A Beautiful Land of High Mountains, Deep History and Contemporary Lessons for Humanitarians

Article by Dominique Bénard: Psychologist, vocational guidance adviser and trusted Consultant for RET International.

In February 2013, for the first time, I flew over the mountains of the Hindu Kush in a small Cessna. This was the only way to reach Fayzabad, at the northeastern tip of Afghanistan. The landscapes under the wings of the plane were fantastic; we followed valleys and jumped over the passes of this huge snowy massif, where just a few villages of mud houses provide evidence of human presence.

Despite having worked with RET International in many fragile environments, this was my first time in Afghanistan.

As an independent consultant with a strong focus on vocational guidance, working in Afghanistan is not always possible. Very few organisations have the sustained and locally supported presence necessary to implement valuable small business trainings of the kind I specialise in.

RET International, present in Afghanistan since 2007, and working with Afghans in neighbouring Pakistan since 2002, is one of the few organisations that can offer this structure in which my trainings have a real impact. Therefore, when the opportunity to work with their seasoned and a 100% local team arose, I did not hesitate and packed my bags.

Since my first trip in 2013, I have returned four times, the last of which was this July.


Building a Small Business Training in Afghanistan

My role is to develop trainings that will help young women and men learn how to start and manage a small business. I also train the trainers so they may continue to deliver the learning programme to a much larger number of beneficiaries, after I have left.

The first thing I always do when I arrive is to visit the markets and workshops to have an idea of the evolution of the local economy and the various trades that could be chosen by our beneficiaries. Neither I, nor RET, believe in concepts that have not been confronted with the realities in the field.


I also work with the local trainers to build up the programme, taking into account information about the academic levels of the trainees and their learning capacities. Many never had the chance to go to school and a large proportion are illiterate, however, there is great motivation among young women and men to follow the programme. This is, for them, an unimaginable opportunity to lead their family out of fragility.

I use a specific approach based on the business management method developed by Alexander Osterwalder (to whom I am greatly indebted) and complete this approach by a graphic method enabling illiterate people to do basic bookkeeping. Once the programme has been established, I prepare monitoring and evaluation tools that the trainers will use to follow and assess its effectiveness.


The Long Story of Emergencies

As a consultant, I often focus on the task at hand, as described above. I concentrate on my immediate trainings, the methods, the contents, the material, the follow-up and evaluation. However, crises tend to be evermore protracted. The most recent statistics from UNHCR, for example, show that the average number of years a refugee stays in exile is twenty. This is a staggering number, which shows that humanitarian professionals, while addressing basic life-saving needs, also have to keep an eye on the long game.

Humanitarian and development aid can no longer work in silos. RET’s programme in Afghanistan illustrates this view perfectly.

Although basic education is crucial for protection and self-reliance, there are few educational opportunities for girls and “out-of-school age” young women to catch up the years lost in exile. This prevents them from integrating into the official Ministry’s secondary education programmes or into the workforce with marketable professional skills.


These types of vulnerabilities represent the acute realities of today’s Afghanistan. Nevertheless, RET’s work to address these issues actually started way back in 2002 in Pakistan, after vast numbers of Afghan civilians fled the rise of the Taliban and the subsequent involvement of NATO (later ISAF). In 2007, when many were returning home, RET chose to accompany the repatriating Afghan refugees back, and closed its operations in Pakistan. Since then, RET’s success has been built on creating Women’s Community Centres focusing on education and livelihood support. This concept started first as a “model school” in Peshawar, created at the behest of the Afghan Ministry of Education and the then, Afghan Consul General in Pakistan. The concept was so successful that RET launched two centres in Kabul, and then, spread to the Provinces of Parwan, Badakshan, Kapisa, Panjshir, Bamyan (working in the Teacher Training College) and most recently Kunduz, where RET opened its 18th 19th and 20th centres. This is where I was, just a few weeks ago.

Those 14 years of experience and learning are what have created the necessary presence for trainings like mine to have a real impact and, hopefully, open the door to development.

Also, many difficulties have risen from the international community’s lack of understanding of the local culture. To avoid such pitfalls, RET has built its interventions on a community-based approach in which the students, the Shura, the Governors, the Provincial Development Council, the municipal, provincial and national authorities, all have understood and endorsed the programme.

As an example, when I was still new to the context, I met up with Moqim Qaumi, RET’s National Coordinator in Afghanistan, to help him start a programme in the Panjshir Valley. Despite all the work ahead of us, we took the time to visit the remote villages, to meet future beneficiaries, to explain the objectives and content of the programme and motivate them to come to the Centre. Moqim had to deploy all his diplomatic skills to persuade the village leaders to allow women to travel to the city and follow the training. But time, respect and a capacity to understand local preoccupations made the difference and the Panjshir Valley programme was a success.

In fact, by following this community-based approach and engaging all the key constituencies and stakeholders in advance during the Needs and Assets Assessment Surveys and the design of the programme, as well as, during the implementation and monitoring & evaluation stages, the community feels full accountability for the centres. This makes them sustainable. As a result of RET’s approach and successes in so many provinces, the Afghan National Assembly and the Massoud Foundation awarded RET’s CEO, and the local RET team, their Achievement and National Hero Awards.


A Difficult Path, But a Path Nonetheless

It is tempting to concentrate on “the here and the now”, to deliver the training, build the school or open the medical centre as fast as possible. Providing relief is, after all, what drives us in the humanitarian community. The World is however more complex, and so often it takes a long-term commitment to accomplish what can seem, at first, to be a short-term goal.


What projects like these in Afghanistan show us, is that we have to embrace taking the time to understand communities, test our methods, follow beneficiaries as they move, involve local actors and scale our successes. Building longer-term community-based principles into the very fabric of our projects is how we can provide contexts in which humanitarian activities can truly, protect, build resilience and ultimately lead to the necessary conditions for development policies to take hold.

Or, as RET’s motto states more concisely, we have to “Bridge the Gaps” between humanitarian relief and development aid.



RET International’s programmes in Afghanistan have been made possible through the generous and long-standing support of the Federal Foreign Office of the Republic of Germany and the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Principality of Liechtenstein.


About the Author:


Dominique Bénard focuses his work on developing non-formal educational programmes for young people and is the Coordinator of Indaba-Network, a Geneva-based cooperative of consultants (www.indaba.coop).