Polio campaign in Herat, Afghanistan UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya.

What Comes Next for Humanitarian and Development NGOs in Afghanistan?

Zuhra Bahman was out of the country on a business meeting when the Taliban took control of Kabul.

She is the Afghanistan country director for Search for Common Ground, an NGO that engages in community based peace-building work. We caught up from Istanbul and I was eager to speak with her because it is very unclear to the entire international community the extent to which NGOs will be able to operate under Taliban rule.

As Zurha Bahman explains, she is eager to get back to her work and life in Afghanistan — but only if certain conditions are met. To that end, she is urging engagement with the Taliban to enable development and humanitarian NGOs to work in the country on behalf of the Afghan people.

If you have 25 minutes and want to hear directly from an Afghan NGO leader about how she plans to continue her work under Taliban rule, have a listen.


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Mark Leon Goldberg [00:01:56] How did you get out? Were commercial flights flying at that time? 

Zuhra Bahman [00:01:59] Yes. So I had to do something outside of Afghanistan. I had to meet somebody. And so I took a couple of days off and also organized some meetings out and I left for Uzbekistan, I was due to go back on the 17th.  And on the 15th, I had some meetings with my colleagues online and they said that there were rumors that the Taliban had taken over the city. Now, these rumors were there before as well that the Taliban had entered and they’re halfway through the city and so on. And I said, don’t worry. And you can check to confirm the news. And I asked them to take precautionary measures just in case things go bad in the city. And as this became clearer and clearer, we gave everybody the rest of the day to collect their things and go home and wait for further instructions. 

[00:03:03] And meanwhile, because my home is in Kabul, my entire network of friends and family are in Kabul I started to inquire about their well-being- trying to figure out how the Taliban were entering, also very frantically looking through social media to see what was coming out there from official Taliban address. Also, we were wondering where the government was. And by the end of the day, things started to become clearer. And we realized that Kabul has, thankfully, without violence, fallen. But nonetheless, Kabul had fallen. And we were no longer sure of what was going to happen next. And that uncertainty is still going on. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:55] So you were basically on a business trip when Kabul fell. So, I mean, obviously, it’s not like you had planned or had the chance to prepare to leave. 

Zuhra Bahman [00:04:06] No, not at all. And I’m obviously out very ill-prepared. But as I was leaving last minute, I just had my laptop and my phone and I pack very economically. So I am now in another country and I feel exactly the way I felt back in the late 90s when we were lucky enough to escape when the Taliban were there before towards the end of their rule. One day, my father came. I was about 16 years old, and my father came and told us that we were leaving and we had a few minutes to pack. And I feel the same way. 

[00:04:54] And I mean my home right now in Kabul- it’s with friends now and every now and again I sit here thinking about what is going on to my people, to my friends, but also to things that belong to me that that made me who I am- my books, my home, my plants, and my favorite cafe. I lived in a very lively area of Kabul. And a few days ago, I was thinking- a few months ago I was walking down the road and I took about a 30-minute walk and I saw one of the most amazing painters that Afghanistan has seen the last 30 years. And he walked and I said hello to him. I walk a little bit further and I saw one of the very brave journalists that- who is actually still in Kabul. 

[00:05:45] And then the more I walked sort of my 10-20 minute walk, I saw so many cultural icons of my generation. I saw journalists, I saw human rights defenders because this is where we used to gather. We used to walk around. This was sort of five o’clock in the afternoon and everybody had finished their work. And at that point, I thought, you know, if this system falls, what’s going to happen to all of us? And now I’m sort of, one by one, trying to keep track of everybody. Who is where? And doing what? And who’s still inside Afghanistan? And, you know, this is not only a leaving for safety or- which is what a lot of these people that I’m talking about did- but also sort of leaving things behind. And that’s a very painful thing to think about and go through. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:41] Can you tell me a bit about Search for Common Ground’s work in Afghanistan before the fall of the government? Like, how long have you been engaged there and what sort of programs were you running? 

Zuhra Bahman [00:06:56] Well, Search for Common Ground in Afghanistan is relatively new. We’ve been working there for about three years. However, it’s an amazing organization to be a part of because it attracts people that believe in its core message. And luckily, we have 17 people that work in our Afghanistan office. And each of them is a person who has dedicated their life and career to building peace in Afghanistan. So beyond the presence of institutional presence such as people is what makes it a very important organization for my people. And we worked on community peacebuilding. We still do. Our aim is to work with deeply divided communities so that they can find common ground. And we did that through some of our projects where we went in. We gave micro-grants to communities and enabled them to test their peacebuilding ideas. We did this in several provinces. We worked on access to justice, enabling people to access justice, formal justice, especially women and children. We are working around advocacy on inclusion of people, ordinary people into peace processes. We work with women. We work with youth. We worked with everybody that that wanted to bring peace in Afghanistan. And we did that through sometimes working with media, working with youth leaders. But the key to our approach was working with local entities. So we have a lot of partners in our network. We have youth partners, women’s organizations, but also a lot of community organizations, informal movements that have been naturally born. And they are taking the message of peace in a very, very divided and insecure country. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:54] Yes, I’ve been following Search’s work for quite a while. And I know that you have this comparative advantage of being very local when it comes to peacebuilding initiatives, just doing very, very community-based work. Could you maybe just explain- describe what is one example of your community peacebuilding work in practice as it existed in Afghanistan before the fall of the government? 

Zuhra Bahman [00:09:21] Well, there are lots of examples. But one really important example was that we worked with people in the province near Kabul, and they gave us the idea of creating Peace Houses. They said that we needed a physical space where peacebuilding could take place and it could be consolidated there. So we created with the help of our local partners in an area and a space, a physical space where people could go in, peacebuilders could go in, and learn about peace building practices. Also, this is where people from the community would gather together and they would talk about divisions. They would talk about conflicts, and they would try and find the resolution. It was also a space to rest. We had, for example, the peace movement that came from Helmand and walked through Afghanistan asking for peace- and indeed, they usually didn’t have anywhere to sleep. So we thought, what a good idea to have a place where these people could sleep, where they could engage in informal discussions, so that we could pull peacebuilding out of the formal official space, but more into a space that people could call their own. And I really want to replicate this idea further and make sure that these spaces are inclusive and these spaces are open for all kinds of people, people who have views that are very different from others so that symbolically this place could be a safe space for people to discuss conflict. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:04] So to that end, given the current circumstances, do you see any potential for Search for Common Ground, for your team to keep building on ideas like that and keep implementing programs like that? 

Zuhra Bahman [00:11:23] Very much so. I am an optimist with regards to my country and I have to be because that’s my home. Luckily, this view is shared by my colleagues as well. We really believe that we can play a positive role in leading our people, our communities, and ourselves towards a time where we resolve conflict by talking rather than engaging in an armed conflict. And I think based on this, we have not stopped our work. We have continued to work. Our colleagues are going to office. Some colleagues have chosen to work from home and our women colleagues are working from home- all of them. We’ve provided them with the facilities to continue that. 

[00:12:13] And we are working on these ideas. Some of these ideas would, we believe, move ahead because we have the community buy-in. Our local partners and ourselves are deeply embedded in the communities where we want to bring change. So the community and us and other technical partners would make sure that these projects go ahead. And however, there would be certain projects where we would have to make some modifications. Now, modifications need to be made for various reasons. One of them is that we’re not sure what donors are going to decide about Afghanistan. How long are we going to be able to have access to certain funds? Because I can already see that some countries have pulled out their money from Afghanistan, their aid money. So that’s one issue. The other thing is, of course, the nature, the political nature of the country has changed. So as we continue our work, we have to constantly negotiate with the Taliban, with other factions and political factions in Afghanistan with local powerbrokers and see if there are any issues that they have with our programming- any issues that we have that we want to prioritize and see if we can reach a common ground there and make sure that we implement programs that meet everybody’s needs. And in here, of course, the community must be of paramount importance. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:42] So earlier you said the strength of your organization were the people who work there, and you just mentioned that people are still going to work. So I take it that the core of your staff, you know, does not feel threatened. I mean, based on what you’re describing, it sounds as if Search’s programs are pluralistic in nature, are aimed at building peace. And the Taliban, you know, they don’t exactly have a reputation for being pluralistic. 

Zuhra Bahman [00:14:08] Everybody’s feeling threatened. I’m feeling threatened right now. I’m considering my return to Afghanistan, but I cannot decide on that until I am certain of what my security is going to be or what my rights as a woman are going to be. Am I going to be able to go and go to work? Am I going to be targeted for my work in peace and development? Am I going to be not allowed to attend meetings or go to my work without a male chaperon? So these are some of the things I think about. What if my dress code is not up to the standards that the Taliban would impose? Would I be lashed on the street? And these are some of the things that all of us have to face. We talk with my colleagues every day and we talk about these things. Of course, fear is there. But the fear is about this uncertainty. We’re also very much worried about what happens, what happens to our economic security we have? What about our job security and so on? 

[00:15:27] So, of course, these fears of that and then also our freedoms. So security is one concern but our freedoms are another concern and we are constantly talking about it and seeing that then life in Afghanistan generally and right now is about balancing. So we are worried that we are cautiously looking forward to things becoming clearer so we can see how do we modify our programs? How do we open new projects? How do we make sure that we could continue our work? But then everybody’s security is incredibly important as well. So that is obviously the first priority of the organization. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:09] And I know that you’ve advocated for some sort of international recognition or engagement, at least with the Taliban, presumably so that you could get some of the assurances that you just articulated so you can go back to work. What are the comparative advantages from a peace and development organization like yours to having the international community engage or even recognize the Taliban? 

Zuhra Bahman [00:16:39] Well recognition is not something we’ve discussed, but we believe in constant engagement with all sides of this conflict. And the reason being is that- what would disengagement do to Afghanistan? I lived through the Taliban times when they were there in the late 90s and the disengagement we experienced did not do us any good. But the small amount of engagement that we experienced- that trickled down to the public. Last time the Taliban were there, there were some organizations and some donors that continued their work and that really provided a lifeline to people. A lifeline in terms of humanitarian activity. So, I remember that it was that time that one of the UN agencies led a very big program of providing support to families who could not access food. But at the same time, they created spaces where people could be busy and earn a living. And women were involved in that project. And then this was in northern Afghanistan. And I think the project was elsewhere as well in Afghanistan. But in Kabul, there were lots of aid agencies that did that and that those were the good examples that I remember as an Afghan. And I want to continue that. So there’s a personal reason why I think that should happen. And the success behind those organizations’ activities in Afghanistan was because they engaged. They came into Afghanistan. They came into Kabul. They went into provinces and they engaged with local authorities. 

[00:18:20] And at that time, they were every province or every zone of Afghanistan was controlled by different factions and they were impartial- these organizations. And they managed to center Afghan people and they managed to talk to different authorities, including the Taliban, to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches these people. And it was at that time that I learned about things like human rights and women’s rights. And I was a child- so children’s rights. And also I started to believe that I had a role to play in my country’s development. And if I wasn’t engaged at that time. If I was forgotten about, then things would have been very different with me. And I really want our organization, our sister organizations, and myself to play the same role that a lot of other organizations played for me when I was stuck in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. 

[00:19:18] And also in Afghanistan, right now, we’re not only there to make a political point. We’re not at all trying to make a political point. We’re there to support the people of Afghanistan. And there are lots of organizations, peacebuilding organizations, aid organizations, humanitarian organizations that are there with a mandate to support the Afghan people. Now, every time somebody they disagree with politically takes power, and if these organizations leave, then they’re not really following their own mandate of supporting Afghan people. So it is the commitment that the international organizations made to the Afghan people that needs to be upheld regardless of who stays in. 

[00:20:02] And also, Afghanistan is a country where there’s constant negotiation anyway. We negotiated with local power brokers constantly, and we need to do that. But when we talk about mediation, when we talk about talking in negotiations with the Taliban, we do not mean that we should do it from a position of weakness. We should do it from a position of strength and a belief in our strength. Our belief in the strength that comes from our beneficiaries, the Afghan people, but also us as an international organization and part of the bigger family of humanitarian organizations. This is a good opportunity for us to negotiate on our terms as well. We need to make sure that the Taliban would not interfere in our female staff’s right to work. We need to make sure that- we need to be on the table with the Taliban to argue that humanitarian aid or peacebuilding is impossible unless there are women delivering these services. So these are some of the reasons why we think the constant talking is there. But this is very different to the recognition as the government of Afghanistan and as an international organization we don’t have a say on that. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:32] Of Course. And yet, for all the reasons you articulated why engagement is necessary and further engagement by international organizations and international humanitarian and development groups in Afghanistan is important- earlier you said that in fact, you’re seeing a reduction in aid and in funding for programs. Which, I guess is to be expected in a situation like this. But it seems to run contrary to what you are arguing. 

Zuhra Bahman [00:22:00] Well, there are some good examples. The EU announced an increase of its humanitarian support. I think they doubled it- the commitment they have made. So you get the pockets of good practice in increasing aid to Afghanistan. But we have to be wary of something here. A lot of aid that is being pledged for Afghanistan right now. They seem to be in humanitarian field. So the provision of basic services. However, how can you provide basic services if you’re not at the same time working on peace, on human rights and a variety of other freedoms? So I think we need to be wary of looking at Afghanistan as a purely humanitarian catastrophe. We should look at it as a space where we have to provide a menu of supports, including humanitarian aid, but also peacebuilding and work on human rights. Because unless these things are covered, we would not have the full impact of the humanitarian support and Afghanistan has a potential for going back into severe dependence on humanitarian aid. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:23] Lastly, in the coming weeks or even months, what will suggest to you whether or not, as you said earlier, you are able to return back to Kabul? Are there any key inflection points or key decisions that you will be seeing emanating from Kabul that will suggest to you whether or not you’ll be able to come back? 

Zuhra Bahman [00:23:44] Yes, three things. Number one is Kabul Airport or any other airport, for that matter. So entering Afghanistan is right now more or less impossible. So once that starts, then let’s see if I can get on a plane. So that’s my first the first thing. And the second is that what whether my work would be and possible, whether the Taliban are going to stop me from working. In which case, if I go, I would not be very beneficial. So I will have to really find a way around that and make sure that that I work with other organizations to work on it, on enabling women to take part in the labor force. So that’s the second one. I wouldn’t- security is an issue. Afghanistan has always had a security issue. So I would still not wait for perfect security to go back. When you are in peacebuilding, perfect security is a luxury not available all the time. So, although security is really important, I wouldn’t make it into a sort of my red line. 

[00:25:09] The other thing I get always get asked is what about your freedoms? I have mentally prepared myself that when I go back, a lot of the freedoms I experienced a month ago are not going to be available to me and I am prepared to, by my presence there, negotiate for those. I know that it will be very different. The streets are going to be very different. My freedom of movement and my freedom to go and to sit in the cafe, my freedom to socialize is going to be restricted. But I have to be there to work on these freedoms, to regaining these freedoms. And I want to go and do that rather than gain these freedoms in an alien space that I am in right now. And I think, I would probably see how things are going. I’m keeping a close eye. And once those things are are are better, then I’ll go. 

[00:26:17] But one more point- I’m not only thinking about the Taliban here. I’m thinking about the general Afghan society. A month ago, I had access to a legal system, albeit very corrupt and with lots of holes in it, but I had access to the legal system. I had access to organizations that safeguarded my rights as an Afghan woman. I had access to mass media where that I could use to raise my voice if something happened. So these safeguards kept me safe as a single Afghan woman living on my own and playing a leadership role in my country. Now, without these safeguards, I see not only the Taliban posing a threat to me, but also other elements in the Afghan society. Remember that Afghanistan was never a safe space for women. So I have to think about that as well. I have to think about things like if the security is not maintained, would I be safe in my home? Would I be able to live on my own if there are no legal backing? What would my landlord continue to rent me my place? Would I be safe outside my home? Would I be safe if I decide to go and teach again in an evening university? So these are some things I have to really think about. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:54] Well Zuhra, thank you so much for your time, this was very, you know, helpful, impactful. Thank you. 

Zuhra Bahman [00:28:02] Thank you very much Mark

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:28:06] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Zuhra Bahman for speaking with me. And I do hope she is able to make it back to Afghanistan under the right circumstances and continue her important work there. Just needed now more than ever, I’d say. All right, I’ll see you next time. Thanks, Bye.