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.

Afghan Program Supports Creativity and Cultural Diversity

UNESCOlogoIn recent years, Afghanistan has begun to recognize the important role that cultural heritage can play in developing a unified national identity that connects citizens beyond their perceived differences. For this reason, the government of Afghanistan created the National Program for Culture and Creative Economy (NPCE) with the support of the UNESCO office in Kabul. A broad initiative funded by a variety of donors, the NPCE covers eight vital thematic areas that are closely tied both to UNESCO’s areas of action in Afghanistan. In addition, they focus on the country’s needs and priorities as outlined in the government’s National Peace and Development Framework. Read on to learn more about these cultural and creative themes.

 

The Right to Culture

This thematic area focuses on the right to enjoy culture and creativity in conditions of equality and dignity without a fear of discrimination. Projects and initiatives in this category will focus on facilitating the right of all Afghans to access culture. Examples include supporting access to libraries, workshops, community and cultural centers, and other creative hubs; using cultural activities to help integrate returnees and refugees; and encouraging private sector partnerships to provide financial and other support to Afghanistan’s cultural sector.

 

Improved Higher Education for Culture and Creative Industries

While there is a national movement to re-center culture in Afghan society and to ensure that cultural heritage and creative industries are able to grow and thrive over the long term, this desire is hampered by the country’s lack of national cultural experts. Systemic and structured investments that target specific competencies are needed to fill these gaps. For instance, this thematic area could oversee the creation of new institutions such as schools of design or university departments for heritage conservation and management.

 

The Afghanistan Translation Movement

The goal of this thematic area is to launch a comprehensive knowledge movement in Afghanistan. Taking its name from the Islamic Golden Age—during which scholars gathered to translate the world’s classical knowledge into the Arabic and Persian languages—the Translation Movement aims to make the sources of today’s universal knowledge accessible to Afghan citizens in their own language. At a time when it is rare to find Dari or Pashto translations of university textbooks, for example, this thematic category strongly supports the right to culture and improvement in higher education.

 

Legal Framework and Policies for Culture

In order for Afghanistan’s creative and cultural industries to thrive—and for its vital cultural heritage to be protected and preserved—there must be streamlined and relevant policies and regulations in place under Afghan law. Through advocacy efforts and expert consultation, the NPCE is working to support the Afghan government through a full review and revision of existing cultural heritage laws.

 

Safeguarding the Cultural Heritage of Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s “built heritage”—its monuments, mosques, and ancient cities—are an important asset and testament to the country’s thousands of years of history. However, due to their isolation and dispersal, far too many cultural sites are not perceived as integral to the fabric of Afghanistan’s rapidly changing society. This thematic area aims to foster a new attitude toward built heritage by supporting and implementing projects (such as rehabilitation works in historical urban contexts) that benefit the community and, in doing so, demonstrate that cultural preservation can enhance development.

 

Architecture for Public Spaces

After decades of political and social upheaval that have affected all levels of society, Afghanistan is in the midst of a period of explosive growth: displaced people are returning to the country in large numbers, and more Afghans are transitioning from a rural to urban existence. This has taken a toll on Afghanistan’s cities, which are struggling to accommodate these sweeping changes without destroying built heritage. This thematic area of the NPCE works to support state and local urban planning authorities to preserve existing heritage on the one hand, and to promote better contemporary architecture on the other.

 

The Afghanistan Cultural Centers Network

Through this thematic category, UNESCO and the NPCE aim to use a networking strategy to resolve the disconnect that can arise over cultural development work at the policy and the project levels. Often, significant policy changes do not “trickle down” effectively to the local level, where they would be of most immediate benefit. Likewise, the short-term effects of project-level initiatives often do not make it past the local sphere to the policy level, where the lessons learned could be put to broader use. This thematic area aims to open up channels of information across local cultural centers in order to provide greater opportunities to better exchange ideas and influence policy creation.

 

The Afghanistan Creative Cities Network

In 2015, Bamiyan became the first city in Central Asia to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, an association of 116 international member cities committed to investing in creative industries and the creative economy. This thematic area aims to pave the way for more Afghan cities to join the network and benefit from its worldwide cooperation, intercultural dialogue, and support.

What You Need to Know about Afghan Academy International

A number of organizations are working in Afghanistan to build a better, safer, and more prosperous future for the country and its residents. At the same time, it’s important not to overlook the small number of equally dedicated organizations that are working in other parts of the world to support members of the Afghan diaspora who, for various reasons, no longer live in their home country. Based in the UK, Afghan Academy International is just such an organization. Read on to learn more about how this important association has been helping Afghan expatriates for more than 30 years.

 

What Is Afghan Academy International?

afghanacademyinternationalAfghan Academy International is an independent, non-political, and non-tribal charitable organization that aims to support Afghans living in the UK and abroad. The Academy was founded in the early 1980s in response to the waves of Afghan refugees who arrived in the UK as a result of political unrest at home. The newcomers desperately needed support: first, with all the practical considerations involved in establishing new lives in an unfamiliar country and language; and later, to maintain connections with their culture and heritage.

Over the years, the Academy has become a vital organization that helps Afghans residing in the UK to achieve a better standard of living. In addition, it aims to fulfill a broader vision of promoting and preserving Afghan identity and heritage, serving as an ambassador of Afghan culture, and showing the UK and the world a different picture of Afghans and Afghanistan than the one that is so often represented. An important part of the Academy’s mission and activities is to promote key shared values such as peace, tolerance, respect, co-existence, freedom of speech and expression, and mutual understanding.

 

Who Runs Afghan Academy International?

Since its inception, Afghan Academy International has been an entirely volunteer-run organization. The organization is managed on a day-to-day basis by a board of trustees, board of directors, and an academic board of advisors. Over the years, many of the most influential Afghan professionals, scholars, and artists living in the UK have joined or supported the Academy. The organization is always looking for more volunteers and contributors. You can learn more about becoming involved with the Academy on its website.

 

What Initiatives Does Afghan Academy International Oversee?

The Academy oversees a broad range of activities—services, projects, and events—for expatriate Afghans throughout the UK.

 

Services

The Academy’s services mainly target Afghans who have recently arrived in the UK and those in need of extra support to integrate into their new communities. Services include:

Nowruz

Image by alisamii | Flickr

24/7 Emergency Helpline—Geared primarily toward Afghan youth and families, but available to anyone in need (including other agencies requiring additional support or services), the 24/7 Emergency Helpline ensures that no one has to deal with a crisis alone.

Advice, information, and counseling—Setting up a new life in a new country can be challenging. The Academy provides advice, information, and counseling sessions to new Afghan arrivals to the UK on all the practical aspects of how to get started.

Senior care—Senior citizens are at serious risk of social isolation. To help prevent this, the Academy offers a variety of services to ensure that these at-risk groups are connected and supported.

Afghan language services—In addition to providing class-based and one-on-one language support classes in both Dari and Pashto to Afghans learning English, the Academy offers interpretation and translation services to communities, businesses, and other institutions dealing with Dari and Pashto speakers.

Country information and expert reports—The Academy’s team of experts and academics works to prepare reports on Afghanistan and related issues for UK clients.

 

Projects

Afghan Academy International’s projects are primarily geared toward promoting and preserving Afghan culture and heritage, as well as helping expatriate Afghans to stay connected to their cultural identity. These projects include:

Afghan Art, Film & Media Foundation—Launched in 2011, this project serves as a platform in support of Afghan art and cinema worldwide. The foundation organizes exhibitions and festivals of Afghan art and film, and it helps emerging Afghan artists connect with scholarships and training opportunities.

Afghan Council of Britain—Established by the Academy in late 2013, this project aims to create more effective communication and cooperation among the range of Afghan community organizations working in the UK. The broad mission of the council is to ensure that the Afghan community as a whole is better served by a network of organizations working efficiently together.

Afghan TV channel—Afghan Television London, the Academy’s independent TV channel, broadcasts educational and cultural programs to Afghanistan and Afghan viewers around the world.

 

Events

The Academy organizes and publicizes events throughout the UK that are of interest and benefit to expatriate Afghans, as well as to other community members with an interest in Afghan culture. Past events have included an annual celebration of Afghan arts, culture, and storytelling; community events in celebration of Nowruz, or New Year; and a discussion of Afghan music held at the British Museum.