Spotlight on the Afghanistan Project from the Library of Congress

Library of Congress

In 2016, the US Library of Congress celebrated the completion of one of its most significant recent initiatives: the Afghanistan Project. Unfolding over a period of three years, the Afghanistan Project undertook to digitize the library’s various collections relating to Afghanistan, which together comprised thousands of historical, cultural, and scholarly materials spanning more than six centuries. The result is a valuable digital archive that the whole world can enjoy and benefit from. Read on to learn more about this unique project.

Why was the Afghanistan Project launched?

The Library of Congress is home to a huge range of material from and about Afghanistan, including books, manuscripts, photographs, newspapers, maps, and other historically significant items. Much of this material can no longer be found in Afghanistan itself—wars and natural disasters have unfortunately destroyed many treasures from Afghanistan’s cultural heritage—and some unique items and documents don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

The Afghanistan Project was launched to ensure that contemporary Afghans would have access to these important materials that lie at the very heart of Afghan national identity. As one curator of the Afghanistan Project described in an article published by McClatchy DC, national identity is rooted in a country’s cultural history and stories, so when a country loses a record of its past, it also loses a sense of who it is. By restoring important digitized cultural material to Afghanistan—in a process that has become known as “virtual repatriation”—the Afghanistan Project attempts to help restore this vital sense of cultural identity and knowledge.

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What are some examples of materials from the Afghanistan Project?

A wide variety of material was digitized during the Afghanistan Project, including:

Lithographs—Born in 1780, the British artist and lithographer James Atkinson spent much of his life in India and several years exploring Afghanistan. His book Sketches in Afghanistan (digitized under the Afghanistan Project) is a series of 25 beautiful lithographs based on drawings that Atkinson made of Kabul’s cityscape, mountain scenery in Afghanistan’s remote regions, and significant events from the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Contemporary magazines—The Afghanistan Project digitized an extensive collection of issues of Zhvandūn (or “Life” in English), one of the most popular 20th century magazines in Afghanistan. Launched in May 1949, the progressive magazine published articles in Persian and Pashto on a wide variety of subjects, including literature, history, education, entertainment, and fashion. Publication of Zhvandūn stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s; today, these magazines provide a fascinating and important record of a vanished society.

Illuminated manuscripts—The digitized archive of the Afghanistan Project includes a beautifully preserved illuminated manuscript from the renowned calligrapher Mir Ali Heravi, who was active in the city of Herat in the 16th century. The manuscript features Persian verses praying for the patron’s well-being and prosperity, surrounded by a decorative motif of flowers and vines in blue and gold.

What will happen to the digitized materials?

The digitized collection of the Afghanistan Project, which contains more than 163,000 pages of documents on two hard drives, was presented to two Afghan officials—Minister of Information and Culture Abdul Bari Jahani, and the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University’s executive director Abdul Wahid Wafa—during a special ceremony in September 2016 at the Library of Congress. In total, 10 Afghan institutions received complete sets of the collection to use in their own digital libraries and online repositories: these institutions include the National Library of Afghanistan, the National Archive of Afghanistan, and a number of universities. In addition, the digitized material from the Afghanistan Project is now available to the public through the online World Digital Library, which is a huge digital archive of documents of cultural significance from all over the world.

Who’s behind the Afghanistan Project?

The Afghanistan Project was led by the Library of Congress and financed by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library. Located in Washington, DC, the library offers on-site and online access to the creative record of the United States, as well as to an extensive collection of international materials. The library is also the home of the US Copyright Office and serves as the main research arm of the US Congress.

Created by Andrew Carnegie in 1911, the Carnegie Corporation of New York promotes the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding. In particular, the corporation’s work focuses on issues that Andrew Carnegie deemed to be of vital importance, such as international peace, democracy, and the advancement of knowledge and education.

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What’s next for the Afghanistan Project?

As a result of its success, the Afghanistan Project could serve as a useful blueprint for how to help preserve the history and heritage of other nations whose cultural legacy is under threat from war and conflict. At present, for example, the international cultural heritage community is especially concerned about Syria and Iraq; adopting the Afghanistan Project model could help solve some of the challenges associated with cultural preservation in these countries.

Spotlight on Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization

As Afghanistan works to rebuild after decades of unrest, it will have many challenges to face in the future. Fortunately, the country has access to an invaluable resource that will help it meet those challenges head on: its youth.

In Afghanistan, people under the age of 25 comprise nearly two-thirds of the country’s total population, according to the United Nations Population Fund. And despite—or perhaps because of—the difficult circumstances into which they were born, these youth are proving to be some of the most resilient, resourceful, and determined people on the planet.

As an example of what Afghanistan’s youth can and do achieve when they decide to take their future into their own hands, we should look no further than Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization. One of many Afghan organizations launched and led by young people, this Kabul-based NGO has grown from a movement of young activists in a single province to a country-wide network of passionate young change agents. Read on to learn more about the organization and how it is working to make the world a better place for all Afghans.

What is Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization, and how does it work?

Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization

Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization (ANGO) is a grassroots network that works across Afghanistan to encourage and inspire young people to take an active role in building a better future for themselves and their country. Through long-lasting programs and initiatives that are specifically tailored to youth, ANGO strives to mobilize and empower young people, encourage tolerance and acceptance, and create an engaged and hopeful young generation that is prepared to lead Afghanistan toward a peaceful and prosperous future.

What are ANGO’s beliefs?

A set of core beliefs and principles underlie all of ANGO’s work and activities. They include the following:

Nurturing hope—One perpetual consequence of unrest is a sense of hopelessness among individuals and communities. A desire to revive this lost hope is at the heart of ANGO’s work.

Empowerment—Empowering Afghanistan’s young people is a critical step in creating a future that will inspire pride among all Afghans.

Inclusiveness—A just society is one that listens to and brings together all of its people from all circumstances and walks of life.

Critical awareness—Information and resources are essential tools for analyzing and resolving issues in a peaceful way.

Accountability—ANGO holds itself accountable to its partners and beneficiaries, striving to ensure that projects are carried out to the highest professional standards.

What are the focus areas of ANGO?

ANGO’s activities and programs fall into four key focus areas, each of which is an important reflection of the organization’s beliefs as described above. These focus areas include the following:

Civic engagement and advocacy—ANGO’s civic engagement and advocacy unit works to engage both youth and adults in civic and volunteer programs and events. Engagement in public discourse is a key element of this focus area. By speaking with and to others about the issues that matter to them, young people will learn how to take ownership of them and effect change in a more impactful way.

Citizen journalism—There are many untold stories in Afghanistan, and ANGO is tapping into the power of citizen journalism to shine a light on those hidden tales. ANGO seeks to provide Afghan youth with the media and communications tools and skills that they need to express themselves, share their views and grievances, and make important contributions to public discourse around future development and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Social inclusion—Afghanistan is home to many different groups of people. ANGO’s social inclusion initiatives help people of diverse backgrounds come together, find common ground, and develop a foundation for long-lasting tolerance and peace.

Capacity building—Many Afghan youth have a desire and drive to change things, but need help when it comes to developing the skills and knowledge required for the work. ANGO’s capacity-building activities help to address this gap, providing training in key areas such as leadership, media literacy, civil rights and responsibilities, and the use of information technology.

What kinds of projects does ANGO undertake?

Some examples of specific projects that ANGO undertakes include:

Society of Youth—ANGO maintains Afghanistan’s largest network of volunteers and young leaders, more than 170 people strong. These volunteers take on a wide range of civic engagement projects that include clothing drives, emergency aid support, and tree planting.

Afghan Voices—Established in 2010, Afghan Voices offers key media skills training to the country’s young people. Alumni from the Afghan Voices program have produced media work for organizations such as Global Fund and National Geographic, and have received national and international awards for media, such as documentary films.

60 Second Film Festival—Centered on the theme of peaceful coexistence, the 60 Second Film Festival offers an important platform through which aspiring filmmakers and engaged audiences can come together to share ideas and spark dialogue.

Spotlight on the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

Aga Khan Agency

Through its various branches and agencies, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is responsible for a wide range of development projects and initiatives in Afghanistan, from the restoration of culturally significant public spaces to the creation of improved health care facilities and resources. Today, we take a look at one of the AKDN’s agencies, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH), which is responsible for helping Afghanistan and its people to cope with one of the most devastating challenges that they face: natural disasters.

How Afghanistan Is Affected by Natural Disasters

Due to its geographic location, years of environmental degradation, and a number of other factors, Afghanistan is highly susceptible to severe and recurring natural hazards and disasters. Given that Afghanistan is located in a high seismic activity zone, earthquakes are frequent, particularly in the northern and northwestern parts of the country. Since 2000, about nine major earthquakes have occurred. Earthquakes of all sizes often trigger landslides, which can have a destructive impact. In the spring, melting snow and heavy rains commonly cause flooding all over the country, and the effect of these floods can be particularly severe when they are preceded by periods of drought.

The devastation caused by these high rates of natural disasters place a huge burden on Afghan citizens, who struggle to stay resilient in the face of such emergencies due to factors such as severe poverty and poor infrastructure. According to data from the World Bank, natural hazards and disasters in Afghanistan have affected 9 million people and caused more than 20,000 fatalities since 1980, and those figures are only expected to rise given the increasing threat of climate change and its anticipated impact on natural disasters.

An Overview of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

AKAH, which was previously known as Focus Humanitarian Assistance, is one of the most important entities dedicated to resilience in the face of natural disasters in Afghanistan. AKAH engages with Afghan communities, primarily those in remote mountainous areas and rural regions, to build and support their capacity to cope with natural disasters and other complex emergencies.

AKAH’s broad approach focuses on predicting where and how natural disasters and emergencies could impact homes, communities, and livelihoods; identifying the structural and non-structural interventions that could help prevent or mitigate these disasters; and supporting communities and local and national governments to reduce their vulnerability to risk.

Focus Areas of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

In order to help Afghans better prepare for and cope with the effects of natural disasters and emergencies, AKAH operates a range of programs and initiatives across several different focus areas. They include the following:

Disaster Risk Reduction – For over a decade, AKAH has operated a disaster risk reduction (DRR) and emergency preparedness program in Afghanistan’s mountainous communities. The program’s model consists of community-based DRR activities; safety initiatives for public facilities such as schools and hospitals; capacity building efforts for local governments; and national advocacy for wide-ranging DRR policies and programs. One of the most important elements of the program is the communities that play a hands-on role in their own protection and preparedness. For example, community members conduct a Hazard Vulnerability Risk Assessment to identify evacuation routes and safe refuges, as well as to establish their own community-based emergency response teams.

Capacity Building – Providing support to communities in creating and maintaining community-based emergency response teams (CERTs) is one of AKAH’s most important capacity-building initiatives. Through this program, AKAH helps to ensure that CERTs are established in the communities that need them most and that these teams are properly equipped and trained. For example, CERTs receive AKAH-supported training in areas such as first aid, search and rescue, health and hygiene, communication and coordination, and early warning systems.

Community-Based Interventions – AKAH works directly in areas that are most likely to be affected by natural disasters in order to help these high-risk communities mitigate hazards and respond effectively when necessary. Some of the particular interventions that AKAH has carried out over the years include: the creation of village disaster management plans for over 400 villages; more than 100 small-scale structural risk mitigation projects, which includes clearing flow channels of debris and terracing against avalanches; the development of school disaster management committees in schools, as well as school seismic retrofitting projects in five schools; and the development of three community-based flood early warning systems in riverside areas.

External Partnerships – In order for a response to natural disasters to be most effective, it’s important to have strong communication and coordination among the various entities involved in relief efforts. AKAH helps to achieve this by building strong external partnerships with other programs, agencies, and government ministries, as well as by taking a central role in disaster management coordination. AKAH is one of the primary response institutions in Afghanistan’s Provincial Disaster Management Committee; an active member of Afghanistan’s Disaster Risk Reduction platform; a co-chair of the Disaster Risk Reduction Clusters for Food Security and Agriculture; and a partner of many other institutions, including Afghanaid, Save the Children, the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, and a variety of United Nations agencies.