What Is the World Food Programme Doing in Afghanistan?

With an engaged government and population, strong international support, and an increasingly stable social and political climate, Afghanistan has the potential to make significant progress toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are the 17 goals that were adopted by all UN member states in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

However, some SDGs are proving more challenging to address than others. These include SDG 2, which concerns Zero Hunger and improved nutrition. Despite recent advances, food insecurity is on the rise in Afghanistan. It has been exacerbated by the fact that more than half the country’s population lives below the poverty line.

Roughly 12.5 million people in Afghanistan have been identified as severely food insecure. Additionally, undernutrition is disproportionately affecting a number of groups including children, women, displaced people, and people with disabilities.

One of the many organizations working to improve food security in Afghanistan is the World Food Programme (WFP). Present in Afghanistan since 1963, WFP works across a broad range of focus areas to address hunger in Afghanistan and the underlying issues that contribute to it. Read on to learn more about the World Food Programme and its work and activities in Afghanistan.

What is the World Food Programme?

World Food Programme

WFP is the world’s leading humanitarian organization working to save and change lives through food assistance and nutrition improvement. It was established in 1961 at the behest of then-US president Dwight Eisenhower and enshrined as a fully-fledged UN programme in 1965.

WFP has a particular focus on emergency assistance, relief and rehabilitation efforts, development aid, and special operations. It distributes more than 15 billion food rations every year. In addition, it conducts two-thirds of its work in conflict-affected countries. The organization has an international staff of over 17,000 people and is funded entirely by voluntary donations.

To achieve its objectives, WFP works closely with its two sister organizations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. It also partners with over 1,000 local and international NGOs. WFP’s work in Afghanistan spans the following key focus areas:

Emergency response

Every year in Afghanistan, roughly 250,000 people are affected by natural disasters such as floods, droughts, landslides, and earthquakes. In some years, this figure is much higher. In 2018, for example, Afghanistan experienced its worst drought in over a decade, which affected some 3 million people around the country.

children in afghanistan
Image by United Nations Photo | Flickr

WFP helps to mitigate the impact of these disasters by providing unconditional, fortified, and nutritionally-balanced food assistance to those most in need. Similar food assistance is also provided to people displaced by conflict as well as refugees and people affected by food insecurity on a seasonal basis.

Resilience building

Resilient communities and populations have a stronger ability to reduce their risk of disasters and to mitigate the impact of any disasters that do occur. This is an important foundation for achieving food security. WFP helps Afghan communities build resilience by contributing to projects such as road and canal construction or rehabilitation, reforestation, the construction of flood protection walls, and vocational training.

Nutrition

Proper nutrition means different things for different groups of people, particularly babies and children. WFP works to address the critical problems of undernutrition and stunting in young Afghan children by providing nutritional support that is specially tailored for different ages, genders, and vulnerabilities.

In 2018, for example, WFP helped prevent or treat close to 500,000 cases of malnutrition in children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. WFP also works closely with UNICEF and the World Health Organization to address the lifelong consequences that poor nutrition can have on developing children.

Food systems

A strong and robust national food system can help Afghanistan distribute food more efficiently and address the geographic imbalances that exacerbate food security. In cooperation with the government of Afghanistan and various commercial partners, WFP supports smallholder farmers, builds local milling and fortification capacity, and strengthens value chains and food safety measures around the country. This helps all Afghans access nutritious food at affordable prices.

cereals, grains

Advocacy for Zero Hunger

Efforts to address hunger and food insecurity happen on the ground with the people most affected. However, they also need to happen nationally at the policy level if significant progress is to be made.

WFP plays an important role in helping Afghan government officials and their partners to focus on Zero Hunger as a development priority, and to create and implement a coherent Zero Hunger policy that includes capacity strengthening, advocacy, public awareness, and research efforts. Local ownership and buy-in is furthered by the creation of Food Security and Nutrition committees at the province level.

Capacity strengthening

WFP is committed to efforts that enhance the ability of both the government of Afghanistan and the broader humanitarian and development community to effectively respond to the needs of affected populations. Specific actions in this focus area include providing assistance with things like information and communication technology, facilities and information management, and supply chain oversight and management.

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.

Image by Doctor Yuri | Flickr

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.

library of congress

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.

5 Things You Need to Know about the Abu’l Fazl Shrine

If you walk through the bustling bazaar in the recently restored Kabul neighborhood of Murad Khani—whether in person or online via the amazing Preserving Afghan Heritage platform on Google Arts & Culture—you’ll soon spot a distinctive blue minaret rising above the other buildings. This is the Abu’l Fazl Shrine, a beloved Murad Khani landmark and an important place of worship for Shia Muslims. Read on for a look at five fascinating facts about this unique site.

1. The shrine is named for a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

The shrine takes its name from Abbas Abu’l Fazl, an important historical figure who was the son of Ali, the fourth Muslim caliph. A cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali became caliph in 656 and reigned until his assassination in 661. This period, one of the most tumultuous in Muslim history, eventually led to the splitting of Islam into two main sects: Sunnis and Shias. Shia Muslims, who were known as the “party of Ali” in early Islamic history, believed that Ali and his descendants were the rightful leaders of the Islamic community. However, after Ali’s assassination, his main rival, Muawiya, became caliph. When Muawiya’s son Yazid succeeded his father in 680, Ali’s sons, including Hussein, refused to accept the legitimacy of the new caliph, thus creating a division between the two factions.

2. The shrine commemorates a critical event in Muslim history.

The struggle between Ali’s sons and the supporters of Yazid over the question of who should hold leadership in the Islamic community eventually led to one of the most pivotal events in Muslim history: the massacre at Karbala, which took place in 680, the same year that Yazid became caliph. Stories about the event vary, but most accounts agree that Hussein, who was on his way to a city in what is now modern-day Iraq with a fairly small retinue, was set upon near the city of Karbala by Yazid’s much larger army. This army massacred Hussein’s entire party, including his half-brother Abu’l Fazl, and publicly executed Hussein—the shrine of Abu’l Fazl was built in commemoration of the brothers’ deaths. This devastating event permanently cemented the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims and gave rise to the longstanding feelings of betrayal and martyrdom that still persist in the Shia community. (Today, about 15 percent of the global Muslim population is comprised of Shia Muslims.)

3. Many pilgrims visit the shrine during the religious festival of Ashura.

While people worship at the Abu’l Fazl shrine all year round, the shrine sees the largest number of visiting pilgrims during the religious festival of Ashura. An important day for all Muslims, but especially for Shia Muslims, Ashura takes place on the 10th day of Muharram, which is the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

For Shia Muslims, Ashura is a commemoration of the massacre at Karbala, and of the martyrdom of Hussein, in particular. The day itself is marked by prayers, fasting, and many mourning rituals, processions, and passion plays that re-enact Hussein’s death. Some Shias emulate Hussein’s suffering through acts of self-flagellation or bloodletting, although this is increasingly discouraged by some contemporary Shia leaders, who instead urge worshippers to donate blood in recognition of Hussein’s sacrifice.

4. The shrine is important to the Murad Khani community for other reasons.

In addition to being the most sacred site of worship for Shia Muslims in Kabul, the Abu’l Fazl shrine plays an important role in the everyday lives of the residents of Murad Khani. Many people who live in the neighborhood believe that their residence there is intrinsically linked to the continuing health of the shrine and that their lives receive the blessing of the shrine’s power. On a more practical level, the shrine has given rise over the years to a thriving local economy—after the construction of the shrine, a sprawling bazaar sprang up to take advantage of the business brought to the area by the large numbers of visiting pilgrims.

5. The shrine was once saved from destruction by a dream.

The importance of the Abu’l Fazl shrine hasn’t always been recognized, however. According to a local anecdote as described in the 2015 book Religion and Urbanism: Reconceptualizing Sustainable Cities for South Asia, during the 1933-1973 reign of King Zahir Shah, urban planners wanted to destroy the shrine to accommodate a paved road directly through the Murad Khani neighborhood. Fortunately, the king changed his mind after a holy man visited him in his dreams and warned him not to demolish the shrine. The very next morning, the king visited the site and told workers to leave the shrine alone. Community elders often tell this story to illustrate the power the shrine is believed to have, as well the blessings it is said to bring to the neighborhood.