With news of bombings galore, war, extreme poverty, AIDS, and corruption dominating headlines day after day, it’s hard to keep hope for progress alive. I struggle with this, especially when I read stories like ‘Kabul: a city where war is never far away,’ a short piece by photojournalist Tyler Hicks about the harshness of life in Afghanistan’s capital city:

Generations of conflict have numbed the senses. From the Russian
occupation during the 1980s, through the years of Taliban rule in the
1990s, and now the intensifying coalition war against the Taliban
insurgency, violence has become ingrained in their lives. After a
recent period being embedded with the U.S. Marines in southern
Afghanistan, I stopped in Kabul to wander the streets and take photos
of a city forever in transition. The Western presence was something not
tolerated during Taliban rule, so there have been some changes.

Hicks does write about some almost funny, surreal changes to the city, including a shopping mall and a fast food restaurant called KFC: Kabul Fried Chicken. But then it’s back to the bleak and disturbing:

Meanwhile, refugees and internally displaced civilians, left
homeless by decades of war, have created a beggar society, with the
sick and disabled desperate for food and work. The cost of housing in
urban Kabul is very high compared with that in the countryside, and
many people live in crumbling buildings and makeshift tents.

There is also, on a hill overlooking the city, an Olympic-size pool
built by the Soviets in the 1980s. It is said that the Taliban forced
criminals off the platforms to their deaths at the bottom of the pool.

Now, as then, it contains little or no water.

What a mental image. Chilling.

Given all that, how do we (and by "we" I mean scholars, activists, people working for the international community, NGO employees, and ordinary citizens) maintain hope for Afghanistan, which, as Hicks eloquently pointed out, has now seen almost continuous conflict for nearly three decades?

When the overall picture is grim, we need to look for small measures. There are people, Afghans and foreigners, risking their lives to improve the lives of the women, men and children of Afghanistan, and we owe it to them to believe that the outcome has not yet been decided.

I got into a major argument with a former colleague in Bosnia and Herzegovina about this time last year. He told me I was naive to believe Bosnia would move closer to the EU in the next few years and ultimately end up a member state, along with most, if not all of the other states of the former Yugoslavia. I told him my vision was a long-term one. Yes, there were huge political and institutional problems in the country –and there still are– but there can only be one way for this to go –forward. There will be setback and crises along the way –hell, the state-level government basically shut down last summer– but progress, however slow and uneven, is still progress.

My colleague chuckled and said I hadn’t lived in the region long enough. Annoyed, I asked him the following: if you can’t maintain hope for a place like Bosnia, which has been at peace for twelve years and made tremendous progress, what should we do about countries like Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and Zimbabwe , with their hundreds of millions? Should we say, "Sorry history dealt you a s***y hand," and walk away?

I don’t want your arguments. We cannot write off vast swaths of humanity because the present is looking bad. What some may call the stubborn and naive idealism of youth, I call the only viable option.

There is a lot of cynicism among people who work in human rights, humanitarian aid, international criminal law, conflict resolution, economic development, and all the interrelated fields. This is understandable, but I think we risk failing the people whose lives and futures depend on our work when we stop believing we can succeed, if not soon, at least in the long run. Realistic goals must be set, of course, and expectations sometimes have to be adjusted to reality in the field. But attitude affects everything. I know I work harder when I feel like I can actually make a difference, even a small one. If I get a refugee student into college, who knows what she or he may go on to be and achieve?

Can I bring peace to the DRC? No, but maybe I can help someone else to one day have chance at just that. Maybe just maybe.

Burnout is dangerous, in my rookie opinion. When you lose all hope, you should step back, take a break, and reevaluate whether you should still be working in a job that could be filled by someone who still has the energy and optimism to go forward.

An acquaintance of mine is working on an education project in Afghanistan, and he just returned to the US. I’m going to ask him to do some guest blogging if he has time.