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.

10 Things to Know about Skateistan on Its 10th Birthday

It’s been 10 years since Skateistan, the award-winning international charitable organization that empowers young people through a surprising combination of skateboarding and education, was first launched in Kabul. In celebration of this milestone birthday, here are 10 things to know about this unique non-profit.

  1. Its founder didn’t set out to establish a charity.

skateistan

Image by we_free | Flickr

When Skateistan’s founder, Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich, came to Kabul in early 2007, he wasn’t specifically interested in charitable or humanitarian work. His main objectives at the time were to stay connected with his then-girlfriend, who had a job in Kabul, and to continue his own work as a research scientist. But as soon as he started taking to the city’s streets on the skateboards he had brought with him, Percovich saw the great potential that skateboarding could have to build confidence and connections among Afghanistan’s large youth population. At the time, nearly half of Afghanistan’s entire population was under the age of 15.

  1. The first Skateistan sessions were very informal.

For the first year or two of Skateistan’s existence, its “programming” mainly consisted of Percovich holding informal skateboard sessions with street kids in Kabul. This early version of Skateistan had a basic website, and relied on a few small overseas donations to support its efforts. It was during these early days that Percovich realized how much the children would benefit from better access to education. Skateistan’s mission of connecting young people with educational opportunities via skateboarding was thus born.

  1. Skateistan has developed its own “Theory of Change.”

The connection that Percovich saw between skateboarding and education was later developed into Skateistan’s formal “Theory of Change,” an operating philosophy that was created over the course of one year using collaborative input from stakeholders, students, and staff. In essence, the theory is that if Skateistan provides fun, quality programs and safe places to experience them, then youth will be motivated to attend regularly and will consequently make new friends and take on leadership roles. As a result, they will have a stronger social support system, more life skills, and a greater level of engagement with the society around them. This theory is echoed in Skateistan’s slogan: “Youth come for skateboarding and stay for education.”

  1. One of skateboarding’s main benefits is that it is free of stigma.

One of the main reasons why skateboarding has proved so successful among Afghan youth is that, because it was virtually unknown as a sport until recently, it didn’t carry the stigma that often surrounds participation in other activities. In Afghanistan, there are often societal pressures around who can participate in sports such as football or bike riding, but because those don’t exist for skateboarding, the sport is widely accessible to all youth.

  1. Skateistan operates three different programs.

At present, Skateistan’s activities are centered on three main programs. “Skate and Create” combines an hour each of skateboarding instruction and education in the arts. “Back to School” is an accelerated learning program for youth not currently in school; in this program, kids attend daily educational tutoring sessions on national curriculum subjects, and are enrolled in a public school after completing the program. Finally, “Youth Leadership” is a way for promising Skateistan students to take their involvement to the next level. As Youth Leaders, students assist Skateistan educators, plan local events, and build their skill sets through taking ownership and responsibility.

  1. Skateistan’s facilities are an important part of its work.

Not only does Skateistan offer the programs described above, the organization has also been instrumental in bringing new skateboarding and educational infrastructure to Afghanistan. In Kabul, a skatepark with classrooms attached was built with the support of international donors and the Afghanistan Olympic Committee. Later, a facility three times that size was constructed in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

  1. Youth with disabilities are big participants in Skateistan.

Skateistan is committed to supporting underserved youth with its programming, and children with disabilities are a main focus group for the organization. A great advantage of skateboarding is that it can be practiced in some form or other by almost everyone, regardless of ability level, making it an ideal activity for youth with different physical capabilities.

  1. Skateboard art has played a big role in supporting Skateistan.

To provide financial support for Skateistan’s activities, Charles-Antoine Bodson (of the social enterprise The Skateroom) came up with the idea of creating and selling skateboard art. To date, some of the biggest names in street and contemporary art have participated, including the Belgian street artist ROA and Los Angeles-based Paul McCarthy.

  1. Skateistan now operates beyond Afghanistan.

In addition to facilities in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, Skateistan also offers programs and operates facilities in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and Johannesburg in South Africa.

  1. Thousands of youth have been supported by Skateistan.

More than 1,600 youth between ages 5 to 17 are attending one of Skateistan’s global programs.

What You Need to Know about Babur’s Gardens in the Heart of Kabul

Although Central Kabul may not be the first place where you would expect to see hundreds of springtime roses in bloom, that’s exactly what you’ll find at Bagh-e Babur, also known as Babur’s Gardens. The largest public green space in Kabul—with a history that stretches back more than five centuries—Babur’s Gardens are not only a beautiful and peaceful oasis, but one of the finest living examples of Afghanistan’s commitment to renewing and restoring its cultural heritage. Read on to learn more about this beloved Kabul landmark.

History

Babur History

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Babur, the founder of the eponymous gardens, was born in 1483. A descendent of Genghis Khan and the nomadic leader and conqueror Tamerlaine, Babur became the first Mughal emperor and the head of a dynasty that ruled much of South Asia for two centuries. The Mughal empire consolidated Islam and advanced the reach of Persian arts and culture in the region.

In 1504, Babur captured Kabul, which served as his capital for two decades. An avid gardener and nature enthusiast with a passion for flowers and landscape, Babur was personally involved in the design and creation of at least 10 gardens in the city during his time there. The site now known as Bagh-e Babur—one of the oldest surviving Mughal gardens—was previously the location of a monumental building dating back to the third century BC.

Babur died in 1530 in the Indian city of Agra. Prior to his death, he expressed a wish to be buried in Kabul. Around 1544, his widow finally transferred his body to that city, where he was interred in Babur’s Gardens. Historians and archaeologists speculate that the presence of remains of older tombs in the building on which these gardens were constructed may have inspired Babur’s decision to be buried there rather than at one of his many other gardens. As the home of Babur’s tomb, Bagh-e Babur became a symbolic and venerated site during the reign of the Mughals.

Spaces for physical and spiritual refreshment

Gardens hold a special place in Islamic culture. Echoing the ancient concept of paradise as a garden, Islamic gardens are designed as spaces for physical and spiritual refreshment. Key elements of such gardens include flowing water, shade, lush foliage, and perimeter walls. In addition, Islamic gardens follow specific principles in layout, design, and function.

Like other Islamic gardens, the 11-hectare Bagh-e Babur was originally laid out in the charbagh—or “four garden”—pattern: a classical arrangement that divides the enclosed space of the garden into clearly defined quarters through a series of rising terraces intersected by a central watercourse. The prominent central axis of the garden provided a multi-directional vista, and the trees, herbs, and flowers were all carefully chosen.

Decline and restoration

Gardens of Babur

Image by Wikipedia

After the Mughal dynasty lost control of Kabul, Babur’s Gardens fell into disrepair. Repeated alterations were carried out on the site. One of the largest and most disruptive building programs was implemented by Amir Abdur Rahman in the late 19th century. His structural interventions, which included new buildings and landscaping, significantly changed the visual concept and feel of the garden. However, the alterations did not last long, as King Nadir Shah removed the structures in the early 1930s. During this period, the gardens were open to the public complete with European-style teahouses and restaurants. It was this version of the gardens—which sustained heavy damage as a result of looting and vandalism during the long years of civil conflict—that was preserved until the early 2000s.

In 2002, with the support of the Aga Khan Development Network, a comprehensive restoration of Babur’s Gardens was launched. Over the next five years, the majority of the physical work was completed. Improvements included re-establishing the character of the water channels, planted terraces, and pavilions; creating a swimming pool and caravanserai complex; and replanting local species of trees and plants favored by the reigning Mughals when the garden was first built. The plants ranged from roses and pistachios to the distinctive purple-flowered Judas trees.

The future of the gardens

Today, Babur’s Gardens provide a safe, secure, and peaceful urban green space for Kabul’s residents. Since it reopened to visitors in 2008, Babur’s Gardens have attracted more than 3 million visitors who come to enjoy the gardens and the ticketed events and performances that take place there, such as festivals of Pashtun dancing and even Shakespeare performances. At present, the gardens are managed by the Bagh-e Babur Trust with participation from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture, the Kabul Municipality, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The idea is that the revenue from admissions to Babur’s Gardens will help the Bagh-e Babur Trust to achieve long-term financial stability and maintain the garden’s landscaping and monuments.