Afghanistan: Hope is growing in parts of the region

While the prime minister of Afghanistan carries out a search for the treacherous route used by Taliban fighters to escape their hiding place, Hekmat Karzai is getting a helping hand from the country’s tribes and mujahedin. It is through tribal elders that Afghan forces came across Hamid Karzai, and who pledged his support to the government’s campaign.

Small wonder. Back home, the government’s economy is collapsing, and no one is buying that nonexistent “war on terror” policy. Afghans are fleeing to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran in increasing numbers, and Afghans living abroad look for a reason to return home. In the words of Kunduz University’s charismatic vice chancellor, Dr. Bismillah Hashimi, the main reason Afghans go abroad is to receive the best education they can get.

The idea is simple: Foreign goods and services are hard to come by in Afghan cities. In those cities, most Afghans live below the poverty line. In search of international medical treatment, they frequently leave the country.

Instead of being blind-sided by the Taliban’s direct flight to the valley, schools and water programs are helping to educate the region’s youth. Even President Karzai has weighed in. Now, with help from humanitarian agencies like Plan, the president and Afghan militias have spread the educational message that fighting alongside the Taliban is a dead end.

At a time when most western countries are searching for ways to learn about the wonders of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO forces, it is a refreshing idea that Afghan leaders are encouraging foreigners to learn about the region after the Taliban have left the country.

New trends emerge in travel and destination planning for people who do not want to sacrifice the most important element of safari – your soul. Sustainable development tourism, local empowerment, and educational development projects are all spreading throughout Afghanistan as a result of the emphasis on such ideas.

Last year, thousands of people went to an EcoTribe outpost in northeast Bamiyan province to teach themselves qanoon — the local language of the area — and invest in cooperatives to grow their own food. International organizations are working to build schools, reduce illiteracy and other problems in Afghanistan.

Bali – the Center for Development of Human Rights and Sustainable Tourism Ltd – is helping communities to identify their unique spiritual, cultural and historical offerings. Village elders learn to hunt and preserve their own animals, and children learn to eat fresh local food from the basket of their family’s vehicle.

Nepal is taking on the problem of climate change by sponsoring research in Chitwan National Park, where forests have been destroyed by landslides triggered by the devastating Cyclone Laila.

In Bhutan, the Kingdom of the Druk Fai Gon Memorial Foundation is spearheading national and international research on sustainable development tourism that addresses poverty, disaster mitigation, habitat protection and preservation, policy, water management, hospitality and tourism research. “The goal of sustainable development tourism is to build communities that are resilient, healthy and connected to each other,” explains Nimbingam Kezhil, its director of tourism development.

Afghanistan’s government wants to transform the region into an example for sustainable development tourism. With a quiet emphasis on such issues, local efforts to educate and develop their young people seem to be winning out over NATO’s proffered remedies.

The present is characterized by volatility, making it unlikely that old and destructive paths will be the order of the day in the future. With their track record and unique natural resources, Afghanistan and Bhutan seem a good bet for future post-conflict development tourism.

Dr. Martin A. Regg Cohn is director of the Center for Development of Human Rights and Sustainable Tourism at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a professor of law and sociology.

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