Afghanistan Posts

Trust is key to a Safer, More Compassionate World

Women of the Safe More Compassionate World - Afghanistan

The turmoil this week on Wall Street is a stark reminder that trust is the glue that holds together our society. Credit markets didn’t just dry up by themselves – banks first had to stop trusting each other. And they did so for good reason – banks were trying to hide their losses from bad loans. And millions of bad loans didn’t just fall out of the sky – consumers who trusted banks to offer them a loan they could afford were misled. Now there isn’t even enough trust in the system for people to trust politicians to fix the mess.

For me, this trust issue extends to America’s role in the world. How much do we trust our government to transform situations that breed terrorism? Though I respect the efforts of soldiers who try their best to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have never trusted men with guns to transform a society. The world looks very different when you’re holding the gun. Many solutions of the sort needed to battle the poverty and injustice that erupts into strife around the globe require an insider’s perspective. Luckily, GlobalGiving has found some of those insiders and helped them reach out directly to individuals, like you.

Sakena YacoobiRecently, I had the rare privilege of meeting Sakena Yacoobi. She is an Afghan doctor who founded half-a-dozen programs to empower the poor, especially women, in Afghanistan. Since 2002, she’s raised $125,000 through mom&pop philanthrophists and has put 350,000 girls into schools with that money, among other things.

In our meeting, Sakena spoke about the Taliban.

“The Taliban are not Muslims. There is nothing in the Koran to justify their rules,” she said. As a devout Muslim (fasting for Ramadan this month), Sakena was the first I’d heard say this but I suspect many other Muslims share her opinion. She didn’t hold her tongue about America either. “If you want democracy for us,” she said, “then you should want education. But you don’t want to spend money for it.”

She’s right. She is keeping an Afghan girl in school for few dollars a month, while our government can barely maintain order in Afghanistan spending $2.3 billion a month. (that is $2,300,000,000 a month!)

Starting in October of 2008, Yacoobi is getting some help. Several families of 9-11 victims have banded together and started a fund, the “Safer, More Compassionate World Fund.” This fund matches donations to many of the projects that work in terrorism hot spots to transform the conditions that are enabling extremists like Al Qaeda to attract new recruits.

Terrorists are not irrational homicidal maniacs. They are real people who find themselves in the worst places on earth, choosing between several bad options. Sakena herself said, “I see the people in the villages. To buy one bag of flour now costs them more than a month’s salary, and that only lasts two-weeks for a family of five. Then the Taliban comes in one day and flashes $100 or $200 dollars in front of them. You see what happens.”

Afghanis struggling to afford wheat

According to Yacoobi, only two of every one-hundred Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are Afghanis. The other 98 are from Sudan, Chechnya, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere – hired hands from desperate lands. Many now are former “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” meaning that our “surge” didn’t end a war, it simply moved the battlefield.

The 9-11 families that started this Safer, More Compassionate World Fund offer a brighter vision: Our pennies pool into opportunities, which create alternatives, which mean fewer people working for Al Qaeda to support their families. Feeding opportunity to the poor is one more way to starve the well-funded extremists of support. And it will work regardless of whether the next battlefield lies in Iraq, Afghanistan, or beyond.

However, like a credit market, the Fund is placing a lot of trust on individuals to meet them half way and donate to these projects. Sharing prosperity is the means to a Safer World – and we all have to give much, more more now than we have in the past if that trust is going to eventually lead to greater peace.

Fighting Violence with Generosity – and Opportunity

Each year as we mark the anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, people wonder what they, as individuals, can do to mitigate the consequences of terrorism.

Conventional thinking encourages us to rely on our government to respond to terrorism and extremist acts – though foreign policy, military action, bilateral talks. But when it comes to private citizens, the only guidance we have been given is “go shop”.

I prefer Gene Steuerle’s approach. Gene lost his wife when her plane was crashed into the Pentagon. He was humbled and moved by what he saw as an outpouring of goodwill toward families who had lost loved ones.

Based on that experience, Gene decided that he and other 9/11 families should send a message to the world: peaceful collaboration and opportunity are among our best antidotes to terrorism over the long term.

Whether it’s fast tracking education for Afghan women and girls, financing microlending in rural Afghanistan, or establishing health clinics in Pakistan, Americans who want to play a role in combating terrorism over the long term can make a donation and give people opportunity and hope.

Visionary philanthropy like Gene’s can help create the conditions that make it much harder for extremist networks to take root. And the good news is that it costs a lot less than guns and bombs.

So far, the US government has allocated more than $500 billion for the military “war on terror.” This is around $10,000 for each citizen of Iraq an Afghanistan.

By contrast, using Gene’s “Safer and More Campassionate World” approach, a mere $100 can provide 56 Afghan women with basic healthcare and health education. And that amount is within reach of nearly all of us.

Let’s Not Mess Up the Endgame

It’s blockbuster season in Hollywood – there’re a whole bunch of great movies out there, including “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which I saw last night. It’s a fantastic-but-true story of the Texas Congressman, played by Tom Hanks, who influenced Congress to support Afghan freedom fighters in their battle against Soviet invaders in the 1980s. Working with a renegade CIA agent (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and an anti-Communist Texas socialite (Julia Roberts), Wilson managed to increase the appropriations for this “covert” war from $5 million to $500 million over a few years – arming the mujahideen who were ultimately victorious against the Soviets.

Despite this triumph over communism, the end of the movie depicts Wilson’s unsuccessful attempt to push the U.S. government to invest in the post-armed-conflict Afghan infrastructure, in the form of education and rebuilding schools. So that didn’t happen, and the weakened state of the country post-war contributed to the subsequent rise of the Taliban – and we all know how that’s turned out (ironically, this movie touches upon “who was responsible for the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,” father of Benazir, who was assassinated in Pakistan yesterday).

Of course, it’s the movies, and we hope for Hollywood endings. But to me, Charlie’s quote in the epilogue, about  “changing the world but messing up the endgame,” highlights how these critical elements of civil society – education, health care, a decent economy – can make a huge difference in the overall stability and ultimate prosperity of a country and its people.

Good movie. Thumbs up for Charlie Wilson’s War from this reviewer.

See the work GlobalGiving is supporting in Afghanistan.