Sun salutations in Helmand
Reflections on yoga and Afghanistan
There was some heavy traffic on the @UKUN_NewYork Twitter feed yesterday. No, it wasn’t the General Assembly’s session on Syria. Nor was it the special meeting on preventing sexual violence. And sadly neither was it the regular update on the situation in Afghanistan in the UN Security Council.
Instead, it was the second International Yoga Day. As my digitally minded colleague @Lorey tells me, our twitter content on #YogaDay hit a respectable 5.7% engagement rate, reaching over 17,000 twitter handles. Afghanistan, in contrast, got 0.1% engagement. I’m not going to tell you how many handles we reached…
I’m not against yoga (though perhaps envious of those who have mastered it). Nor do I think #YogaDay is flippant or unimportant. I’ve even tried yoga — and failed at it spectacularly — in the past.
Bizarrely all of my attempts date from 2012, when I was posted to Lashkar Gah, capital of Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand province. When you’re working on a military base, there isn’t always a lot to do outside the office. For me, yoga wasn’t the solution. In the end, I took up smoking instead. It was less painful — well at least in the short term.
Anyway, this odd confluence of past yoga / Helmand experiences got me thinking enviously about #YogaDay’s traffic and conversely about increasing engagement on Afghanistan.
I can understand why people don’t engage on Afghanistan. For some, it’s yesterday’s news, overtaken by the seemingly endless crises around the world — in Syria, in Yemen and in so many other places. For others, it’s a painful reminder of recent loss, of loved ones killed or injured serving their countries proudly in a far away land. For most Afghans it’s a just a place they call home. For some however it’s a place to flee and even forget.
For me, it’s a complex country with a complex history. It’s a country that has travelled a long and difficult road and now finds itself at a cross roads.
As the resident speechwriter here at the UK Mission to the UN, I often find myself relying on statistics to make my point in our statements. I get to pick and choose whatever numbers support whatever argument I’m trying to make. But let me offer a few on Afghanistan, unfiltered.
· In 2002, around 900,000 children attended school. Almost none of them were girls.
· In 2016, around 8 million kids are in school. Over 2.5 million are girls.
· In 2002, no women were allowed to vote.
· In 2014, over 2.4 million women voted in the general election.
· In 2002, the maternal mortality rate was 1,600 per 100,000 live births.
· In 2016, the maternal mortality is 327 per 100,000 live births.
· In 2015, Afghan life expectancy was just over 50 years, the third worst in the world.
· In 2015, more Afghans became displaced by conflict than in any previous year since 2002.
· In 2016, over 39,000 Afghans arrived in Europe by sea, the 2nd largest group after Syrians.
· In 2016, the number of armed clashes reached their highest levels since 2001.
· Since 2009, over 59,000 civilians have been killed or injured in Afghanistan.
These stats make a much more eloquent point than I ever could. Afghanistan has made huge strides from a low base, but it has a long way to go. Ordinary Afghans enjoy more rights than ever before, but they have paid, and continue to pay, a terrible price along the way.
In a world where we have to condense nuance, depth and complexity into 140 characters, it is difficult to express how something can be good, and yet also bad, at the same time. It’s near on impossible to capture both sides of the story without resorting to a clichéd ‘Great progress, but much more to do’ tweet. Worse yet so many choose to only tell one side of the story, more often than not the story of the latest Taliban attack.
So what can we do? Well, first, I should be clear that the answer lies in the hands of the Afghan National Unity Government; it is their country and they have responsibility for all the stats above and more.
But in part, the answer also lies in the support of the international community, and more precisely in Brussels and in Warsaw. Later this year, in these two great European cities, the international community has a chance to match their words with their wallets. The NATO Warsaw Summit in July is the opportunity to bolster Afghan security forces with more training, more support and more money. The Brussels Development Conference in October is our chance to assess progress made by Afghanistan and renew our development support to build on that progress, building the economy and providing more opportunities for ordinary Afghans.
In essence, both meetings are a chance for us to help the Afghans turn some of the stats above into even better stats, and in doing so, bring some simplicity to the complexity that is Afghanistan. It’s a chance to change the clichéd line ‘Afghanistan has made huge strides, but challenges remain’ to simply ‘Afghanistan has made huge strides’.
But just like our tweets yesterday on the Security Council session on Afghanistan, engagement isn’t great. Governments, like twitter, suffer the same problem; there are other more pressing issues to deal with. Many feel that too high a price has already been paid. And that brings with it the risk of some of those positive stats backsliding and some of those negative stats getting even worse.
So bringing focus to Afghanistan, whether as a diplomat or as a twitter user, matters. Unlike a number of other international issues, where twitter users (and dare I say it, diplomats) are frustratingly restricted to expressing only sorrow, anger or grief over a situation, we actually have a chance to do something. To build awareness, to build pressure, to build momentum to support real, meaningful pledges in Brussels and Warsaw, so that Afghanistan can take the right path ahead.
So tweet about yoga. But also tweet about Afghanistan.