How Afghanistan’s Heritage Is Being Restored

Preserving the cultural heritage of Afghanistan is becoming more important as the nation rebuilds after decades of war. Years of turmoil and fighting have ruined artifacts, destroyed historical sites, and resulted in the loss of important treasures and traditions. It wasn’t until recently that archaeologists and historians have been able to begin the process of analyzing and cataloging the nation’s artifacts in an attempt to preserve what remains.

The Written Word

Perhaps most discouraging for many generations of Afghans is the loss of written texts and historical accounts. Many documents have been lost or destroyed, including works of literature and history, newspaper archives, and other priceless written materials that are important to Afghan culture, heritage, and history. Several generations of children have passed through school without access to books and written resources beyond what is covered in their curriculum. In the last several years, historians have taken steps to ensure future generations do not suffer the same fate.

Working in conjunction with Afghanistan’s Minister of Information and Culture, the United States Library of Congress has digitized its extensive collection of materials related to Afghanistan. This collection includes books, maps, photographs, newspapers, manuscripts, and more, all created in Afghanistan or written about Afghanistan, in Dari, Pashto, Persian, and other languages. Most of the documents are copies of historical texts that no longer exist in Afghanistan, having been destroyed by war and time. Some of the items can’t be found anywhere else, making their preservation and return to the people of Afghanistan—a process known as “virtual repatriation”—all the more meaningful.

With material dating from the early 1300s all the way through the 1900s, the collection includes the equivalent of more than 160,000 pages of text. Many of the materials in the collection were gathered from sources around the world, in a process that took more than three years. With six field offices spread throughout the world, the Library of Congress was able to collect historical documents concerning Afghanistan from other nations as well.

A nation’s history typically intersects with that of other countries and cultures, resulting in writings that communicate a variety of perspectives and insights about the nation in question. In the US, for example, the writings of visiting French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville provide a fascinating view of the young United States in the 1830s. In the case of Afghanistan, as traders and explorers travelled through the country, maps, journals, and other written documentation was kept by foreigners, and is now being used to give Afghans another look at their own history.

The documents have been presented to Afghanistan’s Minister of Information and Culture on several hard drives containing a total of seven terabytes of information, for disbursement to various schools and museums throughout the country. Ten institutions will receive copies of the materials: the National Archive of Afghanistan, the National Library of Afghanistan, and several universities. In addition, the material is in “raw data” format, meaning the institutions can not only make the material available in digitized form, but they can download it, incorporate it into their existing databases, or print it.

In addition, the documents are available to anyone with an Internet connection via the World Digital Library.

Cultural Artifacts

In addition to the written documents being returned to Afghanistan, much work has been done to preserve physical artifacts that remain in the country. An international team of archaeologists has been mapping the country’s known historic sites and monuments, inputting the information into a geographic information system (GIS).

Many of the sites have been looted, the result of war and turmoil that have stripped gold mines and destroyed historic monuments. Despite those challenges, the team continues to create a database of the remaining sites to help direct historians, local communities, universities, and others who are looking to preserve the nation’s history.

The lack of such a database has resulted in homes being built over excavated sites near Kabul, while people working in fields have dug up and destroyed artifacts, and looters and antiquities dealers have robbed the Afghan people of many treasures. The database is particularly important as the country begins issuing mining permits and as the infrastructure of the country is being rebuilt.

To historians, the nation of Afghanistan is an open-air museum, with centuries of history and archaeological treasures spread across the landscape. There is a wealth of sites that must be identified and documented in order to be preserved. Knowing where potential historical sites may be located can prevent further loss and damage.

The rebuilding of Afghanistan is important for its future, but the preservation of its past is equally as important. By reacquiring and cataloging written texts and other artifacts, the nation will be able to preserve and honor its past. With access to this historical record, future generations will be able to learn about the importance of Afghanistan in the world’s history.

How NGOs are Providing Help and Hope to Afghanistan

Within the nation of Afghanistan, the total number of people who have been affected by conflict and war is difficult to ascertain. It is evident, however, that there are an increasing number of needs that must be met in order for the nation to move forward.

Many citizens are members of at-risk demographics. Some are among the poorest in the world and are facing uncertain futures unless they receive assistance from outside sources.

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

Some of the issues surrounding the rebuilding and redevelopment of Afghanistan stem from citizens’ distrust of government and daily insecurity. In these situations, the complexity of delivering needed services while attempting to build infrastructure and community is fraught with difficulty.

To bridge the gap between the government and populations that are at-risk, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often provide both short- and long-term relief. In Afghanistan, the government has partnered with local grassroots organizations to handle reconstruction and redevelopment, as well as reaching some of the world’s most vulnerable groups.

Afghanistan National Solidarity Program

One of Afghanistan’s most successful programs has been the Community Development Council (CDC). Throughout the nation, there have been 35,000 new community councils established under the direction of the Afghanistan National Solidarity Program. In addition, it has funded nearly 90,000 projects within the country.

Not surprisingly, the National Solidarity Program is one of the largest of its kind in the world. The strength of this program is seen in the way that citizens are empowered to make decisions and participate in their own governance.

Rather than view the individuals being served as beneficiaries, the NSP considers them participants.

Another strength of the program is the sense of ownership that participants feel. While thousands of schools have been burned down across the nation, only one school located where a community development program exists was destroyed. According to the NSP, this points to the success of the program and the power of community.

NSP Projects

A sampling of some of the projects undertaken by NSP within Afghanistan are an indicator of the scope of its dealings with the people. Its projects are dual-purposed, designed to give both immediate and long-term assistance in core areas of life.

  1. Road repairs in the Kabul district provide safe, reliable transportation for locals and travelers.
  1. A hydropower station has been built in the district of Kama, providing jobs and a reliable power supply for the villagers. A local villager was so supportive of this project that he donated the land for the hydropower station to be built on.
  1. Disease in the Nangarhar province was the side effect of an inefficient and polluted water supply. An innovative system was developed and implemented to provide clean, safe drinking water.
  1. To combat a pervasive lack of safe drinking water, the Parwan Province built and maintains a water tower, providing water for over 700 families.
  1. The Jafarak Village overcame environmental issues to establish a fish farm, providing both jobs and resources for the surrounding community.
  1. A health clinic that will service 25 villages is being built in the Tontonzar Orati village. Constructed and supported by the residents of this village, it is a much needed source of medical care.
  1. Construction of roads that connect villages not only makes travel safer, but also provides reliable access to other services. Within many regions in Afghanistan, roads are being constructed and maintained using funding from the NSP.
  1. Schools servicing over 1,000 students have been built in local communities. They often run in two shifts to accommodate the number of students, and they are vitally important to encourage the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
  1. Community meeting halls are being built, giving residents a location for meeting and working together to improve the conditions of their districts.

These projects are simply a highlight of the work being done by NSP in Afghanistan. By working with the nation’s residents, it is able to provide training and direction that will sustain the nation in the future.

Not only does this NGO provide education, healthcare and jobs, it also provides a new way of life for many in Afghanistan. It has established a proven method of reaching people who are at-risk and helping them not only survive, but thrive. Much remains to be done, but because of groups such as these, the future is bright.

Astonishing Ways Cell Phones Are Changing the World

cell phoneAs the number of at-risk people in Afghanistan continues to climb, so too does the need for aid from relief organizations. Despite the challenges of working in a war-torn nation, many non-government organizations (NGOs) have managed to maintain their presence within Afghanistan, finding innovative ways to meet the rapidly changing needs of the people. Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization that began in 1979, has responded to almost every global emergency in the last 20 years. They have been working within Afghanistan to provide resources and aid to underserved and at-risk groups. Through their efforts, they have provided emergency relief to thousands of women and children. They promote community-based initiatives such as vocational training, small business support, and infrastructure development. Perhaps most compelling, however, is their use of technology to bring stability and support to the people.

Technology’s Impact

The global acceptance of smartphone technology is astounding. To put it into perspective, it took over 100 years for the number of landline telephone users to exceed 1 billion, but the number of mobile users exceeded 1 billion in just 20. According to a recent study, one of the fastest growing markets for smartphones is Northeast Africa and the Middle East. The introduction of cellphones to developing countries has revolutionized their communication. There is no need to run telephone lines because users are not dependent on fixed lines, which reduces costs and eliminates the need to provide maintenance and security for the equipment. Basic cellphones are available for less than $20, making one affordable enough for nearly every family. Particularly important for people living in Afghanistan, cell phones can offer a means of communication from anywhere, regardless of one’s physical location.

Refugees with Cell Phones

Technology has become one of the most important tools in the continuing struggle for the security and safety of the displaced people within Afghanistan. Historically, individuals and families that had been forced from their homes would find themselves alone, with no means of contacting family members. In contrast, today’s refugees are using cellphone technology to stay connected, stay safe, and stay informed. Among refugees seeking asylum in surrounding nations, humanitarian workers report that nearly every group has at least one smartphone. After reaching safety, one of the first requests refugees have is for Wi-Fi access. In contrast to parts of the world where cellphones are used for shopping and chatting, in Afghanistan and places like it, cellphones are used to save lives.

Refugees and other displaced persons use cellphones to access GPS services such as directions and guidance to safety. They can easily send coordinates to rescuers and other humanitarian groups for assistance. Users can take pictures of important phone numbers, provide information on safe routes, and give updates about dangerous conditions or where to find aid. For many in Afghanistan, a cellphone provides a lifeline they desperately need.

NGOs and Cellphones

Humanitarian organizations are finding new ways to connect their services with people in need through cellphone technology. Free apps such as Facebook, MAPS.ME, and WhatsApp offer a ways for users to stay in contact with friends, family members, and aid organizations. Developers are currently working on apps that provide navigation routes as well as real-time information about the safety of roads, the presence of dangerous individuals, and the location of secure buildings.

Working in collaboration with other humanitarian organizations, Google and Mercy Corps developed a multilingual website designed specifically for refugees. The site is filled with information such as currency details, where to find lodging, current asylum process, and emergency information. By hosting hotspots throughout Afghanistan and other regions, displaced people can quickly and easily connect to the refugee site and access the information they need. Using GPS location services, the site can detect the user’s location and provide real-time information about shifting conditions, movement restrictions, and other updates.

Many NGOs are adopting a cashless system, where recipients are provided a debit card loaded with funds that can be used to secure food, lodging, and supplies. Refillable cards make it easy to provide tangible assistance without having to worry about currency, loss, or theft.

Translation apps make it possible for aid workers to speak to individuals in their native tongue, quickly finding out critical information and offering support. Weather apps help farmers with updates and market information. Internet access is also vital for individuals who need to access financial information. For instance, mobile banking helps families start savings accounts and access emergency funds. Social media and video technology allows families to stay in touch, providing comfort and stability during a crisis.

Offering mobile technology to at-risk groups is a meaningful, low-cost way to reach individuals with the help they need. For many Afghans, wireless technology and cellphones are some of the most important tools being used today.

How One NGO is Making a Difference in Afghanistan

By focusing on the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) working within Afghanistan, one gets an idea of both how much is being done within the country and how much work there still is to do. ACTED (Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development) was formed in 1993 as a not-for-profit, private, and independent organization. Their mission is to address the specific needs of populations that have been affected by catastrophes, social crises, and war. Their vision is to ensure that all humans can live with dignity. ACTED invests in the potential of people and works for immediate change in the lives of people facing urgent needs. Specifically in Afghanistan, the organization operates in seven provinces and has expanded its influence and programs within the last few years in response to the growing needs of the population.

Emergency Assistance

displaced Afghans

Image by IOM | Flickr

Violence continues to affect communities in many areas of Afghanistan, and has led to the displacement of nearly 200,000 individuals. In addition, recurring natural disasters have increased the number of at-risk people within the country. Communities that are faced with urgent need for food, water, and shelter have been assisted by ACTED. The organization has provided money and vouchers, sanitation services, clean water, and shelter to people in need across seven Afghan provinces. The organization is currently involved in a 16-month project to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in many Northern Afghan provinces. This work includes constructing wells and latrines, as well as providing emergency hygiene kits to displaced families.

Natural Disaster Recovery

According to recent studies by the United Nations, over 250,000 persons are affected by natural disasters within Afghanistan, such as floods, droughts, and earthquakes. Food and non-food items, cash, and vouchers have been distributed to offer support as part of ACTED’s mission. In conjunction with meeting urgent needs, the organization is also committed to long-term plans to rebuild infrastructure, repair water systems, and replace temporary shelters. In April 2016, the organization responded to severe flooding in Baghlan and Balkh provinces by offering basic hygiene supplies.

Marginalized Populations

Women, youth, and farmers are among the most marginalized people in Afghanistan. ACTED works to support these groups through both formal and informal education programs. They provide literacy classes, small business development training, vocational education, and support groups to help people develop the skills they need to provide for themselves and their families. By facilitating access to training in agricultural techniques and working to develop sustainable economic opportunities, ACTED helps marginalized individuals become better able to support their family and communities.

Gender-based Violence Reduction

In cooperation with local women’s organizations, ACTED is addressing gender-based violence, focusing on women and young girls. They provide crisis shelters, counseling, case management, and more to women who have been victims of gender-based violence. In addition, women and girls are receiving holistic education that can include literacy, job training, and other vital services.

The Link between Emergency and Rehabilitation

ACTED has been working in Afghanistan to help people deal with the after-effects of war and break the cycle of poverty. According to ACTED, interventions that take place as a response to a crisis or natural disaster must have long-term, sustainable support in order to be effective. Rather than focusing on short-term needs, ACTED brings together local community organizations to provide ongoing support once the crisis has passed. These organizations are led by local people who have a deep understanding of the needs of their communities and the most culturally appropriate ways to provide assistance.

The Developmental Approach

Through a multidisciplinary approach, ACTED can offer both developmental and humanitarian support. Their adaptive approach is helping to break the cycle of poverty and encourage sustainable development. ACTED’s assistance involves a multi-phase process:

Phase 1 offers household-level support that promotes self-reliance, helps families generate an income, and increases food security. When people receive this kind of support for their family unit, they are more able to help meet broader community needs.

Phase 2 expands the household support into an “ecosystem approach” to agriculture. By utilizing sustainable, climate-friendly agricultural techniques, communities can obtain a more reliable source of food and economic growth opportunities.

Phase 3 continues the expansion into private sector development through small business enterprise support. Urban development and rebuilding can sustain the growth of new businesses, which in turn provide jobs and income.

This three-phase process represents a gradual approach to rebuilding that emphasizes self-sufficiency. This approach also helps ensure that any changes that have been implemented don’t simply vanish when the immediate crisis is over and the aid organization leaves.

Focusing on long-term solutions rather than what appears to be a “quick fix” does not negate the need for emergency responsiveness. Particularly in countries that have experienced war or other crisis situations, the need for both is stark. Fortunately, ACTED and other international and Afghan NGOs stand ready to assist.

Afghanistan’s Wireless Market Looks Toward a Bright Future

A landlocked country located in Central Asia, Afghanistan developed in the path of caravan trading routes known as the Silk Road. As Afghanistan began to rebuild following decades of war, entrepreneurs brought new technology into the country that allowed residents to easily communicate with one another and the outside world. One individual who led the effort to open Afghanistan to new communication systems was Dr. Ehsan Bayat.

The History of Telecommunications in Afghanistan

According to Dr. Ehsan Bayat, the effort to establish a national telecommunications system had faced many challenges. In the mid 1990’s, the nation began to establish the infrastructure and networks necessary to bring telecommunications technology to Afghanistan. A few public call shops were established, and several hundred miles of telephone lines were installed, a tentative beginning to offering communication to the nation. Subsequently, there was a renewed effort to bring a mobile network to the nation. However, numerous hurdles prevented the effort from getting very far. Undeterred, Dr. Bayat persevered to overcome obstacles.

Hurdles to Overcome

Particularly difficult during this period was the process of securing equipment and personnel willing to work in the country. Dr. Bayat eventually located a company willing to sell equipment to the newly formed Afghan Wireless Communication Company (AWCC), and the nation’s first mobile phone provider launched in 2002.

Explosive Growth

mobile phoneSince Afghan Wireless began providing services in 2002, the wireless market in Afghanistan has exploded. Today, there are five mobile operators competing for a piece of Afghanistan’s mobile market, which has resulted in reduced prices and increased service. Between Afghan Wireless and its competitors, nearly 25 million subscribers now have access to wireless service, a number that by most estimates covers 80% of the population. Most experts agree that this explosive growth is due, in part, to the lack of alternatives to wireless service, making it a highly competitive market. In hindsight, this explosive growth makes sense. While there was formerly no market, suddenly everyone now had access to wireless service. However, at the time, no one could have predicted the widespread acceptance of this new means of communication.

Government Regulations

As the wireless market exploded onto the scene, the government scrambled to keep pace. Unpredictable tax rates hindered the expansion of the wireless market and led to frustrated owners, who were unprepared to pay taxes early or at the government’s whim. Regulatory guidelines are being put into place, similar to those of the FCC, that will help to monitor and control the use of wireless technology and regulate tax collection to maintain the infrastructure.

Maintaining the Network

New technology is constantly being added to improve the wireless market within Afghanistan. Dr. Bayat’s efforts to update wireless systems to keep up with the pace of modern technology are not only cost effective, but they put the nation in a position to move forward with its communication systems. The use of fiber optic cables will reduce dependence on wireless for Internet systems and lower the cost of service even more.

The use of local workforces to maintain and secure the equipment is expected to improve connectivity. In addition, it is anticipated that the new technology will provide employment to Afghan nationals and create a network of communities that share wireless towers.

The Future of Wireless

While nearly 80% of the population now has access to wireless communication, the number of individuals with Internet access is considerably smaller. Today, the number of 3G subscribers in Afghanistan amounts to approximately 2 million users, which is approximately 8% of the mobile market. Currently, all five mobile operators in the nation have 3G licenses and are seeking to increase their market share, as users adopt the newest forms of communication. In addition, companies are seeking to adopt 4G technology and improve the quality of Internet connectivity. Previously, efforts to expand Internet usage were dismal due in part due to poor infrastructure. The use of dial-up, a lack of available resources, and a limited understanding of how the Internet can be beneficial hindered its adoption by the Afghan people. Helping to further expand the Internet’s reach are strategic partnerships that led to the launch of the nation’s first satellite, as well as falling prices for Internet and wireless access.

Afghan Wireless has worked tirelessly to bring communication to Afghanistan. From the earliest stages of development, Dr. Bayat has served as a financial investor and advocate for improved telecommunication systems, and he continues to focus on this effort. The expansion of telecommunications networks continues to encounter new obstacles. However, in spite of these challenges, the people of Afghanistan have a vested interest in pursuing a secure and efficient network for both wireless and Internet service.