As poverty and starvation stalk Afghanistan, must the West turn away from a new government whose policies it cannot condone? Read the full blog post written by Tabasum Akseer: https://asiafoundation.org/2022/04/13/a-path-forward-in-afghanistan-data-for-humanitarian-assistance/
Tabasum Akseer (00:03):
Regardless of whether the current administration rejects or embraces the Western values that we hold onto, including women's education, it doesn't mean that we forget our own moral compass and values. And turning your back on over 34 million desperate and impoverished people simply because your leaders are hard liners, in my opinion, is unethical.
John Rieger (00:24):
As poverty and starvation stalk Afghanistan, must the West turn away from a new government whose policies they cannot condone? Today on InAsia, from The Asia foundation, I'm John Rieger. Our guest today is Tabasum Akseer. She's The Asia Foundation's director of policy and research in Afghanistan. A job whose future took a sharp turn towards the unknown when the new government came to power last August. She joins us today via the intertubes from Canada. Tabasum, welcome.
Tabasum Akseer (00:52):
Hi, John. Thank you for having me here today.
John Rieger (00:54):
This is the second time, actually, that you've been on the podcast. The first time, as it happens, was during Ramadan. And I remember asking you if you wanted to postpone our interview until the evening. But you said no, don't worry. You won't get hangry Tabasum.
Tabasum Akseer (01:10):
And I didn't.
John Rieger (01:11):
No, you were perfect. Tabasum, you are the daughter of an Afghan family, but you are a citizen of Canada. Tell me a bit about your family history.
Tabasum Akseer (01:19):
I am Afghan Canadian. My family moved here during the late 80s, following the Soviet invasion. At the time, my dad and his brothers were part of the educated class, which unfortunately made them targets for the Soviets who were purging anyone who was a threat. So after two of my uncles were assassinated and a third was kidnapped, my dad decided that we should probably leave. He was a military physician initially, and then was shifted to refugee camps run by the International Rescue Committee in Pakistan. So we're fortunate that we were able to be relocated to Canada with the help of the Canadian government.
John Rieger (01:56):
Would you describe your home life growing up as characteristically Afghan?
Tabasum Akseer (02:03):
I don't know. We were raised with a very hybrid identity. Very much Canadian, but also very true to our Afghan roots and Muslim identity. We were usually the only non-whites or people of color in our classrooms, so we had a little bit of a hard time blending in and making friends. But at home was really where our experiences with our identity and ethnicity were really valued. Our parents placed a strong emphasis on education and knowledge.
Tabasum Akseer (02:32):
Every day after school, we would review our homework with our dad. And then on weekends, our dad would teach us how to read and write Arabic. And he would also teach us different parts of Islam. The pillars of Islam, the importance of charity, the importance of fasting. As we speak, it's actually Ramadan this month. So at home it was very much Afghan. And then outside of the home, it was more Canadian.
John Rieger (02:57):
Well, I guess, to be correct, we should call you Dr. Tabasum Akseer, you have a PhD. You're also The Asia Foundation's director of policy and research in Afghanistan. In other words, you're a very accomplished woman. Something the current government in Afghanistan does not seem to value. Why not simply turn away from a country that rejects such fundamental Western development goals as women's education?
Tabasum Akseer (03:24):
To be honest, it is a good question. And it's one that lots of Western, educated Afghans struggle with. So even though we left Afghanistan in the 80s, we had no choice to leave. Nobody chooses to leave their homes, their families, their ancestral lands. It was only after experiencing significant pain and loss for my parents, that it became the only option in order to keep us safe. And when we did leave, it wasn't see you later. It was, we're going to come back. And when we come back, we're going to help to redevelop the country, but we're going to come back with something to offer.
Tabasum Akseer (03:58):
So every for over the past 30 years beyond the usual remittances that my parents would send, in the spring and summer, we would return to Afghanistan to provide support. It was usually in healthcare because that's what my dad's forte was, he's a physician. So he would run a health clinic in our district and offer free healthcare and medication to anyone who needed it. So growing up, we knew we hadn't left the country permanently, but only temporarily so that we would return one day. And when we did return, we would be able to offer something to its advancement. And again, using the education and skills that Canada had given us.
Tabasum Akseer (04:38):
So regardless of whether the current administration rejects or embraces the Western values that we hold onto, including women's education, that doesn't mean that we forget our own moral compass and values. And turning her back on over 34 million desperate and impoverished people simply because your leaders are hardliners, in my opinion, is unethical.
John Rieger (04:59):
Tell me a bit about the human situation in Afghanistan right now.
Tabasum Akseer (05:03):
It's a sad situation. The country is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. The impact of a deteriorating economy, drought, insecurity, increased food prices, crumbling healthcare, everything is just catastrophic. Just to throw some numbers on you, 95% of Afghans don't have enough to eat. Nine million Afghans face famine. And there are stories of Afghans actually selling their children and organs in order to survive. According to UNICEF, a million severely malnourished children are on the verge of death without immediate action.
John Rieger (05:41):
Now you are a data scientist. You've been for many years, the director of the foundation's survey of the Afghan people. But in light of Afghanistan's desperate material needs, it seems odd that you argue in this week's blog for a continuing program of surveys and data collection in the country. What's the point?
Tabasum Akseer (05:59):
The point is an emphasis on using data-informed interventions and responses. So being able to collect data on the needs of Afghans during this critical time will enable more streamlined and effective aid delivery. For example, the needs of Afghan women in one province might be very different from the needs of women in another province. In province, A, the immediate needs might be more about food and nutrition, whereas in another province, the need might be just clean drinking water or paved roads so that they can access healthcare. So through data, we can identify the needs. We can streamline services for each community. And also measure the impact of these services longitudinally.
John Rieger (06:43):
If you were going to design a research initiative along these lines right now, what would be some of the headline topics that you'd want to investigate?
Tabasum Akseer (06:52):
I would really think about healthcare. Healthcare is extremely important, especially given the number of Afghans that are facing malnourishment. The number of children that are not making it past the first five years due to malnourishment. The number of clinics that have had to ... or hospitals that have had to shut down because no one's being paid or a lack of supplies.
Tabasum Akseer (07:16):
So one significant area would be healthcare, another would be on service delivery. We also know there's quite a bit of displacement, internal displacement especially, and internal displacement for a number of reasons, including security, economy. I think the key would be to just keep it short and keep it targeted to specific areas. So healthcare, nutrition, service delivery, and migration.
John Rieger (07:45):
Well, let's speculate a bit. Why would an Afghan government that just drove out the West permit, this kind of Western meddling?
Tabasum Akseer (07:53):
I don't think it's meddling. They've said previously that they want Western agencies and NGOs to continue working in the country, especially in light of the humanitarian crisis. And I think it is possible to reach the middle ground. For example, focusing on helping the needy, charity with an Islamic framework. And also ensuring that the work focused only on humanitarian needs and services, will ensure that they don't see this research as anathema to their existence. And it'll also ensure you get their buy-in and support each time you want to roll out a wave of field work.
Tabasum Akseer (08:26):
And if I can quote the UN Aid Chief, "The door for dialogue with the defacto authorities remain open, they want to find a constructive way to work with us. They don't necessarily know how to work with the international community, including the complex question of girls education. However, he does remain hopeful."
John Rieger (08:45):
Do you see a possible path to reconciliation here?
Tabasum Akseer (08:49):
I don't know about reconciliation. Reconciliation is part of a bigger issue. There's far more actors and players involved in there. But I think this type of research can certainly be a possible path to getting the international community's attention and highlighting the areas that Afghans need the most supported.
John Rieger (09:11):
The Asia Foundation's Tabasum Akseer, thank you for joining us.
Tabasum Akseer (09:15):
Thank you, John.
John Rieger (09:16):
And that's our show for this week. Tabasum has written very thoughtfully about the prospects for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in this week's InAsia blog. It's well worth your attention. And don't worry, Tracie Yang will be back with us next time. Until then, I'm John Rieger. Thanks for listening.