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Afeefa Syeed, senior culture and development advisor for the Asia and Middle East Bureaus of the United States Agency for International Development, spoke with Senior Fellow Susan Thistlethwaite on March 11, 2010 about how her agency is trying to change its development assistance so that it is more effective, more driven by local communities themselves, more culturally sensitive, and ultimately more sustainable.
They also discussed how U.S. development should handle significant and challenging cultural issues such as gender and religion, especially in Afghanistan. Finally, they considered the challenges of engaging religious groups as part of international development work and how that work should be governed.
Susan Thistlethwaite: Thank you for joining us. First of all, could you tell us a little bit more about your background, your role at USAID, and what you’re hoping to accomplish?
Afeefa Syeed: Sure. My background is in anthropology with a focus on culture and identity. I was very intrigued with development early on, and how development and culture intersect. My academic background is in cultural anthropology with a focus on grassroots development—how communities themselves respond to and create their own opportunities for development. A lot of my work—from [my] academic [work] on—has been on identity issues within the context of various realms—whether it is education or even the American experience of various identities and the creation of identity.
At USAID, what’s interesting is that I am finding that so many people have the same intention, which is to change or to understand how we as U.S. government agencies interact with one another—and how we interact with these issues of culture and identity and internally understand what culture means, not only in other countries but among our own agencies.
Then we have to ask ourselves: What do we do in terms of building the capacity to understand the places and people we work with and work for? That is what it really comes down to—building capacity [in the U.S. government] [and] understanding what tools may be out there and what tools we need to develop further in order to create that competency. Also, how do we engage with the communities we serve, and those that we serve with? So it is not just understanding culture, but how you take that [a] step further.
I’m excited to say that my position, other positions, and other efforts within the agency have come from the grassroots. More and more missions and field offices were saying, “We are living and working in very dynamic settings—ever more dynamic—so we need to understand them better.” So it’s exciting to be able to say that that came from the field, from the people who are working [in] it, not just from the top down.
What has been exciting is that now we have an administration that is mandating a more nuanced understanding and competency for development that will help us have engagement that is more meaningful, relevant, and in the end more helpful all around. So it’s a great time.
S: How is what is happening today different from how USAID has focused its development work in the past?
A: USAID had anthropologists in the 1970s who were doing social impact analyses, which were great, but again it was not institutionalized to the extent that it was sustainable. Whenever we talk about anthropology now at USAID and these visions of more engaged involvement in development, folks say, “Well, we did have this and people are doing this.” But throughout the agencies it could be a one-time thing or it could be dependent on some person’s individual understanding or desire to do it. Now we are trying to institutionalize it.
S: Specifically, how are you bringing your background as an anthropologist to this changed environment for development work?
A: The piece that I am really interested in is this intersection between culture and development. Sometimes they are mutually exclusive, or we talk about how there is culture and then there is development. But in fact, from an anthropological perspective, they can’t be mutually exclusive because they are in tandem. They actually encompass one another. Ideally, when you think about development, you have to think about the culture of development or the cultures that are [interacting] in terms of the development.
Culture itself, like I said, is dynamic. It’s changing. Even the identities of folks within a culture are changing and are in fluid motion. So it’s not to say that we have to preserve a culture necessarily.
That used to be one of the issues we had in anthropology. Folks would say “All you want to do is preserve something and not help them develop and change.” But the essence of culture is that people themselves are defining who they are, what their culture is, and what their identity is. So as an anthropologist working in development I have to acknowledge, understand, and appreciate that fact. I am not going to go in and label what this culture is and isn’t.
I am also not going to say “This group is part of this identity, or part of that identity.” I have to ask the questions “Who are you?” “How do you yourself identify and with what?” That is going to lead to a conversation about development very naturally because what is development if not helping the community understand where it is and where it wants to be?
We are trying to have this internal conversation so that when we go into a community it’s not a blank slate in terms of development. There are so many things happening on different levels and manifestations. So the question really is “What is happening right in your community and where are the gaps?” “If there are gaps, would you want us, as an international donor or agency coming in, to be there to help you fill those gaps?”
So that’s the kind of script we are looking at that would finally form development that makes sense, is meaningful, and is sustainable. It is bringing in anthropology, but it is also understanding what development actually is.
S: What are you most concerned about in terms of culture and development?
A: One of the things that we are concerned about is imposed development. Coming in with an agenda or coming in with a global plan and plopping it down and saying, “Well, it’s worked there. That’ll work here.” We do that, for example, with youth strategies. We think youth are universally this, that, or the other. And of course, some of that is very true. We have universal ideals and values and experiences. But let’s talk to the youth and find out how they identify themselves.
For example, I had this great conversation in the Philippines where these young people were telling me, “We are tired of leadership training. We don’t want to be leaders. Why are we continuously chosen?” And I asked them, “Well, what would you rather be doing?” And that was a question that hadn’t been asked of them directly because it was considered that they were youth, so of course they need this.
There is another example for women. I heard the same thing when I was in Afghanistan, which was, “We do entrepreneurship training, or business training.” And some of the women were saying, “We don’t want to be entrepreneurs. We’d rather have a regular job. We don’t want to have the hassle or headache of creating a business.”
So the question really becomes, is it feasible to really take the time and effort and collect, if nothing else, the data from the field? What are people thinking? What are people saying? So it’s not just having those conversations. One of the things we lack generally, across the board, is this type of information.
S: You include the Middle East in your portfolio and you mentioned Afghanistan. Just expanding on what you said about Afghanistan, what are some of the other cultural issues, including religious issues, that you see are particular to Afghanistan and that would benefit from this changed approach?
A: Well, as we know from the history, Afghanistan has always been at a crossroads, whether it has been for trade, exploration, or expansion. And just going there is a living memory of that. You have people who have migrated from Central Asia. You’ve got people from the South Asia region, and so on.
And so it’s a very blended and mixed group of people and identities. When we talk about the “Afghan” or the “Afghanistan culture” we have got to make sure we pull back, that we say we are not talking about one culture. That we are talking about a dynamic that has been historically multifaceted.
For example, the usual stereotype that we always hear is that they are a very proud people and very staunchly protective of their identity. It is true it is a very tribal area. I know when we were there, the kinds of conversations we had with folks on the ground were “We are so different in so many ways as Afghans, that having us pulled together is creating this conflict.” So that was one side of the story. And then the other side of it was “We are Afghan” and that identity meant something. And that meant that we are very different from one another. It was a really interesting dynamic.
Of course, religion plays a big part in their identity, because as many of them remind me over and over, “We are the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” But then again it is trying to pull out what that Islamic piece is, because religious identity there is also very multifaceted and diverse. We are talking about Sunni, Shia, and even the Afghan interpretations of Sharia within those tribes and within that region. So it’s nice to be able to say we understand the Afghan culture and then move forward. But to understand that there is so much to it and that there is so much going on is going to help us understand the nuances.
So you’ve got the tribe, you’ve got [the] provincial [level], you’ve got the religious identities. And then what struck me while I was there is that within that you’ve got former Mujahideen who fought against the former Soviet occupation and who have a sense of accomplishment. Some will say that they are treated with reverence because of what they did. And in many cases if they say something it goes.
On the other side you have folks that fled, who went to Iran or Pakistan, and who are considered migrants. They grew up somewhere else. In fact a whole generation grew up somewhere else. So you’ve got Afghans who came back and who speak Urdu fluently because they identify with some parts of the Pakistani culture even though they were in camps and were separate. They have that mixture in their identities.
And then there a couple of things that I thought were really interesting when I spoke with the young people in Afghanistan. Some of them were re-learning things that their parents didn’t have the chance to learn because they were gone or because it was a time of conflict. And they were simple things like an irrigation system. I was talking to someone in agriculture who said that they had traditional irrigation systems for centuries. For a long time that always worked. But suddenly you had a generation that wasn’t able to learn or to engage in it because of the war or because they had left. So you have a gap.
S: For many Americans the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan has been a concern, and it is a focus for many American-funded NGOs and not-for-profit groups. Yet over time, since the fall of the Taliban, women’s situation in that country seems to have deteriorated rather than improved. What are you trying to do with women and girls in Afghanistan?
A: I think we have to understand that women are always used as a symbol for what is happening, one way or another. I remember a conversation I had with some older Afghan women who said, “You know, here we are [wearing the] burqa, but not so long ago we were in miniskirts.” When they had the Russian occupation, the Russians wanted to show that the Afghans were becoming modern, so they forced the women to wear miniskirts—which is not something they all necessarily wanted to do and not something they all felt reflected their tradition or what they were aspiring to.
Now, in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, women are supposed to cover up with the burqa. Women can feel like they are only political symbols and their individual lives are not taken into account. The challenge is to work with Afghan culture, and yet engage women in deciding what they want.
I think what we are also concerned about is the terminology that we are using. How are we talking about what we do when we work with women? For example, “empowerment.” Americans tend to think it’s an important thing that women are empowered. But using that word and the connotations that go with it in a context like Afghanistan, where power itself is so loaded, connotes something that could be negative, especially when it comes to women. So we might be hurting ourselves when we have a women’s empowerment program when the way that it is translated in many cases is women above men.
When we talk about the idea of gender justice, for example, that encompasses both men and women, and we talk about who would benefit from that—which is in fact both men and women and it is also families—one of the approaches that has been effective is to talk to men about the health of their communities and their families, and a natural component of that is the health of the mother. It is a long way to get to the point, which is maternal health, but it makes much more sense in this context. And it makes for a much more sustainable conversation and that leads to more sustainable action. That is not just in Afghanistan, but overall. We need to be seriously concerned about [the] words we are using.
Also, in terms of development programs, what we are looking at more seriously across the board is who is being included when we develop programs or when we understand the strategy for working with women. Who is being talked to? Who are we including at the table before we put everything together? Who is interfacing and engaging?
Yes, we can look at development indicators. Those are measurements that are there to guide us in our work. We know that the situation of women in Afghanistan, especially in this context, is not good. But the step that we need to take is to look at how the communities themselves are measuring the impact. What indicators are they using themselves? This is, again, a more complex, nuanced approach. But ultimately when we go in and say what’s happening that’s right, we might find out that even though the girls aren’t going to school, there is a lot of education that is taking place. And so we are looking at that more informal sector as an approach and a part of a process.
The bottom line is that we need more data. We have not had enough people out there collecting [data], not just for the work that we do but in general. That is something that we are looking at seriously.
S: There have been a lot of attacks on girls’ schools in Afghanistan. Do you think this new approach will help prevent some of the violence and gain acceptance for the education of women and girls as well as for some of your other development programs?
A: What we are doing is trying to create ownership of the programs and projects by the Afghan people themselves, which is going to be essential for any development work that is sustainable. One way to do that is to engage further with the existing NGOs—but even more with the tribal elders, with the religious elders, with the community leaders that are there—and ask them if this [is] something that will make sense in their context.
Once they feel like they are a part of the process they will protect the schools [and] they will protect the projects because it means something to them. But if it is something that is imposed, that somebody else decided that these five schools needed to be built somewhere, which doesn’t make sense practically or culturally, then they won’t take ownership. That is a basic correlation.
Progress in this approach is sometimes difficult to measure and to understand. One of the things that we [are] looking at [is] timing of projects. We are thinking that there might be some short-term projects that we could do with more impact as long as we have more engagement. So I think the key is engagement. The key is not the U.S. stamp on our projects, because we know sometimes that is the kiss of death and we don’t want to proliferate that. But if the community recognizes the need and recognizes that they have the resources, then they themselves will go further in keeping it going.
And another issue for many development projects in the past—and not necessarily for USAID but just in general—has been that an outside agency will build a school, or a dam, or infrastructure, but then there is no maintenance. There is nothing that keeps it going, so again, when ownership is not there, it erodes literally and figuratively.
S: There is a mandate from this administration to transition projects in Afghanistan to Afghan control and position them for sustainability. What obstacles and possibilities do you see in terms of this happening?
A: I don’t know if it is so much obstacles as it is general challenges in trying to meet the president’s mandate, which I think all around is positive. One challenge is to get more civilians out there. We are working very hard to meet that challenge and mandate. As development practitioners we believe that that is the best way—to have civilians out there that know what they are doing and that are part of a larger effort. It is part of the design and part of the implementation.
A couple things that we are looking at when we do the recruitment of civilians, for example—we look at folks who at the very least have experience being in a conflict situation. It is not just anybody who knows development. They need to really have that experience to help shorten the time of orientation. We are also looking for language ability—capabilities in areas that are most needed there. So in just the recruitment of civilians, it’s a long process. It’s a tedious process.
Some of the ways we have been doing it is through outreach. One of the specific groups we have been targeting is the Afghan-American community here in the United States. We have a very robust outreach office with our Afghanistan-Pakistan taskforce that only does this type of engagement.
We had a wonderful roundtable with Afghan-American NGOs and individuals a few months back where we brought them to our offices. They met with the taskforce head and talked about what they see as challenges but also what they have been engaged in or know of that is working in Afghanistan. Some of that was great to hear. It has been on our radar on various levels but to hear from them and engage them further on it was very helpful.
We are also very open to getting feedback where people in the field say “this is what is lacking,” or “we need this.” And we are often able to pull it together. We have resource lists of multimedia resources that people can tap into just so that they have something on hand—connecting people to people.
We have American NGOs that are doing good work in Afghanistan. Another challenge is connecting them to other NGOs and local partners because some of these NGOs are too small to necessarily handle the capacity of larger projects. But we want to build up capacity, so connecting them to groups with larger capacity helps them do that, but it also gives the large NGO a greater local understanding.
S: That is most informative. Now, Afghanistan could occupy you full time, but you have huge regions of the world to be concerned about. Can you give us some examples from other countries on issues of concern for culture and development work?
A: I think a lot of what we have talked about in the Afghan context we can extrapolate out. The challenge is, again, how to understand a particular cultural context and then gain insight into what is important to that culture. It is not a body of understanding—the “dos” and “don’ts” of a culture. It is far beyond that. We are hoping to create in all of us the sense that, first of all, culture matters and then why does it matter to what I am doing [as a development practitioner].
In the past, many of our USAID staff were former Peace Corps workers [who] had lived in the countries and been engaged and understood, to some extent, the value of culture. Now we have a trend where we have more and more folks [who] have degrees in international development and have master’s [degrees] in program management. So they are really great at managing programs, which is what we need, but they may be missing this link to why culture matters. That is the piece we are working on today.
S: One final question. Recently the Chicago Council on Global Affairs had a task force on religion and the making of U.S. foreign policy. They issued a report about engaging religious communities abroad as a new imperative for U.S. foreign policy. I know you were invited to comment on the report after it was published. What did you think of it and what are some of the issues you think it raises and some of the things you would like to say about the recommendations?
A: I think it’s a very helpful report all the way around. Very sound recommendations in terms of types of engagement and reasons for engagement with religious communities and leaders. Very specific recommendations for the U.S. government to follow through on. We are very excited to see it and know that it is out there. It boosts what we are trying to do within the offices at USAID. That was actually exciting that we were able to say to the folks [who] put out the report that what you have recommended we have been working on at various levels.
For example, this idea of engagement officers—or having people in posts or missions whose job would be to have engagement—is a recommendation they made that we had already been working on and getting an understanding of how we could actually operationalize it. So that piece is there.
We have a religion and global affairs working group that was started a year and half ago between USAID and the State Department, where we get together on a regular basis to discuss some of these issues. Now that will be taken to another level as a larger interagency effort. So again, these are efforts we have had in place. What we are trying to do now in regard to the report’s recommendations is consolidate and coordinate what we have been doing.
There are issues and concerns we need to be aware of such as the establishment clause when it comes to engagement. Does the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution operate abroad?* In other words, can a U.S. agency fund one religious group and not another when working in other countries? That has to be a thoughtful conversation. We can’t just say we can do it no matter what. We have to understand how can we do it so that we maintain that separation that is so important to us as a secular state and as a secular agency.
As far as the report, it has recommendations that are important, but it was exciting to say that these conversations are ongoing between the agencies. And now with the president’s mandate for greater engagement religious leaders and communities are seen as another group of people we need to engage with.
In the development context we really are seeing religious leaders as development practitioners. They are already doing development in their role as leaders of influence. They are already involved in conflict resolution, education, and delivery of services. Why not engage with them on that?
It’s not just interacting with them when we have a project or a program, but before that as well, so they are on the table with the other community leaders that we have discussing what the needs are and what is going right. They are part of the discussion from the beginning as development practitioners.
So again, it is an exciting time to have all this come from different places whether it is NGO communities, advisory councils, or the administration. It is all coming to a head where the conversations are becoming more nuanced and complex, but then there are deliverables out of those conversations as well. It’s a bureaucracy—so whatever little things we get done we celebrate.
We know that underlying it all is the will. You need to have that in place before you can have anything else.
S: Thank you very much for taking the time to go more in depth on these issues. I really appreciate it. I look forward to more products out of your innovative work.
A: Thank you, Susan. It was my pleasure.
Listen to the interview (mp3)
Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
* The establishment clause is included in the First Amendment and is generally interpreted as prohibiting the establishment of a national religion by Congress or the preference of the government for one religion over another.