UPDATED: In late July 2023, as the second anniversary of the fall of Kabul loomed, American officials formally met with senior representatives of the Taliban for the first time since that debacle in Doha, Qatar. Against a stark background of continuing economic collapse, dire humanitarian need, and the persistent threat of famine across Afghanistan, Special Representative Thomas West and Special Envoy for Afghan Women and Girls Rina Amiri raised concerns about terrorism, narcotics, and human rights, while their interlocutors called for a lifting of sanctions against them and travel bans on their leaders, and a release of frozen Afghan central bank assets.
Coming right before a statement made on background to the Voice of America by a State Department spokesman that the United States opposes any efforts to change the political situation in the country by violence, the talks signaled a new pragmatism on the part of
the Biden administration in the face of the seemingly intractable realities on the ground.
Proclaiming themselves open to “a technical dialogue regarding economic stabilization
issues,” the Americans said they had “identified areas for confidence building in support
of the Afghan people.”
If Washington is indeed serious that this is the best way forward, there is a high-achieving humanitarian whose unique career can point the way, because he has been finding common ground and literally building on it to empower Afghans for over two decades. Jonathan Hoffman has never had the high profile of the mega-NGOs which tried to transform Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, the American-led overthrow of the Taliban, and the long and largely fruitless efforts of the international community there. Yet that is how he has alwayswanted it, and there is a nucleus of old Afghan hands who will swear that that is precisely why, combined with his humility and tact, his yields have been so impressive.
A native Vermonter who has been engaged in humanitarian work since he volunteered in refugee camps and orphanages in Kosovo in 1999, Hoffman is the founder and director of
Direct Aid International (DAI), which he describes as “a small, non-profit, non-political,
non-sectarian organization dedicated to bringing a sense of normalcy to crisis situations.”
DAI’s latest school: A consistent record of building schools and other projects in Afghanistan regardless of the political climate. (Photo: Jonathan Hoffman)
Since his first trip to Afghanistan in the summer of 2002, Hoffman and DAI have built a remarkable total of 54 elementary schools, 2 water projects, and 2 fruit and nut nurseries in remote rural areas of the country, some of them at elevations of 9,000 feet. Concentrating his efforts in the core central provinces of Bamyan, Wardak, and Ghazni, he has operated continuously through war, pandemic, and drought, and has yet to experience a hostile action or even a threat in retaliation for his endeavors. And how has he managed this amidst a conflict in which the culture war was a bitter driver of the military war, and as a citizen of the nation which the Taliban had successfully vowed to drive from the land in contention?
“We who come from developed countries put so much emphasis on ‘results’ from our point of view, instead of paying attention to the locals’ own perception of what they need,” he explains. “Too many times we predetermine what they need and try to impose it, and that has often led to alienation. I have always kept a low profile, did my best to learn about the local traditions in every place I went and to respect them, and asked the villagers what they needed and wanted. Over and over again, that was a school, and I worked with them to build it — not to set the curriculum.”
Direct Aid International’s tried-and-tested modus operandi is to establish the scope of
a project with the villagers, set a budget accordingly, and then disburse the funds in thirds
as progress is measured. Two-thirds of the resources are donated funds, while the remaining third is provided in kind by the locals – materials from the site such as stone, labor, etc. All the schools are built in stone and cement, never in mud and brick, with an average size of six rooms which can accommodate between 150 and 200 students.
Outside materials such as iron beams, metal roofs, and cement are trucked in, though wooden beams crafted by the villagers have been used on occasion. The most any single school has ever cost was $20,000, with the standout exception of a twelve room structure in Bamyan made of brick, which cost $100,000, and is widely regarded as one of the best schools in Afghanistan.
Local workmen building school. (Photo: Jonathan Hoffman)
“They know their stone,” Hoffman affirms with a laugh. “One thing Afghanistan has is rocks. And they know how to build things that last – I’ve been a guest in houses that are 300 years oldand are somehow still in good shape, despite the decades of war and neglect.”
DAI’s track record of quantity and quality has been matched by its efficiency, as all of
this has been accomplished with only a million dollars in twenty-one years. This is a stark contrast with the untold millions that have been wasted by Western governments and large NGOs, which over the course of the international engagement in Afghanistan were notorious for paying high salaries to consultants and spending large amounts on feasibility studies — with dubious benefit to the Afghans themselves.
“I chose the name ‘Direct Aid International’ because of what it means: Aid goes directly to the people, with no middleman,” Hoffman stresses. “We are an all-volunteer organization, with three staffers based in Vermont and two in Afghanistan, operating entirely on donated funds – I myself have never drawn a salary. In 2002 I went over there with the thought of doing whatever I could to help, and have stuck to that. I take the whole concept of me being an ambassador very seriously – not only extending humanitarian assistance but engaging in an exchange of cultures and traditions. Travelling around rural Afghanistan without a gun for 22 years, I have been told many times, ‘You are brave’”
Hoffman (second from left with cap) meeting with the Taliban government of Bamyan Province. (Photo: Jonathan Hoffman)
And apparently he is regarded by all as being fair as well. Unlike the vast majority of
international donors who either fled the country in 2021 or severely curtailed their activities, Hoffman saw no reason to stop what DAI was doing or even change his pace. In his regular trips over the last two years he experienced no trouble obtaining a visa from the restored Taliban government or in travelling to his work sites. He has accordingly already laid the foundations for schools #55 and #56, and is currently engaged in raising funds for #57.
“I do not take a stand with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan regarding their culture,
traditions, or laws,” he says firmly. “The Taliban actually charged me less for a visa, and
I obtained it within several hours. They have no objection to what I do, and the local officials at my project sites have asked me to come back. I will do so as soon as I have raised the $20-30,000 I need.”
Most current news reports and opinion pieces about Afghanistan revolve around the diplomatic impasse between the West and the Taliban, with the former demanding concessions on women’s rights and a more inclusive government, and the latter demanding formal recognition and a removal of all sanctions. In between are the Afghan people, who in addition to the collapse of the economy and a severe decline in medical facilities are suffering their third year of climate change-induced drought, resulting in ever-decreasing crop yields and even shortages of drinking water.
In a recent posting in Foreign Affairs that noted the new government’s interest in vitally needed infrastructural projects yet limited technical capacity for carrying them out, authors Graeme Smith and Ibraheem Bahiss declared, “For the sake of millions of Afghans, regional actors as well as Western governments and institutions must work to establish more functional relationships with the Taliban,” since Afghans “deserve to eat.”
They could start by consulting with Jonathan Hoffman, despite the understandable feelings of frustration and fatigue that prevail after so long and difficult an international engagement. “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,” he affirms. “The second best time is today.”
Direct Aid International’s website is www.directaidinternational.org
Jonathan Hoffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Vanni Cappelli, a freelance journalist, is the president of the Afghanistan Foreign
Press Association and a regular contributor to Global Insights Magazine.