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.

8 Things to Know About One of Afghanistan’s Biggest Holidays

Earlier this summer, during the first week of June, Muslims all around the world gathered together to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. In Afghanistan, as in most other countries with significant Muslim populations, Eid al-Fitr is one of the most important traditional holidays, and it is welcomed with great enthusiasm by Afghans all across the country. Read on for a look at eight interesting facts that you might not know about Eid al-Fitr in Afghanistan.

1. It celebrates the end of a long fast.

One of Islam’s most sacred traditions, Ramadan is a period of ritual fasting that honors the month when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. During Ramadan, most Muslims do not eat (or drink) from dawn until dusk, and they may also abstain from activities like smoking or taking medications. Eid al-Fitr is the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, and consequently, the end of fasting. Appropriately enough, therefore, the literal translation of Eid al-Fitr is “Festival of the Breaking of the Fast” or “Feast of Fast-Breaking.”

breaking fast

2. It begins with the sighting of the new moon.

Like Ramadan, the start of Eid al-Fitr is determined by the date and time that the new moon is first sighted. This means that most of the time Muslims must wait until the night before Eid to verify the exact timing of the festival. Many Muslim countries depend on local moon sighters to catch the first glimpse of the new moon; when the sighting has been confirmed, the beginning of Eid is declared at mosques and on television and radio stations. For uniformity, some Muslim regions choose to celebrate Eid when the new moon appears over the holy site of Mecca, rather than over their own location.

3. It is held on different (Gregorian) dates every year.

The Gregorian calendar, in use in many parts of the world, is based on the solar cycle, whereas the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which means that months start and end with each new moon. Therefore, because lunar months are slightly shorter than solar months, Eid al-Fitr always arrives about 10 days earlier than it did the previous (Gregorian) year.

4. It usually lasts for at least three days.

The festival of Eid al-Fitr and its associated celebrations traditionally last for a three-day period. In many countries, including Afghanistan, all three days are observed as national holidays. However, depending on where Eid al-Fitr falls during the week, the festivities can sometimes last longer. For example, if the three days of Eid occur mid-week, it’s not uncommon for the celebrations to last all the way through the weekend.

5. Cleanliness and grooming are an important part of Eid al-Fitr.

On the first morning of Eid al-Fitr, Muslims begin the day with a ritual called “ghusl,” a ceremonial cleansing of the body. Then, they will often dress in new clothes—some people wear traditional dress from their country or region, while others choose contemporary clothing. In some areas, women will decorate their hands with intricate henna designs.

6. The festival begins with prayers.

After getting dressed, Muslims gather together with their families and communities for morning prayers. These prayers are usually followed by a special sermon and a prayer known as the Salat al-Eid. The prayers are often held at local mosques or in large halls, but in many countries, people also gather for prayers outdoors. After prayers, the rest of the day is spent visiting and celebrating with family, friends, and neighbors. In some countries, people also visit cemeteries to offer their respects to late family members.

Prayer
Image by DVIDSHUB | Flickr

7. Special dishes and meals are prepared.

Since Eid al-Fitr is a festival that marks the end of a month of fasting, it’s not surprising that food plays a major role in the celebrations. (In fact, voluntary fasting is actually not allowed on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, as Muslims are instead encouraged to feast and celebrate the conclusion of a month of fasting and worship.) Each country has different traditional foods that are prepared before Eid begins or on the morning of the first day; many of these foods are sweets or desserts, but savory dishes are also important. In Afghanistan, a dish traditionally prepared and eaten at Eid is bolani, a type of flatbread stuffed with different fillings like spinach, lentils, potatoes, or pumpkin.

8. Gifts are given.

To celebrate the end of a month of sacrifice and abstinence, Muslims embrace abundance during Eid al-Fitr. This means not only abundant food, but gifts as well. The most common gift at Eid is money, but flowers or goods for the home may also be given. Known as “Eidi,” gifts are most often given to children, who are a special focus during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations.

Spotlight on the Bayat Foundation’s New Scholarship Program

Education has always been a top priority for the Bayat Foundation. As Afghanistan’s largest private philanthropic organization, the Bayat Foundation is keenly aware of the fact that years of conflict and instability have prevented many Afghans from pursuing any kind of formal education. As a result, the country is experiencing a serious education and skills gap that is limiting its ability to rebuild and move forward into the 21st century.

Bayat Foundation

Like many other charitable organizations, the Bayat Foundation is deeply committed to reducing this education gap. Over the years, the Foundation has launched and supported a wide variety of educational initiatives, many aimed at Afghanistan’s most vulnerable and underserved populations. The Foundation has also worked to build a legacy of educational redevelopment through a long-term partnership with the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), the country’s leading private nonprofit university. Recently, the Foundation announced the creation of the Bayat Scholars Program, a new scholarship initiative that will provide key educational opportunities for Afghan youth at AUAF. Read on to learn more.

Building the next generation of IT professionals

The aim of the Bayat Scholars Program is to build and develop a new generation of skilled and experienced Afghan IT professionals. Many organizations, including the Bayat Foundation, agree that a vibrant and innovative tech sector will be a vital element of Afghanistan’s rebuilding process. But before young and aspiring entrepreneurs can revitalize the country’s tech scene, they need the opportunity to gain critical skills and knowledge in their field—the kind of opportunity that a first-class post-secondary institution like AUAF is well placed to provide.

Through the Bayat Scholars Program, 15 scholarships will be awarded each year to qualified candidates, allowing them to pursue a bachelor’s degree at AUAF in either information communication technology or computer science. To be eligible for a scholarship, candidates must be Afghan citizens with a high school diploma, a strong academic record, and excellent English skills. In addition, candidates must be committed to using the opportunity of the scholarship program to help build a better future not only for themselves but for Afghanistan. Ultimately, the aim of the Bayat Scholars Program is to help create and support an exceptional Afghan-based technology sector that will drive economic growth and create job opportunities for the entire country.

computer

A thriving partnership

The Bayat Scholars Program is the latest step forward on the journey that the Bayat Foundation and AUAF have taken together over the years. The Bayat Foundation has been one of AUAF’s biggest supporters from the university’s early days, backing many of its programs and initiatives.

Perhaps the largest and most impressive testament to the thriving partnership between the Bayat Foundation and AUAF is the Bayat Institute of Technology (BIT), a 32,000-square-foot science and technology teaching and research center that was completed and opened in 2018. Located at the heart of AUAF’s flagship campus in Kabul, BIT offers students, faculty, and visiting scholars and researchers a host of world-class amenities, including media and technology labs, IT labs, fully equipped lecture halls, a rooftop leisure center, and two prayer halls. Developed and built by Afghans, the facility is a distinguished example of Afghan skill, craftsmanship, and determination, as well as an important hub for technological education and innovation in Afghanistan.

More about the American University of Afghanistan

The only private, nonprofit, nonpartisan, and coeducational university in Afghanistan, AUAF is dedicated to providing its students with the quality education they need to help meet the needs of their country and become future leaders in their communities and on the world stage.

AUAF first opened its doors in 2006, and since that time, it has grown into one of Afghanistan’s premier educational institutions, with 29 Fulbright Scholars among its graduates as well as ongoing partnerships with such prestigious international universities as Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of California network. The following are some of the most important highlights of AUAF’s history:

2002—Minister of Higher Education Dr. Sharif Fayez proposes that Afghanistan establishes its first independent university. In a public speech, President Hamid Karzai emphasizes how important education is to Afghanistan’s future.

2003—The Afghanistan High Commission for Private Investments offers two large tracts of land in southwest Kabul, under a 99-year lease, for the development of a private university. To receive these leases, the American University of Afghanistan is chartered as a nonprofit philanthropic organization in Delaware.

2004—Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education grants AUAF a charter under the Afghan Constitution and the Civil Code. A feasibility study is initiated to identify an institutional framework for the new university.

2005—Laura Bush, the US First Lady, visits the site of the new university and announces that the US will provide financial support for its launch.

2006—AUAF welcomes its first cohort of 53 students.

2007—AUAF develops and implements its first strategic vision and academic plans.

2009—Dr. C. Michael Smith is appointed AUAF’s president by the board of trustees. A grant from the US allows the university to establish an e-learning facility so that students can benefit from collaborations with institutions in other regions.

2010—Enrollment reaches 550 students, and a number of new programs, including bachelor’s degrees in computer science and business administration, are approved by the board of trustees.

2011—AUAF celebrates its first convocation.

2018—AUAF is granted accreditation status from the Ministry of Higher Education.