Hiroshima Fellowship of Hope

by Nassrine Azimi, Senior Advisor to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)

Recently I visited the exhibition of one of my favorite artists, Hiroshima’s iconic painter and narrator of the Silk Road, Ikuo Hirayama. Over his lifetime Hirayama visited Afghanistan many times-- painting in 1968 the Great Stone Buddha, a majestic statute nestled since the 6th century in a cave overlooking the Bamiyan Valley. That statute was destroyed by the Taliban regime in 2001 and Hirayama’s paintings on exhibit, one of the standing Buddha, another of the empty space left after its destruction, seem to distill all the miseries afflicting that ancient land in recent decades.

Afghanistan crossed a historical threshold in early April, when its people defied threats of violence, to vote in presidential and provincial council elections. The ballot counting continues, and there are still worries of fraud and further violence. But the three presidential front-runners were all worthy candidates -- two medical doctors and the third a former academic and official at the World Bank -- all with strong track record in public office. There is, cautiously, space for optimism.

Japan has every reason to wish for a peaceful political transition in Afghanistan. It is, after the United States, that country’s second largest donor, with almost 5 billion US dollars in development aid since 2002. Though the Japanese private sector is still absent, promises of a vibrant future Afghan market are enticing: Afghanistan's territory is almost twice the size of Japan, with one fourth the population (65% of which is under the age of 25). It could benefit from Japanese investments and expertise in almost every sector: infrastructure, agriculture, mining, health, education. More to the point, Afghans have great admiration for Japan, which they view - politically and culturally - far more favorably than almost any of their Western allies.

The cooperation that resonates most in my own heart, and which I believe provides a model for future partnerships, is surely the capacity-building effort initiated with the support of Hiroshima Prefecture, and implemented for more than a decade by UNITAR. Its roots go back to 2001, when a group of us was tasked with creating the curriculum of UNITAR’s new Hiroshima Office. We all grasped the significance of distilling Hiroshima’s experiences for other war-afflicted countries. So when the US-led occupation toppled the brutal Taliban regime, we formed a small research team and headed to Kabul, to identify the most pressing training needs of Afghanistan’s broken civil service, and see what could be done from Hiroshima.

All members of the mission were familiar with Afghanistan -- in my case from childhood memories of a visit in the 1960s. Still, the wreckage we saw came as a shock. Instead of the tree-lined streets and the crisp, blue skies of the Kabul I remembered, there was the depressing detritus, of 30 years of war and neglect, bullet-riddled walls across a dusty city bereft of greenery, everywhere the lingering smell of fear and repression.

We interviewed many -- ministers and clerks, academics and businessmen, UN staff, NGO field officers, ambassadors. It soon became clear that our initial, optimistic plans, drawn in the safety of offices back home, were irrelevant. A more flexible strategy, better attuned to Afghan realities, was needed.

The result was an original concept, the Hiroshima Fellowship for Afghanistan -- year-long cycles of executive training for the country’s cadre. It provided core training -- from project design, management, report-writing or fund-raising, to accounting and budgeting, team-building and networking. Each cycle included on-site and distance-learning components, and every team was assigned a dedicated group of volunteer mentors, in and outside Afghanistan. Inclusiveness was mandatory -- men and women, young and old, Hazara, Pashtun or Tajik, were required to work together. Each cycle concluded with a final workshop and conference in Hiroshima.

The Hiroshima Fellowship changed how my team and I came to see international development assistance. It certainly changed me. What are some of its guiding principles?

First, the symbolic significance of Hiroshima, which provided a larger than life context. I never saw any group as visibly affected by Hiroshima’s moral stance -- or by its revival - as the Afghans. Often they remarked, on leaving the Peace Memorial Museum, or after a testimony by a Hibakusha : ‘If Hiroshima could revive, then so can Afghanistan’. Hiroshima’s effort, to forego hatred in favor of activism -- to forgive but not to forget -- also had immense relevance for a country still mired in long-past enmities.

Second, the Fellowship core team at UNITAR was deeply diverse: two impressive women, from Pakistan and Kazakhstan, were its early coordinators. Over the years Russian and Ukrainian colleagues, Japanese and Afghans, one Argentinian, one Filipina and two New Zealanders have worked on it. There were Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, Dari and Pashto-speakers. An impressive network of instructors -- Americans and Canadians, Singaporeans, Japanese, Iranian, Pakistani and Indians -- from top universities, national and international organizations and even companies like Microsoft -- rallied, bringing desperately needed skills pro-bono and for the long haul. Why? In the beginning because these experts found the narratives of Hiroshima and Afghanistan compelling; later because they too came to feel energized by the Fellows' desire for learning and change.

Third, by necessity the Fellowship was frugal, and therefore sustainable. Its modest, paced approach proved essential for working in a country that had lost almost everything. We watched over the years as multi-million dollar, donor-driven programs started with great fanfare, then fizzled out one after the other. Meanwhile the Fellowship just kept building foundations. And though our financial resources were limited, thanks to the wisdom of the main donor, they were long-term. This, alongside significant in-kind support and institutional commitment of many partners, meant that the Fellowship could plan ahead.

Fourth, quite early on the Afghans became part of the design team. This was not easy at first, but their intellectual engagement and personal responsibility for success transformed the Fellowship’s dynamics - we were no longer donor and donee, but part of a single learning community. The Fellowship achieved, in a modest way, what international assistance is notoriously poor at creating -- a sense of national ownership. It also validated my life-long belief, that given equal opportunity everyone aspires to excellence.

Finally, we tried not to forget Afghan realities, visiting whenever possible. From peaceful Hiroshima it was difficult to imagine the daunting conditions under which Fellows worked: rebuilding institutions in the midst of political turmoil, bomb threats, assassinations, scarce resources or collapsing infrastructure. Their resilience was impressive. During one Hiroshima workshop, a Fellow underwent emergency appendicitis surgery, just a few days before heading back to Kabul. When I expressed concern for his condition, a medical doctor in the group smiled, reminding me that during the war they did surgery while running across the Hindu Kush Mountains!

My friend, the late Sergio Vieira de Melo, used to say of the United Nations’ work that pragmatism was essential, but not at the expense of idealism. The Afghans touched our lives -- with their intelligence, their humor, their hospitality, the way they can sing or recite poetry at every opportunity, their dignity and warmth. Our bonds have been sustained over the years not by pity or mere sympathy, but by empathy - their destiny could have easily been ours.

The Hiroshima Fellowship continues. All my successors at UNITAR have remained strongly committed to it. To this day some 450 government cadre, and more still from academia and the non-governmental sector, have been trained. A strong Alumni network is in place. Ministries compete for a slot, many covering tuition costs for their staff. I cannot claim that Afghanistan’s problems are solved, simply because a few hundred professionals across a dozen ministries completed the Fellowship. But I can say with some confidence that there is no lack of talented professionals in Afghanistan. With a modicum of political stability, they can change their country.

I am no longer directly involved with the Fellowship, but like almost all associated with it, I remain engaged. With Alumni of Herat - an ancient city which had one of the world’s first universities - we hope to create gardens of peace, the centerpiece of which will be trees that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Like the painter Hirayama, over the years many of us glimpsed the possibility of a different Afghanistan -- a land of peace and prosperity, commensurate with its rich cultural heritage. So the Fellowship community around the world, too, roots for a peaceful political transition -- dreaming of the day when there can be an Alumni reunion - maybe in the beautiful Bamiyan Valley.

Nassrine Azimi
Born in Iran in 1959. Moved for her studies to Switzerland at the age of 17. Earned a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute in Geneva in 1986 and another master’s degree from Geneva University’s Institute of Architecture in 1998. Joined the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and became a full staff in 1988. After serving as chief of UNITAR’s New York office, became the first director of its new Hiroshima office in 2003. Stepped down in 2009. Now serves as its senior advisor. Since 2011 has been involved in a project to send seeds and seedlings from trees that survived the atomic bombing around the world. Writes opinion pieces in the New York Times and other publications on various issues, including Hiroshima’s efforts to bring about peace and on the aftermath of the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Resident of Hiroshima.