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S. Yacoobi: Address to World Summit 2017

Address to World Summit 2017, Seoul, Korea, February 1 to 5, 2017


AIL’s Model for Change

When I began my work with my people and founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), Afghanistan had been at war for 13 years. More than half of the population, 7.5 million women, men and children, were refugees and millions more were displaced.  Millions had died. The country and its institutions were destroyed. Afghans were unhealthy, mostly illiterate and jobless. They had lost trust and dignity. I believed holistic education and training would be the key to helping Afghans transform their lives and their country. To assist with this transformation, the Afghan Institute of Learning uses a grassroots, community-driven, culturally-sensitive approach, built on trust, high standards and high expectations. Our core principles are:

  • involve the community;
  • allow communities to define their own needs;
  • listen to the community;
  • provide high-quality and culturally-sensitive trainings and programs;
  • whatever you promise, deliver, and;
  • take the time to cultivate trust, and work to maintain it.

To achieve the transformation AIL envisions, it applies five core values.

Listen and Learn

People in conflict zones want and need help, but they do not need organizations telling them what to do or offering solutions that do not work. They need to know that people respect and care for them enough to listen to their struggles and concerns and to learn what it is they need for their situation to improve. So we ask questions that will help our staff understand their immediate needs: What do you need? Do your teachers need training? Do you need books, sewing classes or healthcare? What are your long-term goals? From their responses, we learn who the community is at its core—their values, hopes and dreams and the obstacles that stand in their way. Usually, the communities want teachings that bring peace, justice, love and equality. By gaining a clear understanding of their history and their vision for the future, AIL is able to develop a culturally sensitive response to meeting their needs.

Leverage Community Support:  Get People to Join Hands and Work Together

We do not move forward with any plans or programs until we are assured of the community’s full support. We stress the need for each member of the community and the community to contribute something—whatever they can afford—as a sign of their commitment to support AIL’s programs and their willingness to be a part of the solution. We raise the standards for participation, and by meeting them, the self-esteem of the community and its members grows. Over time, members of the Afghan community come to see their individual potential for self-sufficiency and the power they have to shape the future of their country. In addition, AIL promotes entrepreneurship as a way to improve the economic status of the community and the persons that live in it.

Lead the Way: Pave the Path to Reaching Each Person’s Goals

AIL takes the lead in implementing high-quality community programs based on the needs that the community has stated. In doing this, we demonstrate what it means to be a leader. Our staff has confidence in our programs and confidence that every community member will be successful in them. We enable this to happen by working alongside every community member as they take their first steps toward their goals. We make good on our promise to help by equipping them with the tools and resources needed for their success, and by encouraging them every step of the way. We do our part to help them reach their goals, and they are happy to do their part. AIL focuses on capacity building education that empowers women, men and children. The various training programs we run help reduce poverty and raise the economic status of civil society. We want people to know their human rights and be active members of a democratic society. We work with them to recognize that they can be leaders, and we teach them how to be leaders. Good governance is important. Quality education entails a collaborative balance of culture, language and art.

Evaluate the Work: Collaborative Discussion Results in New Directions

Each program AIL starts is evaluated periodically by staff and participants to determine if objectives of the program are being met. Staff and participants look at what worked and what did not. They celebrate successes and enlarge their circle of influence as other communities realize the power of education to better their lives. And they learn from failures, revising existing programs to better meet needs or creating new programs to keep communities moving forward and closer to their goals.

New Goals:  Innovation Never Stops

The work that AIL does with communities brings great joy and a wonderful sense of fulfillment. But it is also hard, and sometimes dangerous, work. As goals are met, new ones are added. The work seems to never end. When our staff finds itself mentally, emotionally and physically tired—or even worn down from the demands of the work, then AIL must go back to the beginning. Our staff reminds itself of why we are working, the mission behind our methods, and the inspiration that started the work in the first place. For staff, that inspiration is the power of education to change lives. If you teach people how to reach their goals, they will thrive. Through quiet reflection, staff often finds new ways, and becomes aware of new directions and solutions to ongoing problems. Our staff also finds new energy for the journey and the courage to renew their commitment to our mission.

Examples of How Change Occurs Using AIL’s Model

In AIL’s model, the communities it works with in any project are its partners.  Both the community and AIL need to agree on what services will be provided and what tasks each partner will do. AIL does not go to a community and say, “We are going to do this for you.” Rather, AIL waits for the leaders of communities to come to AIL and ask for assistance. Then, negotiation takes place over time about what the community wants and what it will provide, and what AIL will provide and also what types of projects AIL will support that is consistent with its overall vision and goals.  Teamwork is essential. Once both the community and AIL agree, a contract is signed and the project begins. As the project progresses and the community’s needs change, AIL staff and community leaders sit down and talk again. The community is always in the lead. Nothing is added until the community wants it. This means that things may not change until the community is ready.  It also means that AIL cannot “guarantee” certain results to donors because change is dependent on when the community is ready and what they want.

Example 1: Changes Resulting from Starting a School for Refugee Children in the Refugee Camps

When AIL first started, the staff was primarily composed of experienced female master teacher trainers (MTT). I had trained the first group of Afghan female master teacher trainers in the refugee camps and the master teacher trainers had begun training female teachers at schools for refugee girls in Peshawar. Because of AIL’s innovative teacher training program, the students in the schools whose teachers had been trained began to learn more. Word spread in the refugee camps and elders of different camps came to meet with AIL to ask for help in starting a school for children in their camp. Because AIL believes in education for all and that education for all is key to transformation, AIL said that it could help if at least 50 percent of the students were girls. Since the community wanted “good” education, AIL required that the teachers chosen by the community receive AIL teacher training. It was up to the community to decide whether the first grade boys and girls would be in the same or separate classrooms.  In most cases, the community provided the space, chose the teachers and administrators, provided security for the “school,” and provided cleaning and maintenance for the facility. AIL paid salaries to the teachers; provided a blackboard, chalk and books acceptable to the community; and provided floor coverings. Usually the students provided their own slates, pens, notebooks and pencils. At the time, Afghans were very suspicious of education, particularly for girls. But as other refugee communities saw the schools were successful and culturally appropriate, and the students learned faster than others whose teachers had not been trained, they approached AIL to start schools for girls and boys in their community.  What had changed?  The community’s attitude to education had shifted and to education for girls, greatly shifted. 

During this same period of time, educated refugee women in Peshawar began asking AIL to organize human rights workshops, so AIL held its first human rights workshops, using Islamic law as the basis for human rights. Human rights is a very controversial subject with Afghans but not when it is taught using Islamic teachings. Women learned that women and girls should be educated, that violence against women is not acceptable, that girls have a right in who they marry. Word spread through the camps about these workshops. One day, one of the community leaders, whose community had an AIL-supported school, came to AIL and asked AIL to hold a human rights workshop at the AIL-supported school for the women in his camp. Most of the women were illiterate. Holding a human rights workshop for women in the camps was very controversial.  However, since a leader of the community had asked and had the support of the community, AIL held the workshop. One older woman, the matriarch of an extended family living in one compound in the camp, came with several of her daughters-in-law. All of them were illiterate and the woman’s daughters-in-law experienced a lot of violence. Following the workshop, the matriarch returned to her home and told her sons that she was going to start a literacy class in their compound and start sending the girls to school. She backed this up with what she had learned in the workshop about what the Quran says. In addition, the daughters-in-law found their voice, backed up by the matriarch, and violence was reduced, again through what they learned in the workshop. The shifts are clear, but the most important thing was waiting until the community wanted the workshop and not “forcing” the workshop on them.

Following this first workshop, other women, including women who were living in a camp specifically for widows, began requesting AIL hold workshops. They all learned about their rights under Islam. A year or so later, the government decided to close the widow’s camp. This was devastating for the widows, who had built their mud homes there and felt very safe. They came to AIL for help. I talked to them and reminded them of what they had learned in the workshop. We told them that AIL probably could not do very much, but they could.  So the group of widows went to the government and told them about their situation, quoting from the Quran. Eventually they were able to stop the closure of the camp.

None of these outcomes could have been predicted ahead of time. However, if you involve the community and listen to them, build trust with them, and help them develop critical thinking skills—and are patient until people are ready and ask for services themselves, the results will come and change will happen on many levels.


Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, Chief Executive Director, Afghan Institute for Learning, Afghanistan

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi is the founder and Executive Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), an Afghan women-led NGO she founded in 1995. She is well known for her work for the rights of children, women and education. Sakena came to the United States in the 1970s, earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of the Pacific in 1977 and a master’s degree in public health from Loma Linda University. 

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