This past weekend, in my efforts to regain some optimism after heartbreaking news regarding mob violence in Afghanistan, I began reading Stones into Schools, Greg Mortenson’s second book about the Central Asia Institute’s expansion from remote regions of Pakistan into the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan and Pakistan-controlled Azad Kashmir. The book impresses me so far, and the commitment that Mortenson and his staff (the unstoppable Sarfraz Khan!) have for building schools in some of the most isolated, impoverished, and conflict-ridden neighborhoods of the world is inspiring, to say the least.
But what made me gasp was stumbling upon such stark parallels to the current riots sweeping Afghanistan (Kandahar, Mazar-e-sharif) after the burning of a Koran by Pastors in Florida. In 2005, protests erupted throughout Afghanistan in response to reports that guards at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down the toilet.
In a truly moving passage of the book, Mortenson recounts how he thought one of the Central Asia Institute’s schools would definitely have been destroyed in the riots, which targeted international aid groups:
Just before the entrance to Baharak, the road sweeps over a plateau and offers a stunning view of the town with the distant Hindu Kush in the south. As we topped the rise, we failed to notice anything unusual — but upon crossing the final bridge into Baharak and entering the main bazaar, where the mosque and the government offices are located, it seemed as if we were passing into a war zone. Rubber tires still smoldered in the streets, which were covered with sticks, bricks, and stones.
In the middle of the bazaar, where the NGO offices began, there were gutted Land Cruisers, smashed computers, and broken glass everywhere. The mob’s fury had clearly been directed at these buildings, which housed the Aga Khan Development Network, FOCUS, East West Foundation, Afghan Aid, and other NGOs. Their offices lay in ruins, and even the safes and desks had been smashed to pieces.
As we made our way down past the south end of the bazaar towards Yardar, I was braced for the worst. But when we pulled up in front of the boundary wall of the new school, I could hardly believe my eyes. No windows were broken. The door was intact. The fresh coat of lime green paint that the building had received only a week earlier was as bright as a newly minted dime.
“Allah Akbar,” mumbled Mullah Mohammed, and cracked a smile.
As we stood surveying the building, Sadhar Khan’s son Waris walked up and explained that during the peak of the riots, a faction of the mob that was attacking the bazaar had stormed down the road in the direction of the school. Before reaching the boundary wall, however, they had been met by a group of elders who had donated the land for the school, organized the laborers who had build it, and participated in the laying of the cornerstone. These elders, or pirs, informed the rioters that the Central Asia Institute school belonged not to a foreign aid organization, but to the community itself. It was their school, they were proud of it, and they demanded that it be left alone. And with that, the rioters dispersed.
Not a stone had been hurled, Waris told me.
Mortenson goes on to describe that the cost of the riots in Baharak eventually came to more than $2 million, and the Central Asia Institute’s school was one of the very few buildings in the area associated with an international organization that was left standing in the end.
His story is a powerful reminder of the importance of “community ownership” when conducting development work. It’s aid work jargon, yes, but how many aid organizations actually achieve this level of support from the community? In Afghanistan, clearly, most do not. Afghans still view these organizations as outsiders, coming in, and separating themselves from local people with lots of security and guards and fancy compounds. If Afghans viewed aid projects as their own, then angry mobs wouldn’t be viewing projects as “foreign” and thus, associating them with Koran burnings and flushings across the world.
A lot of aid workers seem to bash Greg Mortenson online for promoting “DIY aid” approaches, and for making it seem like aid work is all about drinking cups of tea with the locals. But I’d reply back: maybe aid work should be more about drinking cups of tea with community elders. Because perhaps this is what ensures that an NGO’s projects aren’t attacked by angry mobs – and maybe, just maybe, this is what makes a program successful in the end.