied to progress toward the other. Our work with women and children in Afghanistan would be almost impossible without the presence of international security forces.

And we believe that our work, and the work of other NGOs in Afghanistan is a direct deterrent to the insurgency.  If a family starts to thrive, the village begins to thrive, and that ripples through an entire tribal area and province.  Healthy communities are more likely to stand up to threats from the Taliban than those that are teetering on the edge of survival.  Today, many are easily manipulated, bullied and coerced into supporting the insurgency.  But if we work to provide healthcare, plant crops, repair roads, educate children, and create jobs, local communities will have something valuable to protect from the Taliban.

As a non-profit aid organization, we work independently of the military and the government.  Our goal is to implement programs and projects that are focused on education, training, and job creation in Afghanistan.  We believe that women and girls are world’s most underutilized resource and can be significant agents of change in conflict regions across the globe. But our task is not easy in a country entering its fourth decade of conflict with one of the worst records on the planet for women’s rights and gender equity.

It is incredibly difficult to operate safely inside Afghanistan.  If the array of countries providing security, training Afghan soldiers and fighting the Taliban insurgency weren’t there, our ability to educate women and girls, train rural midwives, build schools or even travel the country would be severely impaired.  Many aid organizations rely on the military to travel safely through Taliban-controlled areas by helicopter or convoy.

But the safety of aid workers isn’t the only issue.  In many cases, the international forces work directly with the locals to develop leadership from within communities and provide mentorship.  One example is at a prison in Maimana in the northern Jawzjan province.  Here the Norwegian military has a presence and their local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) helped with the women’s prison we are working with today.

In many prisons we’ve visited, women are jailed with their young. The treatment cannot be described as humane.  There are not enough clothes or food, and all too often the female prisoners are raped by the prison guards paid to watch over them.  Remarkably, the Norwegian PRT came in and worked with the prison commander to address these and other concerns.  They built a separate prison building for the women with a small courtyard and separate, clean sleeping facilities.  They flew the prison commander and his staff to Norway to visit the open-air prisons and to the United States to learn how other prisons are run and how prisoners could be treated humanely despite being jailed.

This work paved the way for our visit.  We were received warmly by the Afghan commander and given full access to talk with the women, take photos.  Eventually, we were able to set up a kindergarten for the children and a vocational training program for the women.   Contrast that with prisons that haven’t had that sort of mentorship the PRT provided. Access is denied, commanders are cagey, and we are often not allowed to speak privately with the women.

The relationship is reciprocated as aid organizations help rebuild and create sustainable, functioning communities on the heels of the military.  In an article written for Joint Force Quarterly, a military publication, Admiral Mike Mullen said that US efforts in Afghanistan to send a positive message about US military action and development efforts hurt US credibility when they do not coincide with what the populace sees on the ground.  He went on to say that the gap between promised and actual improvements harms the credibility of the US message.

Aid organizations work to ensure that communities in Afghanistan can see the value of the internationals forces.  They help change perceptions based on decades of conflict.  Instead of occupier it is possible to become a collaborator, community builder and vital service provider.  We can go from enemy to ally.  If communities in the areas worst hit by the ravages of war and poverty are given support through health care, education, agricultural development, and reconstruction of roads, bridges and buildings, the Afghan people see a partner with a willingness to help them claw their way back and build healthy, thriving communities.

Large development agencies can repair roads, build clinics, and make sweeping structural changes.  Small, grassroots organizations like Mountain2Mountain are limited by funding, but tend to operate in a more person-to-person, village-to-village approach.  We focus on bringing training to local women to deliver babies, building girls schools, training teachers and creating women’s co-ops that allow widowed women an opportunity at survival in a male-dominated culture.

A change in military leadership always presents a few unknowns, but with General Petraeus at the helm it is bound to be a relatively smooth transition.  He has overseen the Afghanistan blueprint and is intimately familiar with the region.  In Iraq, Gen. Petraeus implemented rules of engagement that reduced civilian casualties, which increased local support. At the same time, these new rules of engagement gave more latitude to local commanders than the current rules in Afghanistan.  This allows for faster decision-making on the ground.  It is widely viewed that the General’s experience in Iraq will be invaluable in addressing the current strategy in Afghanistan.

As an article in the Vancouver Sun stated last weekend, women will be the first casualties of any surrender in Afghanistan.  I agree.  Our work depends on the international forces not surrendering, not turning their backs on the women and children of Afghanistan.  This has happened once already.  We must persevere from all sides and work together to make the sustainable, lasting, generational changes that ensure a stable future for both Afghanistan and our own country.

Published on HuffingtonPost June 25, 2010

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To Go or Not to Go…THAT is the question.

Two weeks have passed since the news of the IRC aid workers being attacked outside of Kabul.  Since then, there have been two more attacks on aid workers, and the news that the US has killed 76 civilians, mostly children in a bombing.

I have been making plans to go to Kabul with a photographer and friend, Tony Di Zinno this October.  One of the main purposes of going is to meet with several Afghan NGO’s to learn firsthand what is needed for the women and children of this war torn country.  There is an amazing and diverse array of NGO’s – those on the ground talk of the lack of control over the mushrooming of organizations and individuals tripping over themselves wanting to help.  We need to have discussions with these organizations and work to find the projects that are most needed and can be accomplished in their current political climate.

One of our meetings is with author, humanitarian, and adventurist, Rory Stewart.  His organization, Turquoise Mountain is dedicated to rebuilding and preserving the historical and cultural fabric of Afghanistan.  Their work ensures that the Afghan culture and traditional art is not lost entirely through the decades of war and occupation.  They have offered help in finding a location in Kabul to host the ‘Views of Afghanistan’ exhibit.

Another meeting is with CU Boulder professor, Wahid Omar and his wife Soraya Omar.  Both are Afghan and are living in Kabul.  We will be staying at their guesthouse while in Kabul and meeting with them regarding their NGO, Afghans 4 Tomorrow.

Additionally, while we are in Kabul, we are hoping to develop our photography exhibit for 2009.  ‘Views of Afghanistan’ unites Western and Afghan photojournalists in a collaborative show to show the many faces of this war torn country, beyond the war and burquas.  I am looking forward to meeting many of the Afghan photographers we are including in this show who are based in Kabul.  We are pursuing the possibility of a student photography project with a group of boys and girls.  Our goal is to take 20 cameras over and work to create a project with a local photojournalist that shows Kabul from the eyes of the youth culture while empowering these children to tell their stories from their own perspective through a new medium.   Some of these photographs would be included in the upcoming exhibit.

While typically the biggest obstacle is the money involved to make a trip like this, in this case, its safety.  As numerous friends forward me New York Times articles highlighting the increase in violence within the country, the question to go is heavily pondered and increasingly dissected.   What is the risk, and what is the benefit of going?  I have a young daughter and that weighs heavily on my decision.  While I don’t put my life in great risk often, my risk/benefit ratio was different pre-Devon than post.

Yet, for the moment, all systems are go.  We are operating as if we will make this trip (funding is still at issue) with the knowledge that things may ‘blow up’ – pardon the pun – and we’ll have reschedule.  Yet, the gut instinct is to go there, find the stories, make the pictures, and meet the people of this incredible country.

As Buddha once said, “Your goal in life is to find your work, and give your whole heart to it.”  And so we go to find that work, and inspire those who support Mountain to Mountain to help us affect positive change in the hearts and minds of these resilient people.

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