Spotlight on the Asia Society: Introducing the World to Afghanistan

The Asia Society is the world’s leading educational organization dedicated to fostering mutual understanding, respect, and partnership between Western and Asian countries, including Afghanistan and other countries of the Greater Middle East. Read on to learn more about the Asia Society, and how it’s helping the world get to know Afghanistan.

What is the Asia Society?

Asia Society logoThe Asia Society is a non-profit, non-partisan institution with a broad mission to prepare Asians and Americans for a shared future in a global context. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III, the Asia Society has grown over the years to become an international, cross-disciplinary organization, working across the fields of arts, culture, education, business, and policy to generate ideas and insight, address present challenges, and prepare for a collaborative future. Today, the Asia Society’s focus covers more than 50 countries and territories—the Society has major centers and offices in cities ranging from Houston and Los Angeles to Manila and Mumbai—making it one of the most important contributors to the ongoing conversation about Asian-American relations.

What does the Asia Society do?

The Asia Society’s scope of activity is extremely broad. A sampling of the Society’s work and initiatives includes: the Center for Global Education, which brings world leaders and institutions together to tackle the urgent question of how to educate today’s students for employability in a global era; the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank that addresses major policy challenges for the Asia-Pacific region by working with top experts and policymakers; the Asia Arts Awards, a signature event that honors transformative figures in Asia’s contemporary art world; and the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative, an ongoing collaborative dialogue aiming to foster the development and sharing of urban sustainability strategies among Asia-Pacific communities.

How is the Asia Society helping the world get to know Afghanistan?

As one of the Asia Society’s focus countries, Afghanistan is an important presence in much of the Society’s work. Some specific ways that the Asia Society is bringing Afghanistan to the world’s attention and building awareness about how Afghanistan is developing include:

Creative Voices of Islam in AsiaCreative Voices of Muslim Asia—The Asia Society’s Creative Voices of Muslim Asia is an innovative multidisciplinary program that works to build understanding of the diversity of Islam through the arts. The initiative incorporates Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas, a collaborative festival and the first festival of Muslim arts to be held in New York City. There’s also a youth media exchange program that helps connect young people with digital storytelling opportunities that allow them to participate in critical dialogue around important issues like globalization and immigration. Creative Voices of Muslim Asia also sponsors a regular series of online publications and features that showcase important artistic voices and perspectives from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries and regions.

The Arts & Museum Summit—First launched in 2015, this summit is a valuable opportunity for museum and arts leaders from across Asia and the Middle East, the US, and Europe to connect, explore challenges, and share knowledge. At the inaugural summit in 2015, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, was a key panel member in a discussion on threats and risks to the arts in contemporary Asia.

The Asia Game Changer Awards—Launched by the Asia Society in 2014, the Asia Game Changer Awards aim to fill a critical gap by identifying and celebrating leaders in all fields who are making profound and positive contributions to the future of Asia. In 2016, Afghanistan’s Dr. Ahmad Sarmast was honored for his commitment to bringing music back to Afghanistan in the face of extreme violence and threats. Read more about Dr. Sarmast’s remarkable work and legacy here.

Does the Asia Society organize initiatives within Afghanistan?

While much of the Asia Society’s work involving Afghanistan is intended to help the rest of the world learn about the country, the Society does support some initiatives taking place in Afghanistan. Chief among these is the Afghanistan Young Leaders Initiative (AYLI), a program designed to build and nurture the next generation of Afghan leaders. Operating under the broader umbrella of the Asia 21 Young Leaders Initiative, AYLI annually selects a number of promising Afghan citizens under the age of 40 to become a “young Afghan leader” for a one-year term.

As part of their term, AYLI members participate in monthly meetings to discuss Afghanistan’s main challenges and how the next generation of leaders can help solve them; develop a next-generation curriculum for leadership development workshops that can be delivered to Afghan university students; and work with a media consultant to develop a media outreach strategy highlighting the work of young Afghan leaders. In addition, participants attend the Afghan Young Leaders in Action Youth Summit, an annual forum that helps AYLI members make key connections and assess their progress as a group.

What You Need to Know about Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

The creative arts have long served as an important tool for empowerment and social development all around the world. In Afghanistan today, the not-for-profit NGO Bond Street Theatre is harnessing the transformational power of the arts to bring hope and change to Afghans seeking to rebuild their lives and their communities after decades of conflict. Read on to learn more about Bond Street Theatre and its role in Afghanistan’s development.

What is Bond Street Theatre?

bondstreettheatrelogoFor more than 40 years, Bond Street Theatre has been using the uplifting powers of the arts to respond to global humanitarian crises. Founded in 1976 with a mission to promote peace and understanding through the arts, the New York-based organization operates around the world, working with local artists and civilians to develop creative programming and performances that illustrate and address important social issues.

Through its theater and theater-based programs, Bond Street Theatre helps inspire and educate youth, promote human rights, give space to marginalized voices, and provide peacebuilding and healing tools for communities recovering from conflict. The organization has worked in more than 40 countries around the world in a variety of settings, including schools, prisons, refugee camps, remote communities, and urban centers.

A history of Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

2003—Bond Street Theatre’s first project in Afghanistan—a healing program targeting the thousands of refugee families pouring back into the country—is undertaken in collaboration with Exile Theatre, a local company composed of professional theater artists who were formerly living in exile. In addition, Bond Street Theatre works with Afghanistan-Schulen, a German nonprofit dedicated to education in Afghanistan, to support educational initiatives reaching an estimated 25,000 children in the rural regions of the northern part of the country.

2005—Bond Street Theatre spends two semesters in residence at Kabul University, teaching students and developing Beyond The Mirror, a collaborative production devised with Exile Theater. Beyond The Mirror marks the first-ever theatrical collaboration between Afghan and American companies. The production enjoys its world premiere in Kabul and later tours the US and Japan to resounding critical and public acclaim.

2006-2009—This three-year period sees the launch of the US-Afghan Arts Exchange and Conflict Resolution Project, a bold new initiative intended to foster and facilitate artistic exchange and dialogue among artists from Afghanistan, India, and the US. Participating artists work together to create A Kite’s Tale, a play about children’s rights in India, which is presented together with inspirational and education workshops for women in rural communities, street children, and other marginalized groups.

2007—Bond Street Theatre partners with Aschiana, a Kabul-based organization dedicated to supporting Afghan children working on the streets, to deliver workshops on self-expression, self-confidence, and group cooperation. In addition, the company spends time at the Mediothek Center in Kunduz training a local theater group.

2008—Bond Street Theatre’s partnership with Aschiana continues, this time in Mazar-i-Sharif, where the company delivers theater technique-based workshops to build self-confidence and improve education for street children.

2010-2012—The year 2010 marks the launch of the Theatre for Social Development Project, in which Bond Street Theatre works to train and support Afghan theater companies. The project’s broad goals are to use theater to bring new information and ideas to rural areas with very low literacy rates. It also aims to help build the capacity of local theater companies to serve as an educational and inspirational resource for their own communities on an ongoing basis.

Four Afghan theater companies participate in the project: Simorgh Film & Theatre in Herat creates two shows that focus on conflict resolution and family issues and are presented in correctional centers, drug rehabilitation facilities, and schools and youth centers; Kabul’s White Star Company produces two shows that use audience participation to explore alternative solutions to critical social issues; Nangarhar Theatre in Jalalabad develops two performances addressing women’s rights and rule-of-law issues; and Kandahar Theatre introduces two shows, one of which is performed directly in family homes for audiences who have never before seen live theater.

2013-2014—Funded by the United States Institute of Peace, Bond Street Theatre launches the Voter Education and Fraud Mitigation Project in the months leading up to Afghanistan’s presidential and run-off elections. Working together with local partner theater companies, Bond Street Theatre’s touring performances help educate more than 150,000 people on voter rights and related issues.

2014-2016—Bond Street Theatre continues its focus on young people with the launch of the Youth-Led Community Improvement Project. In this country-wide initiative, 375 youth from 25 provinces come together to receive intensive training in leadership, community service, and the arts. Theater-based workshops focus on creative problem-solving, improved communication skills, and identification of key issues in the participants’ home communities.

The project culminates with each participant creating a community Action Plan, and then returning to his or her home community to implement those plans. The Youth-Led Community Improvement Project participants are now a vitally important part of Afghanistan’s growing network of young people committed to creating lasting change.

2017—Bond Street Theatre works with youth leaders from eight Afghan provinces to help inform and engage communities across the country on issues and questions around access to justice and legal rights.

What Are BRAC’s Most Important Focus Areas in Afghanistan?

Guided by its vision of a world free from poverty, exploitation, and discrimination, Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC) has been empowering poor and marginalized people and communities since it was established in Bangladesh in 1972. Today, BRAC is the world’s largest development organization, operating across 11 countries and touching the lives of one out of every 55 people on our planet.

BRAC has been working in Afghanistan since 2002, when it launched its first programs in post-conflict Kabul. Within seven years of its establishment in the country, BRAC was the largest NGO operating in Afghanistan, with a range of projects and initiatives focused on the following four priority areas:

Capacity development

BRAC logoImproving the competencies of government, civil, and private organizations is a critical part of Afghanistan’s journey toward resilience and empowerment. To address this need, BRAC launched its capacity development program in Kabul in 2003. The program consists of a suite of training courses for people and institutions involved in Afghanistan’s development process, including government ministries, local and international NGOs, UN organizations, and donor agencies. The idea behind the program’s establishment was to help provide the agents of Afghanistan’s development with the necessary tools to carry out their mission more effectively and with the highest degree of professionalism.

Designed to be engaging, participatory, flexible, and results-oriented, the training courses cover four key subjects: management and development, finance and accounts, health, and education. The capacity development program employs experienced professionals from around the world on both a part- and full-time basis to provide the best possible level of coaching to participants. As of September 2016, the program had developed 166 different course offerings and had provided training to over 61,000 people, of whom more than 19,000 were government and NGO staff.

Education

Reforming and improving Afghanistan’s education system is a major goal for the majority of local and international NGOs working in the country, and BRAC is no exception. BRAC’s education program actually reaches seven countries in total, making it the world’s largest private, secular education system; it was launched in Afghanistan in 2002.

In broad terms, the education program aims to bring systemic reform to Afghanistan’s schools and school system, working to improve students’ access to education and their academic performance. Using a community-based approach to education, BRAC schools offer a second chance to children who have been left behind by the formal education system due to barriers like poverty, displacement, discrimination, or violence.

Leveraging innovative teaching methods and materials, the BRAC system acts as a complement to Afghanistan’s mainstream school system through initiatives like need-based training and student mentoring. In addition, the community-based approach brings broader benefits, such as strengthening rural or isolated communities by providing them with their own school, and helping local governments become more aware of and more responsive to educational challenges.

In 2015 alone, BRAC opened 666 new community-based schools and 250 pre-primary schools. That same year, nearly 30,000 children graduated from 962 BRAC schools around the country. Teacher training is also an important part of BRAC’s education work. In 2015, 1,734 government school teachers received training from BRAC, as did 1,501 mentors working with students at 100 hub schools.

afghanistan school

Health

Decades of civil conflict have severely compromised the delivery of health care services to Afghans across their country. Since 2002, BRAC has partnered with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health to help the government provide basic health care services to its citizens, with a particular focus on achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals of reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and fighting infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest rates of tuberculosis infections.

BRAC’s health program brings together services across the full spectrum of care, including preventive, promotive, curative, and rehabilitative initiatives. Using trained frontline community health promoters, BRAC works to bridge the gap between underserved communities and formal healthcare systems, thus making it easier for disadvantaged, socially excluded, and isolated populations to access the basic care they need. In 2015, an estimated 1.3 million Afghans received health care through BRAC initiatives.

Rural development

Since 2003, BRAC has worked as a facilitating partner with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) on its National Solidarity Program (NSP). Created to address some of the most severe problems affecting Afghan infrastructure—including a lack of capacity, in terms of both personnel and knowledge, at grassroots administrative bodies—the NSP seeks to empower and support Afghan communities in identifying, planning, managing, and monitoring their own development projects. A key aspect of the NSP is facilitating the democratic election of community development councils, who play an integral role in launching projects in their own communities.

Already MRRD’s biggest community development initiative in Afghanistan, the NSP is also reputed to be the second-largest program of its kind in the world. BRAC supports the NSP by assisting community development councils with all aspects of their projects, including the use of NSP block grants intended for rural infrastructure development, and connecting these projects with other potential funding sources. In 2015, 614 infrastructure sub-projects were completed, and eight-month training programs were provided to more than 10,000 members of community development councils.