January 31, 2003 - PCOL Exclusive: A Peace Corps for Afghanistan
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January 31, 2003 - PCOL Exclusive: A Peace Corps for Afghanistan
- Comments Sunday, November 30, 2003 - 5:51 pm 
A Peace Corps for Afghanistan
Read and comment on exclusive story written by former Afghanistan Peace Corps Director Walter Blass where he says that it is not too early to think about the Peace Cors returning to Afghanistan where it could be a 'quick start battery' that could revive the social and economic development of the country. Clearly, acceptable conditions for the return of so many foreigners would have to exist; but Volunteers could serve while the Afghan government vigorously encouraged the many Afghan expatriates spread around the globe to return home from their comfortable positions abroad. Read the story at:
A PEACE CORPS FOR AFGHANISTAN*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
A PEACE CORPS FOR AFGHANISTAN
By Robert L. Steiner and Walter P.Blass
It is not too early to start thinking about what needs to happen in Afghanistan after the war stops. We dare not again simply walk away from this strategic corner of Central Asia when our short-term goals have been reached. Once the Afghans have chosen their leaders, and a responsible, working government is in place, the monumental task of rebuilding this devastated and war-torn nation can only be accomplished with massive help from the West. For centuries, Afghanistan's geopolitical location and strategic importance has rendered it a constant victim of internal and external power struggles, conflict and combat. The world ignores this reality at its peril.
If there is a lesson to be learned from our earlier experience in this beautiful but wasted land, it lies in the need for intelligent, appropriate manpower. Afghanistan has been destroyed many times before and each time it was the human capital rather than the physical infrastructure that suffered most. In the past twenty or so years, the flight of more than five million refugees has denuded the country of its pool of responsible leaders, and its educated middle class.
This is where a Peace Corps contingent can be highly useful. In the years 1962 to 1973, over 600 Peace Corps volunteers assisted the country in the fields of teaching, medicine, office management, auto mechanics and printers. Hydrology, textile arts, marble and alabaster fabrication and a host of individual projects worked out mutually between the Volunteers and their Afghan supervisors were other endeavors where they made a noticeable contribution. Afghans from every walk of life and in the entire country were introduced to different perspectives on old problems, and fresh ideas. In short, the Volunteers opened windows to the world beyond, much Marco Polo had done when he walked the Silk Road in the XIIth Century.
Most important, a solid Peace Corps contingent of several hundred would provide a 'quick start battery' that could revive the social and economic development of the country. Clearly, acceptable conditions for the return of so many foreigners would have to exist; but Volunteers could serve while the Afghan government vigorously encouraged the many Afghan expatriates spread around the globe to return home from their comfortable positions abroad. Refugees would follow as peace and order was assured, and foreign investment expanded opportunities for employment.
The volunteers, ages 19 to 74, whom we supervised, performed many of these tasks during the 1960's and 1970's as they filled human capital vacancies. They participated in every activity from birthing to burying the dead; they increased the effectiveness of local medical professionals, teachers, printers and office staff. They approached their tasks in a spirit of learning and friendship, and in the process, acquired an appreciation of Afghan wisdom, a respect for Afghan ways and mores, for 'Pushtoonwali'(the Afghan code of hospitality), and for Islam as another Religion of the Book. They learned Dari and Pushto, the local languages, and worked alongside the peasant, the bricklayer, the mason, the nurses. The Volunteers willingness to live in circumstances similar to those of their Afghan counterparts won them remarkable acceptance, and thereby enhanced their effectiveness. They sought to leave behind a legacy of knowledge, an example of how others work and play and dream, ideas that long outlive the transient worth of imported machinery. The 'networks' these Volunteers developed with Afghans continue to this day.
We think six requirements are needed for a successful effort:
- Volunteers prepared to serve, not distribute cash or goods;
- Safety, both physical and medical
- Commitment on the part of staff and volunteers to fill roles mutually agreed upon between the Afghan government and the Peace Corps;
- Realistic training for work and living;
The late Robert Greenleaf wrote a book of essays called Servant Leadership in 1975. He advocated a work style where server and supervisor alike took on the mantle of leaders by empowering those for whom they worked. We think this spirit should be reflected in the choice of staff and Volunteers for this program, and in their orientation and training.
- Resolute support from the Afghan Government
Physical safety of the Volunteers must be assured, but if past is to be believed, it will be by a responsible Afghan government. Medical safety, as was learned from experience, is best achieved through adequate training, vaccination, preventive care, habits of hygiene, and constant medical supervision.
Commitment is a positive state of mind that made former Volunteers successful in the Afghan setting; it will be a requirement for success in the post Taliban Afghanistan. Both writers of this proposal can testify that Volunteers, then and now, who make the decision to serve in these situations, and stick to it, will make a difference - and in Afghanistan making a difference is what made the experience worthwhile, and in some cases, worth repeating.
Realistic training is a sine qua non, we have found. One of the private organizations which provided training for our vaccinators hauled them to French-speaking villages on the U.S.-Canadian border, dropped them off a stake truck with $5 in their hand, and asked them to come back five days later, explaining what they had done for the public health of the people in the area. Perhaps only half of those who started that program eventually completed training, but the result of their work in Afghanistan was exemplary. The record of Peace Corps training is outstanding, and its lessons should be heeded.
George Santayana is famous for his comment "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it." The Peace Corps of today has a vast inventory of experience with the programming and training of Volunteers for service in Afghanistan. President Bush, in a recent Atlanta speech to volunteer firemen, made an eloquent plea for a major American effort in volunteerism as an answer to the September 11 attack on our homeland. What better response to the President's clarion call than a major Peace Corps program to help in the rebuilding of a post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Robert L. Steiner and Walter P. Blass both served as successive Country Directors in Afghanistan for the Peace Corps in the 1960s. Steiner then became Regional Director in Washington for the Peace Corps programs in North Africa, Near East, South Asia from 1966-1968.
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