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Central Asia trekker: Major work starts locally

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rory Stewart has hit the big time. He is internationally renowned for his 6,000-mile walk across Central Asia, the best-selling book he wrote based on that journey and his work in development. But in a lecture to a large audience last night in Salomon 101, the current Harvard professor said that big change starts at a local level.

“The secret is understanding the local – understanding the particular,” said Stewart, the chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation and author of “The Places in Between.”

Stewart discussed the role of the international community in Afghanistan’s development and the work his foundation has done in the old city of Kabul, Afghanistan, before taking questions from the audience.

Many students in the auditorium were already familiar with the story of Stewart’s January 2002 trek across Afghanistan because his memoir was assigned to all incoming students over the summer. The award-winning book describes his journey day-by-day and highlights his interactions with the people of rural Afghanistan. Stewart briefly discussed his trek by showing a series of photographs as part of a presentation.

Stewart returned from Afghanistan only four days before speaking at Brown, and he drew the audience’s attention to a large Starbucks cup on his podium, pointing out that he would need the caffeine to help him stay awake after his trip. In this case and in others, Stewart had the audience laughing at his quips, but the topic of his talk was much more serious.

According to Stewart, Afghanistan produces 93 percent of the world’s heroin and still receives $4 billion in international aid. “The world needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the world,” he said.

He said the problem for the international community is figuring out how to make Afghanistan into “the kind of country we want it to be.” He spoke of his personal experiences with rampant violence in Afghanistan – he was nearly shot on several occasions – and contrasted those experiences with the recommendations of the international community, such as establishing rule of law and helping promote a police force. When it comes to details, though, Stewart said those ideas were “nonsense – mostly jargon.”

“(Their) definition of how to do it doesn’t tell us anything,” he said, adding that the prescriptions seemed more like a “recipe for how to build a garden shack” than a plan for how to develop a country. When asked by an audience member, he said Western countries need to find a balance between “what we can do” and “what the Afghans can do.”

In 2005, Stewart returned to the old city of Kabul and began his regeneration effort by clearing garbage from the streets. His foundation has now removed 15,000 truckloads of garbage from the ground and that alone has lowered the road level by seven feet, he said. In addition, the foundation has improved drainage, repaired buildings and roads, supported women in the fields of woodworking and calligraphy and provided teachers for a new public school.

Stewart said he put himself in a dangerous position when he started the foundation because he is frequently on the brink of running out of funding. He described the anxiety as similar to trying to run a “cross between a pizza restaurant and a start-up Internet company.” Right now, he needs to raise $2 million in three weeks to avoid laying off 100 of his employees.

In response to a question about the potential wastefulness of aid work, Stewart said it “can be extremely frustrating and depressing,” and many of his colleagues have become “cynical.”

He said he still finds an “enormous amount of joy and satisfaction in the work.” He said he does not feel guilty about the work he does in Afghanistan and that the opposition he encounters is strictly political. The gap between our values and those of the Afghans is “not as stark” as we might believe, he said.

“This is about action,” he said in conclusion. “This is about acting in the world. This is about how you get out and do things.”

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