Spotlight on the SMILE Project from Concern Worldwide

concernworldwideA bare and rocky hillside in Afghanistan’s remote northeast is possibly the last place you would expect to see a thriving forest of fruit trees. But thanks to the support of the global charity Concern Worldwide and the efforts of a dedicated community, this is exactly what you’ll find in Kozur, a small village in the Rustaq district, close to the Tajikistan border. Read on to learn more about the unique project that is helping transform the lives of thousands of rural Afghans.


The challenge

The environment in which Kozur village is situated is harsh and hostile. The village sits in a flood plain and has repeatedly suffered losses of homes, land, and animals to frequent flash floods. Heavy snowfall is frequently a problem in the winter, as is lack of rainfall in the summer; when these environmental conditions are combined with the naturally poor soil fertility in the region, the result is an environment that makes it very difficult to grow good crops or raise healthy livestock. In addition, Kozur, like many other communities in the Rustaq district, was decimated by the 1998 earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 4,500 people.

As a result of all these factors, a cycle of poverty has taken hold in Kozur and has proved very difficult to break. The life of Hakim, a 60-year-old local volunteer with Concern Worldwide (whose name has been changed for security purposes), reveals the struggles that many Kozur villagers have had to contend with: with a wife and four children to support, Hakim spent many years working away from home, often as a laborer in the Darqad district’s rice fields, where he was paid in rice or sometimes cash. Although he has land in Kozur, he did not have enough income or agricultural knowledge to grow anything other than onions and potatoes. Often, he and his family would have to choose between selling the produce or eating it: they would go hungry if they sold the produce, but if they ate it, they would not have the money for firewood and other basic staples to survive the winter.

According to Hakim, what made all the difference to him and his family was the strong sense of community spirit in Kozur. During lean periods, neighbors would help each other as best they could with gifts of food or cash, particularly when there were families with children to be supported. And it is precisely these community values of generosity and cooperation that are now helping transform Kozur’s fortunes through Concern Worldwide’s SMILE project.


The project

Afghanistan children

Image courtesy Todd Huffman | Flickr

Funded by the European Union and implemented by Concern Worldwide and community volunteers like Hakim, the SMILE project—Sustainable Management for Improved Livelihoods and Environment—is aligned with some of Concern’s top priorities, including reducing poverty by increasing access to food and improving livelihoods by providing individuals and communities with the tools and training they need to change their own lives.

The main focus of the SMILE project has been the creation and maintenance of a community forest of almond, apricot, pistachio, and mulberry trees. Like Hakim, many villagers did not previously know how to utilize their land to get the most value from it; Concern’s solution was to provide the village with the training and tools needed to grow and market higher-value crops. To launch the SMILE project, Concern provided technical guidance, training sessions, saplings, alfalfa seeds, and cement, and constructed a number of check dams to protect the newly planted forest (later in the project, the Concern team also installed an extra reservoir to improve irrigation).

In their turn, the villagers prepared the land, planted the saplings, and excavated and helped build the reservoir and water pipelines. On an ongoing basis, they maintain the forest through regular pruning and inspections for disease and pests. Volunteers like Hakim, who have completed additional training in forest management techniques, act as stewards and keepers of the forest.


The outcomes

The Kozur community forest is a true community project in the best sense of the term. Everyone in the village works together to pick and prepare the produce during harvest time, and all profits from the forest go straight back to the community (rather than to individuals) for improvement projects like water systems and pumps. Alongside these community benefits, villagers are able to use the new skills and tools they have acquired through the project to enhance their own personal livelihoods. Hakim, for example, has transformed his former plots of onions and potatoes into a fruit tree nursery that provides him with saplings that he can sell at the market: the money he makes has allowed him to build a house and provide for his family’s educational and medical needs. And just as his neighbors helped him when times were difficult, Hakim now helps his neighbors by providing them with fruit tree cuttings, donating saplings to local schools and mosques, and conducting community training sessions.

What Is the Aga Khan Music Initiative All About?

AKTClogoWhen you think about protecting and preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, it’s easy to focus on physical objects and structures, such as historic mosques or ancient monuments that are in need of repair and restoration. But living elements of cultural heritage, like music, need protection and revitalization just as much as their tangible counterparts. This is precisely why the Aga Khan Development Network and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture created the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI) in 2000. First established in Central Asia (including Afghanistan) and subsequently expanded to include parts of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, AKMI is a unique program designed to help musicians and music educators from Muslim countries preserve, transmit, and further develop their traditional musical heritage. Read on to learn more about this important initiative.


What are the aims of the Aga Khan Music Initiative?

AKMI works to promote the revitalization of musical heritage in order to provide a livelihood for musical artists and to strengthen pluralism and dialogue in nations where those very things face significant social, political, and economic challenges. Among other specific aims, AKMI supports exceptional artistic and educational talent, promotes the revival of historic connections and collaborations among artists from the regions served by the program, and disseminates the results of its efforts all around the globe with the support of educational institutions, arts presenters, and music distributors. Ultimately, the goal of AKMI is to help support vibrant, interconnected artistic communities that create contemporary music rooted in tradition, and to build new audiences for such music through broad-ranging arts education initiatives.


What are the main focus areas of the Aga Khan Music Initiative?

To fulfill its core mission, AKMI concentrates its efforts and investments on a number of key focus areas. These include the following:


  1. Music education and mentoring

In many parts of Central Asia, including Afghanistan, the question of how to grow the next generation of young musicians is an urgent one, as traditional methods of music teaching and learning have been seriously disrupted in past decades by conflict. For this reason, education and mentoring are a central focus of AKMI’s cultural development investments. Specific initiatives in this area include the following:

Music curriculum development centers and schools—AKMI supports a growing network of Central Asian curriculum development centers and music schools that are working to ensure that local musical heritage passes to the next generation and evolves to find its place in the contemporary world. Some of the most successful strategies these organizations are using include the revitalization of the traditional master-apprentice relationship in music pedagogy; the development and dissemination of new curriculum materials; and the organization of teacher training institutes and workshops to provide educators with critical support and resources.

Textbook project: The Music of Central Asia—To help grow a knowledgeable and appreciative international audience for Central Asian music, AKMI has produced a pioneering textbook on Central Asian musical traditions. Published by Indiana University Press in 2016, this textbook is the first in the world to offer a thorough and detailed introduction to the rich and diverse music of Central Asia.




  1. International performance and outreach

In partnership with a global network of arts presenters, academic institutions, and cultural associations, AKMI works to bring musical innovators from Central Asia to the world stage. Specific initiatives in this area include the following:

Concert and festival programs—AKMI strives to bring the musicians on its artist roster to new, diverse audiences all over the world, and to help foster understanding and appreciation in those audiences. To this end, performance venues are selected with the aim of reaching audiences who are varied in profile, age, and background, and the format of the performance is carefully designed to provide important cultural context for the performers and their music. For example, a short documentary might be screened before a concert to introduce the audience not only to the featured musicians, but also to the communities in which they live and work.

Artist-in-residence and workshop programs—These initiatives link the educational mission of AKMI with its curatorial expertise. Often organized alongside a formal concert or performance, workshops and residencies give students the unique chance to interact directly with musicians from AKMI’s artist roster. Featuring small classroom settings and hands-on workshops, these initiatives offer an exceptional opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and the exploration of fundamental questions about musical creativity.


  1. Artistic production and dissemination

AKMI believes that musical traditions in a community are only truly alive when they can evolve in response to the taste and interest of contemporary listeners. To support this evolution, AKMI operates a commissioning and creation program for new works. With this program, AKMI seeks out exceptional innovators from traditional musical backgrounds, and supports them along trajectories of sustained creative development that result in new work that has roots in tradition but that speaks to today’s audiences. An example of a work commissioned and produced under this program was a new composition by Homayun Sakhi, the Afghan rubab virtuoso: Sakhi himself performed his work for rubab, string quartet, frame drum, and tabla alongside the world-renowned Kronos Quartet.

What Is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

With a history stretching back thousands of years and a landscape full of ancient monuments and cultural sites, Afghanistan truly is a dream destination for archaeologists. However, factors like challenging environmental conditions, transportation and accessibility issues, and security concerns also mean that the country isn’t the easiest place to conduct fieldwork.

To overcome these obstacles and continue the quest to explore Afghanistan’s treasure trove of cultural heritage, a team of resourceful, US-based archaeologists is employing a surprising new tool: satellites. Drawing on satellite imagery and other geospatial technologies, the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership is uncovering never-before-seen archaeological sites across Afghanistan and forging a new path for archaeological research and cultural heritage preservation monitoring in difficult-to-access regions. Read on to learn more about this exciting project.


What is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

The Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership (AHMP) is a three-year project that aims to use imagery from satellites and other geospatial technologies to build a comprehensive database, known as a geographic information systems (GIS) database, of archaeological sites in Afghanistan. The AHMP is based at the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes, a department at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and is supported by grants from the US State Department and the US Embassy in Kabul. Other partners working on the project include the Afghan Institute of Archaeology in Kabul and Kabul Polytechnic University.


How did the AHMP get started?

The AHMP was first conceived by Dr. Gil Stein, a University of Chicago archaeologist and the director of the Oriental Institute. Concerned about the impact that years of conflict, development pressures, and environmental challenges could have on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, Dr. Stein and other cultural heritage experts met with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in 2014. Ghani, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and served as the top anthropologist for the World Bank, called for a unified and detailed effort to discover, identify, and catalog cultural relics from the country’s past; in doing so, he emphasized how critical cultural heritage is to economic development and the creation of a strong national identity. The following year, Dr. Stein’s team received a grant from the State Department, along with access to US government satellite imagery that is typically a full order of magnitude more precise than most images that are publicly available.


What are the goals of the AHMP?

Some of the top priorities for the AHMP team include:

Comprehensive inventory and mapping efforts—The backbone of the AHMP project is the creation of a comprehensive database of archaeological sites in Afghanistan, both those that have already been identified and cataloged (specifically, those that are listed in the Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan, a 1982 publication serving as a primary resource for the AHMP project), and those that are previously unmapped. High-resolution geospatial datasets allow AHMP researchers to positively identify sites with exceptional accuracy, as well as offering important insights into how Afghanistan’s rapidly expanding cities and development projects are affecting areas of archaeological importance.

Monitoring site threats and destruction—Unfortunately, many archaeological sites in Afghanistan have already suffered as a result of conflict, looting, mining development, and urbanization. The AHMP aims to document and analyze the types and severity of destruction that have affected key archaeological sites, as well as examine areas where site preservation and protection efforts have proved effective. To accomplish these objectives, AHMP researchers work with time-based images, available through an online repository at the US State Department, to look at how sites have changed over time and to examine what risks might still be facing them.

Training Afghan researchers in the use of GIS technology—An important priority for the AHMP is providing on-the-ground training in geographic information systems (GIS) technology to Afghan archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists. To achieve this, scholars from the Oriental Institute worked with the GIS faculty at Kabul Polytechnic University, which has two GIS laboratories at its disposal. The goal of these training programs is to give archaeologists new tools to use in their work and teaching and to help introduce students in the urban planning and mining sectors to the importance of heritage preservation.


What discoveries have been made by the AHMP so far?

By late 2017, the AHMP had already made significant progress, with team members announcing that their work with satellite imagery had more than tripled the number of Afghan archaeological features that had previously been published. Some of the most exciting discoveries include the identification of 119 caravanserais—inns with courtyards—in the deserts of southern Afghanistan. Dated from the late 16th and early 17 centuries, these mudbrick buildings were important roadside stops for travelers along historic trade routes. The caravanserais are spaced roughly 20 kilometers from each other, which would have been about the distance that a large caravan could travel in a day.