In Afghanistan, there are extremists everywhere -- but not the kind you think: I mean people living in extreme poverty, extreme pain, extreme despair. At the same time, there is extreme resilience and extreme hopefulness. Resilient is how I describe a country whose people have survived decades of warfare and instability and have always managed to prevail.
Still, many lack access to decent healthcare. In my new position as National Coordinator for Health Programs with the Aga Khan Foundation in Afghanistan, I work on programs that help the most vulnerable in Afghanistan: mothers and children. A few years ago, Save the Children ranked the country as the worst place in the world for pregnant women and UNICEF described it as "the most dangerous place to be born."
One of the Aga Khan Foundation's main health aims is improving the infrastructure, delivery, and quality of healthcare in Afghan hospitals including Badakhshan Provincial Hospital in Faizabad, where I visited in late September. Badakhshan has the highest rate of maternal and child mortality in Afghanistan due to many factors, including lack of healthcare workers (especially a lack of female health professionals), the isolation imposed by mountainous terrain and heavy snowfalls and cultural restrictions on women's movement and autonomy.
Financed by Germany, Norway, and the United States, there are projects for upgrading infrastructure and enhancing the quality of medical service by training healthcare workers and providing continuing education. We also have programs in post-graduate education for maternal and child health professionals, improvement of diagnostic and treatment services, strengthening institutional capacity for evidence-based interventions, and enhancement of eHealth diagnoses and trainings.
I began my path to my current position several years ago with the Aga Khan Development Network as a research analyst in Kyrgyzstan. After getting my master's in public health, I continued to pursue my passion for development work and helping those in extreme poverty by joining the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. (AKF USA) as a fellow in 2012, hoping to contribute to AKF USA's portfolio of health projects. In this portfolio, the U.S. office works with counterparts in developing countries to achieve sustainable improvements in the health of vulnerable groups -- especially isolated rural populations, women and young children -- by working to establish basic health services, better policies and health financing.
My time at AKF USA was transformative. One of the biggest challenges was not only understanding the scope and depth of our work, but explaining it. One memorable moment occurred at the Population-Level Behavior Change Evidence Summit in Washington DC: a woman hurried across the room, took a chair beside me, glanced at my name tag, and exclaimed, "The Aga Khan Foundation! You do some amazing work in the world." She then asked eagerly, "What is AKF doing now?"
That's a wonderful question, one that I've often answered with much enthusiasm. After almost a year with AKF, however, it was becoming ever more challenging to capture all our "amazing work" in a brief summary.
My table, by then full of people listening intently, was excited as I described AKF USA's new $60 million partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan for long-term, community-based social development based on multi-input area development (MIAD). In health, I also mentioned the USAID-funded Chitral Child Survival Program in Pakistan, which trains and accredits community health workers at the grassroots level to provide quality healthcare to women during and after their pregnancy and engages communities in lowering their rates of maternal and infant mortality. This ignited a discussion on work in other sectors ranging from agriculture and early childhood education to access to finance.
My tablemates told harrowing stories of setting up makeshift clinics in Haiti after the earthquake and working in Siberia with expectant mothers in the dead of winter. My own experiences seemed puny next to theirs.
Ever since my year in Kyrgyzstan, my every thought (family and friends can attest) involved getting back to Central Asia and working again with extraordinary people, building on the resiliency I saw there. My family is Ismaili, the branch of Islam led by His Highness the Aga Khan, so I grew up familiar with the Aga Khan Development Network's remarkable work in alleviating poverty. Though my drive to serve is certainly rooted in my faith, I truly believe that service is a fundamental human value that we all share. I realized early that the world's problems are deep and complex, but I'm committed to finding lasting solutions that help marginalized people feel empowered to thrive. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, "Our job is to put ourselves out of business."
Now that I'm in Afghanistan, I have my work cut out for me. The poor health conditions for young children and women demand innovative, sustainable interventions. I've been here just a few months, but I already feel a strong connection to the people, including an expectant mother I met outside the newly renovated hospital in Faizabad.
She patted her big belly and said, "My child will be a doctor in this hospital and will save all the children."
So I asked about her baby. She smiled and said, "I think it's a girl."
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