What You Need to Know About the Aga Khan Development Network

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is one of the most important philanthropic organizations currently working in Afghanistan. To date, with the support of various donors and partners, AKDN has channeled nearly $750 million into Afghanistan’s rebuilding process.

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Read on for a look at some of the diverse areas of activity that have been supported by these vital contributions.

Education

AKDN works to prioritize all levels of education in Afghanistan, from pre-school and early childhood development through post-secondary learning. Some of the many educational initiatives that AKDN has helped implement in the country include the establishment of more than 200 government and community based pre-school centers in remote and rural areas as well as the corresponding establishment of two Teacher Resource Centers to provide support and training to local early childhood educators.

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Additionally, AKDN established an intervention program for the government of Afghanistan to help increase and expand national capacity to deliver, support, and promote quality education. It also provides scholarships to assist students at the post-secondary level in gaining a quality university or college education.

Health

Providing even basic health care for all of Afghanistan’s citizens has been a challenge in recent decades. With health care facilities having been damaged or destroyed by conflict, to say nothing of a doctor-patient ratio of just two doctors for every 10,000 people, it is extremely difficult for many Afghans to get the care they need. AKDN began work to address this problem in 2002, when the organization launched a program dedicated to building a more effective health care delivery system.

This program has taken a four-tiered approach to care delivery: volunteer community health workers are trained to provide health education and minor treatments; Basic Health Centers, typically established in remote or rural locations, offer essential curative care as well as maternal and child care; Comprehensive Health Centers offer diagnostic, treatment, and referral services as well as emergency maternal care; and Referral Hospitals provide secondary care and other specialized services.

Rural Development

The majority of Afghanistan’s citizens still live in rural areas; however, residents of these areas are often left behind by development activities that concentrate on less isolated and more densely populated regions. AKDN works to support and connect these rural communities through a range of different programs and activities.

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These efforts include: participatory governance programs, which aim to empower local communities to identify their own needs and create and implement their own development projects; programs on agriculture and natural resources management, which move beyond simply distributing agricultural commodities and instead focus on providing farmers with the tools and education they need for a sustainable livelihood; and initiatives to improve access to finance, so that rural communities and families without basic financial services can save for the future and protect their existing assets.

Humanitarian Assistance

Unfortunately, war and conflict are not the only difficulties that affect Afghanistan; the country is highly prone to multiple natural disasters as well. Earthquakes are a frequent occurrence in Afghanistan’s mountainous northern regions. Additionally, landslides often follow earthquakes, and floods are common in the spring due to heavy rains and melting snow.

AKDN works with Focus Humanitarian Assistance, which has been operating in Afghanistan since 1996, to help provide disaster relief efforts and to assist at-risk communities with preventative measures. Specific initiatives in this area include avalanche preparedness, which trains local villages on avalanche safety and establishes weather monitoring posts to gather data needed to predict the likelihood of avalanches striking; the management of emergency stockpiles, which can currently provide food and relief for over 2,000 families in some of Afghanistan’s highest-risk areas; and the creation of community emergency response teams, which help get relief as quickly as possible to areas hit by disaster without having to wait for mobilization efforts from farther away.

Cultural Development

AKDN takes its role in helping conserve and restore Afghanistan’s cultural heritage very seriously. To date, through its Aga Khan Trust for Culture branch, AKDN has restored and rehabilitated dozens of historic public buildings, public open spaces, pedestrian walkways, houses, and monuments in three Afghan cities, including the famous Babur’s Gardens in Kabul.

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Another important cultural initiative recently launched by AKDN is the establishment of two schools of classical Afghan music, one in Kabul and one in Herat. These institutions help revitalize Afghanistan’s rich musical tradition, which is currently in danger of disappearing.

Microfinance

As of 2013, it was estimated that only 9 percent of adult Afghans held an account at a formal financial institution. To address this challenge, AKDN was working to establish microcredit programs in Afghanistan as early as 2002.

In 2004, the organization launched First Microfinance Bank. It was the first of its kind under Afghanistan’s then-newly-developed regulatory structure as well as a pioneering force in connecting underserved Afghans with innovative and flexible microfinance products. These, in turn, help drive vital economic development, particularly in rural areas.

This Is How Wheelchair Basketball Improved Orthopedic Treatment in Afghanistan

A growing sports program is providing people affected by regional conflict in Afghanistan with dignity, confidence, and hope for the future.

Since the first wheelchair basketball tournament was held in 2012, rehabilitators have found that developing organized sports programs for people in wheelchairs can change lives. Leisure activities are not always emphasized in Afghanistan, but therapists are bringing sports into the forefront of treatment.

History of Wheelchair Sports in Afghanistan

wheelchair sportsPeople in wheelchairs in Afghanistan began organizing to play basketball before an official organization existed. In 2009, a new team asked for someone from the United States to teach them how to play, and Jess Markt, a player for the New York Rollin’ Knicks in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, responded to the request. In November of that year, he went to Afghanistan with plans to work with the team for one week.

Markt, who became a paraplegic at age 19 after his spine was severed in a car crash, said the experience in Afghanistan was life-changing. He subsequently deepened his involvement with the new wheelchair basketball team there. He collaborated with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Motivation UK to have basketball wheelchairs sent to Afghanistan and publicize the new sport nationwide. The work became known as the Afghanistan Wheelchair Basketball Project.

“Wheelchair basketball has the ability to remove the distinction of disability,” Markt told the online magazine Folks. “It gives these young men the idea that they can accomplish more than what society thinks they can.”

Therapy through Leisure

Since 2011, Markt has worked with Alberto Cairo, who leads the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) orthopedic program in Afghanistan, to integrate wheelchair basketball and therapy for people who have lost limbs or can no longer use limbs due to injury. Cairo, a physical therapist from Italy, helps people learn to use prosthetic limbs or re-use their limbs.

Cairo recently told NPR that in Afghanistan, people with disabilities are often fiercely protected by their families. While that means families are vigilant about caring for loved ones with disabilities, they may shield them from developing outside hobbies careers, or friendships. For many, developing skills on the basketball court has provided them with new purpose that spills into other parts of their lives. Many look forward to basketball practice, which provides fun and an otherwise unheard-of opportunity to play a sport.

Markt described one Afghan man who was injured as a child in the war and had “no active life” as an adult because his family did not expect him to contribute. At age 29, the man began playing wheelchair basketball and eventually joined the national team.

Wheelchair basketball helped the man envision a new path for himself. He took out a microloan through a Red Cross program and opened an automotive parts and repair business. He is now a key member of his community, and he returned his relief card that entitled him to a monthly food allocation because of his disability. He stated he no longer needed it because he had a job.

This man is not alone. Markt said that wheelchair basketball has given many players the confidence to start businesses or find jobs.

Taking on the World

wheelchair sportsThe ICRC organized the first wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan in 2012, an event that Cairo said at the time would have been “unimaginable” before. Cairo noted that the players had been transformed physically and psychologically, becoming “much stronger in many ways.”

Now, more than 500 people now play recreational basketball in seven Red Cross rehabilitation centers across Afghanistan. Players compete in tournaments across the country, and the national teams have traveled to other countries such as Japan to compete and take part in international wheelchair basketball training. The national teams are hoping to compete in the Paralympics, even though they haven’t won any international tournaments yet.

In the 25 years that Cairo has worked in Afghanistan, he has hired several hundred patients to assist in ICRC’s rehabilitation centers. Cairo has helped more than 100,000 people, including more than 150 patients who have learned to play wheelchair basketball.

The Future of Rehab

Cairo and Markt continue to partner to advance rehabilitation efforts for citizens of Afghanistan. They recently toured the United States to talk about their work, including the latest technology in their field and their expanding work in other countries in the developing world.

Innovations are being made in wheelchair design, spinal cord regeneration, and prosthetics. Additionally, the ICRC is still building centers around the world to meet a “relentless” demand for prosthetics, treatment, and rehabilitation.

In Afghanistan, ICRC centers treat thousands of patients each year while also addressing issues with security and on-going conflict. Even with these challenges, ICRC’s innovations, including its home-based therapy and wheelchair basketball, are transforming lives across Afghanistan.

Can NEI Solve the Problem of Malnutrition in Afghanistan?

mantoo foodAccording to research from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), malnutrition is a major problem in Afghanistan. Approximately one-third of the country’s population isn’t getting enough calories on a daily basis, and about 20% of Afghans aren’t getting enough protein. The figures for malnutrition in children are even more troubling: more than 40% of Afghan children under five years old are stunted (or smaller than the average for their age), which is one of the world’s highest rates of childhood stunting. In addition, 10% of Afghan children are acutely malnourished, and thousands of children die every year because they don’t have access to adequate food and nutrition.

Childhood malnutrition naturally has serious consequences for physical development, but it can also lead to problems with cognitive development and educational achievement. Without the nutrients needed for healthy brain development and functioning, many malnourished children struggle with learning issues throughout their lives, even into adulthood. This is a particular challenge for a country like Afghanistan, which is working hard to increase literacy rates and education levels as part of its post-conflict rebuilding process.

With child health experts calling for greater nutritional investment in Afghanistan, a number of NGOs are stepping in to help tackle malnutrition and the underlying causes of Afghanistan’s food insecurity. Nutrition & Education International (NEI) is one such example: a non-profit organization that is working to promote soybean cultivation and nourishment in Afghanistan in association with local government agencies, universities, and the WFP. Read on to learn more about NEI’s work and its history in Afghanistan.

What is NEI?

NEI logoNEI is a non-profit organization on a mission to eradicate malnutrition in Afghanistan with a surprising weapon: soybeans.

Containing nine essential amino acids, soybeans are a rich source of protein and other nutrients, making them excellent fighters against malnutrition, which is essentially synonymous with protein deficiency. In addition, soybeans are a cost-effective crop to grow, and so are relatively easy to incorporate into Afghanistan’s agricultural practices.

NEI’s primary objective is to help Afghanistan establish a self-sustaining soybean industry by developing a full soybean value chain. The idea is that by introducing seed multiplication, soybean cultivation and processing, and soy market development, NEI can help poor families improve both their nutrition and their economic circumstances. According to NEI’s president, Steven Kwon, a functioning soy economy is one of the most practical remedies to address Afghanistan’s ongoing struggle with chronic malnutrition.

A history of NEI in Afghanistan

2003—Steven Kwon makes his first visit to Afghanistan. Soon after, he develops the soy nutrition initiative and establishes Nutrition & Education International as a non-profit NGO.

2004—Six varieties of non-GMO soybeans are successfully cultivated and tested in Afghanistan’s Balkh province.

2005—Following the successful testing of NEI’s soy program in 12 different Afghan provinces, the government of Afghanistan adopts the program as a national project.

2006—For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, 1,000 tons of soybeans are produced through the efforts of more than 2,000 Afghan farmers across nine provinces. In addition, two soy milk processing facilities are established, and NEI begins its humanitarian soy milk distribution program, which delivers nutrition-rich soy milk to 3,000 high-risk families.

2007—Soybean production expands; more than 3,000 farmers across 15 provinces are now cultivating soybeans.

2008—Three more soy milk processing facilities are established, as is a containerized soy flour factory.

2009—Soybean production expands beyond agricultural operations to include home and community gardens, thus helping individual families and small communities supplement their protein intake independently. NEI’s soy milk distribution program is now reaching 5,000 families, and a newly initiated winter soy nutrition campaign provides 100 tons of soybeans and soy flour to 2,500 high-risk families in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

2010—NEI purchases and distributes 100 metric tons of soybean seeds to farmers in 21 provinces; by this time, Afghan farmers are producing enough soybeans to sustain their own families. Afghanistan’s first-ever soy flour factory is built in Kabul with a capacity of 300 metric tons. NEI also increases its efforts to create a soy market in the country by launching its business arm, Soybean Nutrition Services Afghanistan (SNSA), and concentrates on providing seed resources, training farmers, and further developing the market for soy. A grant from the government of Japan enables NEI to pursue these aims.

2011—Three more soy flour factories are built, and NEI receives a second grant for its soybean production project from the Japanese government.

2012—NEI enters into a partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme to promote soybean cultivation in 100 districts across 20 provinces. More than 6,000 new farmers are trained in soybean cultivation, and 2,000 metric tons of soybeans are produced.

2013—NEI celebrates a decade of work in Afghanistan, and commits to a further 10 years of developing Afghanistan’s soybean industry in order to eradicate malnutrition.

2014—Two more soy processing facilities are established. NEI receives a grant for its work from the Republic of Korea.

2015—NEI’s founder meets formally with the President of Afghanistan to discuss the future of Afghanistan’s soybean industry.

2016—Construction on a sterilized soy milk factory is completed. 17,000 new soybean farmers are trained in 31 provinces, and soybean production reaches a record high of 6,000 metric tons.