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Starting afresh - UN Volunteers connect for development in Afghanistan
by Richard Nyberg

06 December 2002

Bonn, Germany: In Afghanistan, there is a long and bumpy road leading from survival to a strong, secure society. Decades of war and civil strife have left a legacy of fear and suffering. Many victims are left without homes or a means to make a living. Against all odds, Afghans are starting again. Teaming up with a range of partners, UN Volunteers are stepping in to help.

Some 50 UN Volunteers based in Afghanistan and Pakistan are providing support for activities of the Afghan Government, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the World Food Programme (WFP). They include water and sanitation engineers, site planners, public health experts, administrative specialists, gender advisers, teachers and protection officers.

"UN Volunteers work in all fields of the UN assistance to Afghanistan. From basic relief to development of new banking laws, UN Volunteers are on the ground providing assistance face to face," says Lars Narfeldt, Programme Manager for the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) in Afghanistan. "If you meet an Afghan and ask him if he knows anyone from the United Nations either professionally or privately he is likely to mention a UN Volunteer by name."

Hasibullah*, an unemployed internally displaced person (IDP), knows British UN Volunteer Kirstie Farmer. Hasibullah turned up recently at a tent in the wind-blown Shaidayee camp currently sheltering 17,000 IDPs outside the western city of Herat. He and four family members from Uruzgan province simultaneously began to explain their situation to Kirstie, who worked as a UN Volunteer in the Balkans for two years before taking up an assignment as a UNV Protection Officer with UNHCR in Herat. "There is not much difference in my work," she says. "The stories are the same, the reasons for leaving similar - the only thing changing is the language. Suffering as a refugee is the same all over the world."

Fortunately, she was able to provide immediate support to Hasibullah and his family. Having learned of a request from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) for a camp schoolteacher, Kirstie was delighted to discover that Hasibullah is a qualified teacher. "I managed to find him a temporary job in the camp," she says, adding that it will provide a small income while ensuring that children at the camp continue their education. The personal interaction between the UN Volunteer and this Afghan family was crucial. "To take advice from people you need to know them," says Hasibullah. "I feel that I know Kirstie now and I will listen to her and take her advice. I didn't think I would get a job from this interview - I was merely hoping that someone would listen to my problem."

On the other side of Herat towards the border with Iran, IDPs are greeted by piles of rubble of what used to be family homes. In this country, starting from scratch is daunting. It means finding clean water, food and shelter to stay alive. Many people are dependent on outside assistance for their daily bread.

Instead of providing wheat, which was sometimes stolen and sold on local markets, WFP has consulted local elders and opened bakeries. At an IDP camp named Mashlakh, or "slaughter" in the local Dari language after one of Herat's largest slaughterhouses demolished during the war, WFP works with the Islamic Relief Agency and Feed the Children to encourage IDPs to bake and distribute 400 grams of bread to each of the estimated 42,000 people sheltering there.

"Our role is to monitor that the rations are produced and that the quality is good," says Devaki Shrestha from Nepal, a UNV Programme Officer with WFP. Currently there are 49 bakeries where 223 women and 112 men work, she says, adding that the women IDPs are given opportunities to learn skills so that they can open bakeries once they return home.

Devaki has worked with implementing partner organizations to start several initiatives for Afghan women, including literacy classes and a school feeding project in Kohsan district. One project involved 38 women bakers in Bunyad village who work from home to feed nearly 6,000 children in the surrounding area. Twelve distributors and 11 volunteers ensure that the bread is handed out appropriately in the schools.

"Being a woman, it is very easy to meet women in the villages," she says, adding that women become silent if a man is present. The cultural restriction is that women can only be met inside their houses. "(But) we can call all neighbouring women in one of the houses and then we discuss their problems and their stories."

Helping women to get out of their houses is a key task of UNV Gender Specialist Fulya Vekiloglu from Turkey. "As a volunteer in Afghanistan, I feel that the more I have the chance to integrate in the culture the better I understand people, communicate with them and also put my thoughts in action," she says. Through UNDP's Recovery and Employment Afghanistan Programme (REAP), she is working with engineers to refurbish 47 traditional public bathhouses deriving from the ancient Roman thermal bath, or hammams, around the capital Kabul. Although the hammams are for all citizens, women in particular are in need of these facilities for washing and for social interaction. "Women were banned from using the public bathhouses in the previous Afghan regime, as the hammam served as a social meeting place where women could meet other women outside their immediate family," Fulya says. Following years of conflict and neglect, most of the hammams are in poor, unusable conditions.

Also active in expanding the horizons of Afghans is Simon Clarke, a UNV English language teaching specialist with UNESCO, who has worked worked with air traffic controllers at Kabul airport and senior administrative and medical staff - including midwives - at Malalay Maternity Hospital. He has also overseen the refurbishment of the UNESCO Language Centre, ordered resources and materials and conducted a teacher-training course for government employees. In addition, he has set up a computer training room to provide training to government employees from a variety of ministries.

"It comes as somewhat of a surprise to Afghans to discover that I am a volunteer, but they are always so grateful that people have made the commitment to share skills and help develop Afghanistan for reasons not based on financial gain," he says. "Now is the time to show the people of Afghanistan that foreigners come in all shapes and forms and that they can make a positive contribution to the development of the country."

Afghans bring home their skills About one-fourth of the UN Volunteers in Afghanistan are expatriate Afghans returning to their native country and who are now serving under the UNV-managed Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN) scheme.

Afghanistan's new currency, introduced in October, is signed by one of them: Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady, a professional banker and professor. The UN Volunteer holds a Ph.D. in political science and an MBA in finance and management policy. His job as governor of the central Afghanistan Bank is to implement a new banking system in the country. Since taking up his work in July, his main priorities have been currency reform, legal reform, modernization, structural reform, banking system reform and personnel development.

"We have prepared new banking laws which we will be soon submitting to the Government; we have prepared a plan for the reorganization of the bank which we hope to implement in 2003; and we have started to computerize the bank's operation," he noted. UNV, through the TOKTEN scheme, provided him with a long-awaited opportunity to serve in his country. "For the past 24 years I have been very much involved in Afghan affairs," he says. "I have always had the intention to come back to Afghanistan and to help the reconstruction efforts. People who might participate in the TOKTEN (scheme) must already be motivated to volunteer their services; TOKTEN just facilitates the actualization of the will to serve."

Another UN Volunteer, Maryam Alefi, assists staff of the Ministry of Women's Affairs with office management, proposal writing, computer training and reports to donors. "TOKTEN is a great programme to assist in rebuilding a nation through expatriate nationals. It is like a two-way street - you learn and you also teach."

Helping to smoothen Afghanistan's rough roads is Qaseem Naimi, a UNV Technical Adviser to the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority (AACA). An active member of the Afghan Canadian community, he has trained employees in the Ministries of Rural Development, Public Works, Transportation and Reconstruction to carry out road construction projects. He also planned feasibility studies and designed work plans for major emergency infrastructure, rehabilitation and employment programmes.

His motivation: "I have returned to Afghanistan to do my share in the reconstruction of my country of origin."

With reporting by Lars Narfeldt in Afghanistan.

*Full name withheld.

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)