By Grace Nissely, Rebekah Sears, and Brian Dyck
Mohammad Zaid has been working in peacebuilding in Afghanistan for nine years. The current situation weighs heavy on him and his work.
“It feels,” says Zaid, whose name we are not using for safety and security reasons, “like we’ve gone from driving to reverse. As a peacebuilder, I’ve always been positive, but there’s a limit to being positive.”
This exhaustion and feeling of uncertainty are prevalent among Zaid’s colleagues and others in civil society, yet they remain committed to the work for peace in Afghanistan.
Last summer the world watched, horrified, as thousands of Afghans gathered at the airport desperate to get out of the country. After almost 20 years, the U.S.-led military mission had ended, and the Afghan government quickly collapsed as the Taliban came back into power.
Immediately, Canadian communities, churches, civil society organizations, and the government called for the resettlement of Afghan refugees to Canada.
Since before the current crisis, Afghans have made up one of the largest refugee populations worldwide. Additionally, over 3.5 million people are internally displaced. Refugee resettlement is a small but important way to address these urgent needs. However, it is not the only tool we hold to support Afghans. For countries like Canada, an essential support we can give the Afghan people is to invest in addressing the root causes of forced displacement, through conflict prevention and support of local grassroots peacebuilding.
Mohammad Zaid’s organization has worked in Afghanistan since the 1960s—remaining through many conflicts and crises. (Again, the organization’s name is not being published for safety and security reasons. The program, including Zaid’s project, is currently in hibernation along with so many other civil society organizations currently in the slow process of obtaining permissions to continue operating). Zaid has integrated a peacebuilding lens throughout his organization’s education, health, and development programming. The goal is two-fold. First, to ensure that activities were in no way, even inadvertently, contributing to the conflict. Second, to seek out how the organization’s work could contribute to long-lasting peace.
Zaid’s recent work has focused primarily on education. He promotes incorporating peace into secondary school curriculums to build a foundation for peace; to help foster “thoughts and ideas [of peace] instead of thoughts [and instincts] of revenge.” The work needs to begin, says Zaid, at the family and community level, to reach society in general.
In many Afghan communities, girls’ education is not prioritized. Zaid speaks of two sisters, the younger one who attended school, while the elder stayed home to help the family with housework. This created animosity between the two sisters, especially for the one left out of school. But through peace education programming, the elder daughter learned about family and community dynamics and practices, and that her younger sister was not responsible for keeping her from going to school. This knowledge created peace and understanding between the two sisters, refocusing their energy for change on wider issues in their society.
This seemingly small but significant change creates the ability to alter relationships that form the foundation of Afghan society. “As a peacebuilder, I always believed that if I can make a very small change in someone’s life, I have fulfilled my duty in helping others,” says Zaid. “Behind these big high-level talks and strategies, it is people we want to make a difference for, and [these early life] experiences can be very influential [on their lives, going forward.]” It’s a long-term plan that starts with individuals, families, and communities.
Local organizations like Zaid’s understand unique local dynamics and contexts, including the drivers of conflict. Their grassroots models for conflict prevention and resolution feed into the wider community, national, and international initiatives in a sustainable way.
Currently, Global Affairs Canada is seeking to promote and incorporate the triple nexus approach—a model that brings together humanitarian, development, and peace programming—into Canada’s international assistance. The goal is to apply a comprehensive approach to assistance that anticipates conflict, seeks to both do no harm, and help foster circumstances to promote lasting peace.
In addition to focusing on refugee resettlement and protection of Afghans at risk, Canada can apply this model to support those who are building a peaceful Afghanistan, for the people who remain and to create the circumstances so that people are not forced to flee in the future.
The re-emergence of the Taliban creates a significant challenge for countries like Canada to support projects such as Zaid’s organization. Multilateral channels are complex, not to mention the boundaries of bilateral support with a government such as the Taliban, including the challenges posed by international sanctions. However, we cannot turn our backs on the Afghan people, and the future of Afghanistan. We can amplify our support through funding locally run agencies, that have predated the Taliban, and are built for the long run. It’s not just about the government, says Zaid. “As human beings, we need to work with human beings.”
In December, Canada pledged up to $56-million for emergency humanitarian aid. However, the Government of Canada was clear in its announcement that the funds will only be going through the International Committee of the Red Cross and other multilateral channels, with no opportunities for locally run organizations. Though the aid is an encouraging development, building lasting peace in Afghanistan goes far beyond humanitarian aid at this level.
Peace programs like Zaid’s and many others throughout the world seek conflict prevention and build peace and social cohesion through education and development, along with humanitarian support. Walking with communities and programs like this helps to lay the groundwork for sustainable peace. It is a long-game vision, and the results come in slowly, but they do come. Canada must invest in addressing conflict at this level to make life better for the Afghans who stay and to help build long-lasting peace from the ground up.
Grace Nissley is the Afghanistan country representative of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Rebekah Sears is a policy analyst and government relations specialist at MCC Canada, and Brian Dyck is the national migration and refugee resettlement co-ordinator at MCC Canada.
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This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the Hill Times and is reproduced with permission.
Banner image caption: A seed begins to sprout in a garden in La Florida, in the Montes de María region of Colombia. (MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht, 2020)