The social relations of environmental leadership

by Christian Damholt, Denmark, ELP 2014
Written on July 14, 2014.

Image iconDamholt-Christian-Blog-1_2.jpgIs it fair to demand of the Afghan people that they engage in sustainability and how is it possible to mobilize hope for an environmentally sustainable future when you work with civil society organisations (CSOs) in Afghanistan? A young green leader, Aimal Khan, from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) delivers the answers.
I meet Aimal Khan, the national coordinator of GEF’s Small Grants Program, at a corner café on Euclid Avenue just outside the UC Berkeley campus. The street, Euclid, named after the Egyptian-Greek mathematician, seems like the right setting for the interview. Even though Aimal has a calm voice and he is not a tall man, his appearance is loud and his walk is determined. He tells me that the name Aimal means “sincere”.

What is the GEF’s Small Grants Program and what do you do as National Coordinator?
“So the Small Grants Program started in 1992 and is a global program under GEF. The main focus of the program is to work with CSOs. The direct involvement of the grass root people is the reason behind the success of the program. The CSO comes up [with] their own proposals based on the environmental problems that they face. Here we seek innovative approaches as responses to the problems. We are not supporting business as usual. “

You say that the GEF demands innovations in the projects. However, the Afghan people have been through so many troubles the last decades. Do you think it is fair to demand innovation when there is really no business as usual?
“The Small Grants Program is only a tiny amount in the bigger picture. And if there is no innovation or if projects are not implemented in a different way we won’t be able to build sustainable projects.”

“There are many problems in Afghanistan, and there are huge projects and grants addressing some of these. In the Small Grants Program we want to show that we can implement successful models, which can be up-scaled. The Afghan people are very poor. But the program will help people with livelihood opportunities in ways that are more sustainable. 93% of all conflicts in Afghanistan are environment related and people live in resource scarcity. We need an innovative approach also at the local level in the communities. These communities will be the first beneficiaries of this program.”

This sounds almost too good, but what are the biggest obstacles that you face in your work?
“The CSOs were not involved before and didn’t have any support. The Small Grants Program is the first opportunity for them. Now they can come up with their own problems, learn and share their experiences with other organisations. But there is a capacity gap. Our greatest success so far is to enhance the capacity of civil society organisations. The greatest project is one where disabled women were trained to produce cotton bags as a substitute [for] plastic bags and have done this very successfully. The project is now being replicated elsewhere”.

What do you feel when you think of this project?
“I really feel proud. And we actually have an old tradition of cotton bags. It was a part of our culture. I remember my father used cotton bags and we brought our stuff in these bags. I hope we can reintroduce this culture. The innovative part is to revitalise something, which we have lost. And maybe the government someday will ban plastic bags.”

I am quite amazed by your optimism. International rapports paint a very dark picture of the development in Afghanistan. How do you mobilize hope for a more social and environmentally sustainable future in this desert of despair?
“The optimism comes from believing that we, by supporting CSOs in the projects, are building a kind of network for the future of Afghanistan. People will learn and share their experiences. The CSOs will become the stewards of the environment in Afghanistan. And it will also contribute to peace. We are planting something for the future.“

You seem to focus only on the positive things? Don’t you neglect the some of the big, macro problems of Afghanistan?
“Peace is key in Afghanistan. It means that we will have everything. The projects will contribute to both wealth and peace. Our initiatives will help and are very important. Again, the problems revolve around the issues of environment and resources.”

It seems to me as if your strategy is to focus on the concrete projects as a stepping stone to a more optimistic vision of the future rather than thinking too much about the huge problems mentioned?
“The macro issues that you mentioned are real, but here our focus is that we really should work hard and help the CSOs to build capacity. If we always think of these macro issues I don’t think it would be good for our work with the projects. But naturally we consider the risk of, for example, the security situation and seek to minimize these risks.”

Do you have an idol in terms of vision and courage?
“There is my father. He is a forest specialist. He has been the director general of forests in Afghanistan for many years. And the way he works and all his achievements. Wow. He has been a part of the establishment of a natural park in Afghanistan. It is a big park. And when I look at his work I feel proud.“

What is his biggest strength, which we can learn from?
“His biggest strength is his knowledge. He is the real forester. Whenever there was a marriage, I have been told that my father always brought two trees as a gift for the couple, which could be planted as a memory of their great day. And he was good at conflict resolution too. There was a big conflict in Badakhshan [province in Afghanistan]. Here the trees could serve as a memory of the resolution.”

Not all Afghans have a father like that – what can they do? I know that is an unfair question…
“No, some people don’t have a father they can be proud of like me. I feel obliged to take responsibility and help other people. However, these people still shouldn’t lose courage. We are not our fathers. I am proud of him, but I too have to be someone else. I have my own potential. That is very important. So for others, I would say that self-capacity, honesty and dedication to work is very important."

The whole interview took 58:02 min. and was conducted as a semi-structured interview. This means that it generally followed an interview guide, but was open, allowing for new issues to be brought up during the interview (cf. Kvale, 1996). Only the relevant part of the interview has been transcribed.

Kvale, Steinar (1996): Interviews: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. London: Sage.