Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Transnational Collectivism: From Kabul to DC

by Ghizal Adina*

Najia Nasim asked the panel: “How do you inspire yourself, and the people you work with, to persist after everything you've built has been destroyed?” 

Nasim was en route to Washington D.C. when she received news that her agency, Women for Afghan Women, had been looted in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Kunduz. Her agency had housed women, victims of domestic abuse, orphans, as well as a myriad of recreational programs. 

This is a familiar story - one that many of the participants of the Rising Afghan Women Leadership Initiative program shared. The RAWLI program - a joint initiative between Georgetown University and the US-Afghan Women's Council - was a program that identified Afghan women leaders in Afghanistan, and engaged them in a week long intensive leadership training program. Not only did RAWLI hope to inspire women leaders in Afghanistan, it also aimed to have a ripple effect - to inspire women to inspire other leaders. 

And so I found myself, sitting at a panel as a representative of (Health, Education, and Economic Development for Afghanistan) along with Suraya Rashid of HEEDA, to talk about the many projects and programs the organization is working on in Afghanistan. Our headlining project, the EMBRACE baby incubators, identified targeted hospitals to reduce cases of neonatal hypothermia. Aiding 10,000 newborns and targeting expansion to rural areas and ambulances where neonatal hypothermia is an even greater risk, there is a global cognizance of women as change agents in the face of 30+ years of conflict. 

To say that these women ignited inspiration in us is an understatement. Sitting removed from direct conflict, it is easy to toss around ideas of what should be, of policy implications, of international development protocols, to raise havoc when we see something on television - as we should since apathy is not a solution either. However, to be of the community, of the land, and know inherently that every action will lend itself to a change in one’s life, is something my position of privilege, despite being born in Afghanistan, does not give me. The ability to leave and cross national boundaries at ease, afforded to me by my American passport, removes me from much of the reality of my own actions and pursuits in Afghanistan’s development. Instead, there is seemingly a self-imposed demand of an unfair intellectualization of the situation, despite my hands-on experience in Afghanistan. It is the way many have come to grasp their role as being both a part of and apart from the Afghan community in Afghanistan. 

This is why HEEDA, as an organization, has always sought to bring about change and development alongside communities. Many large multilateral institutions have commonly encountered severe challenges in their technology and program implementation, often times having these programs fall through, as they attempt to catalyze pie-in-the-sky visions of change without collaborative partnerships with communities. The role of HEEDA is not simply to implement, but to bridge the gap between the places that lack resources and identified change agents. Global resources and technology should not be underestimated, but neither should the social capital and inherent knowledge of community members. 

Personally, this brings to mind the role of technology implementation, (or social innovation as it is now aptly called,) in international development. As a city planner for the City of San Francisco, a tech hub in its own right, I witness the negative externalities an on-demand technocentric method of development can have in exacerbating many existing challenges in an urban atmosphere. From land costs to infrastructure challenges to environmental concerns-- the social and economic implications are profound. When development goals are pursued in isolation, they instead become the means of serving the desires of a select group of people creating paradigms of propertied citizenship. My role at HEEDA, and HEEDA’s role in Afghanistan, is not to dump technology upon Afghans, nor is it to find a better way to do what Afghans have always known how to do. 

So, what we did offer these women, already leaders in their own right? We offered to help build alliances. There are people willing, really willing, to offer their expertise, and not merely in spheres of capital accumulation. The experience and interaction in D.C. became a spatialization of poverty programs and expertise, similar to the way the south side of Chicago drew upon an international framework in referencing South African resistance to reclaim their homes from systems of predatory financialization.1 As was displayed in the first Afghan-American Conference held in Berkeley, CA in 2015, there is a thirst and drive for that global connection. HEEDA hopes to build these alliances and work on projects and programs with thoroughness, clarity, and insight as a result of all these actors working together. Self-proclaimed aid organizations, HEEDA among them, are dependent on these exchanges of ideas and expertise, a transnational collectivism, in order to achieve our goals of better health, education, and sustainable economic development in Afghanistan. Ultimately, with this collective behavior, as organizations we are not telling the developing world what they must possess in order to participate in the global economy2 and their own narrative, nor are we commanding the stage and setting the tone for participation. 

We are in a unique position in the history of Afghanistan. I realized this as I sat listening to Ananya Roy talking about Territories of Poverty and the ways global finance is creating these very territories, from the south side of Chicago, to the “slum-free city” programs in India, to the utter destruction of communities due to rapid gentrification in Oakland, to the debris collection in the Afghan woman’s facility in Kunduz. An attack on space, on programs, on strength cannot be responded to with an influx of technology or capital. There exists a global network of  knowledge to aid Afghanistan in a way that is not about “fighting poverty,” or simply accumulating capital –what has commonly been used as an ideal model in development. Rather transnational collectivism is about drawing upon sites of resistance and reclamations of space throughout history, and using these as models to combat the absurd brutality of urban transformation that occurs in the midst of a constant struggle of different groups over the distribution of services and resources. 

The concept of space begs for a new and better understanding of the worlding and dynamic of cities. There is a new agenda in poverty scholarship, and HEEDA is heavily involved, studying the meaning of intervening, and the politics of encountering that is seemingly inherent in the way development and poverty is narrated, governed, and ultimately, resisted. 

-Ghizal Adina 

[Ghizal is a leading member of HEEDA. She graduated of the University of California, Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She can be reached at]

1 Roy, Ananya, “From South to North: Struggles for Land and Housing in Unequal Cities.” Stanford University. Palo Alto, CA. 29 October 2015.
2 Consider the implication of needing shoes for legitimacy in the TOMS model as a necessity to participate in the global economy. 

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*The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author in her personal capacity, and does not necessarily represent the views of HEEDA.