On the ground

Aid worker Scott Braunschweig fights poverty in some of the world’s most destitute countries.

By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07
Illustration by Richard Thompson

Scott Braunschweig, AB’93, confronts poverty in Afghanistan on a daily basis. To do so requires optimism, and he has it. Afghanistan, he says, is “an amazing country, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.” The opportunity “to work with communities and make changes that can dramatically help them is tremendous.”

As head of the Kabul office for Catholic Relief Services, a nongovernmental organization with offices in some 100 countries, Braunschweig has made a career of humanitarian work. From two years in the Peace Corps in Mali—where he helped organize health-information campaigns and other community projects—to the past four years in Afghanistan, he has worked to develop impoverished communities.

There are many causes of poverty, says Braunschweig, who studied anthropology at Chicago: inadequate access to resources including land, food, and water; poor governance; gender inequality; general insecurity; and poor education and health services, to name a few. Afghanistan can check off several of those causes. On the United Nations Development Programme’s 2007 human-development index, which ranks countries based on such indicators as economic income and mortality rate, Afghanistan came in at 174 out of 178—only a few sub-Saharan countries ranked lower, Braunschweig says.

The lowest-ranked country in the human-development index is Sierra Leone, which borders Guinea, where Braunschweig served for nine months in 1998–99. Civil war in Liberia had spread to Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, and violence continued throughout the decade, with refugees from the two countries flooding into Guinea. Working in southern Guinea’s Gueckédou (“geck-a-doo”) region, he managed the World Food Programme’s food-for-work program, feeding some 15,000 refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia each month. With only eight staffers in the regional office, he focused on refugee issues. “The whole situation was understaffed and underfunded,” he recalls. He did “everything” from monitoring food distribution to alerting refugees to available programs.

The logistics of distributing food to so many people combined with the weak local economy created inevitable problems. Rice, for example, is a regional staple, but the WFP couldn’t distribute it. Doing so would drive down local rice prices, Braunschweig says, making the situation worse for the area’s farmers. Instead, the program gave out wheat flour. Flour, however, was unfamiliar to the refugees, and they didn’t know how to make food from it, so the WFP eventually substituted bulgur wheat, closer in texture—and usage—to rice. Only three or four other items were doled out, including oil and a corn-soy blend for protein. “For people that live at home and have other sources,” says Braunschweig, “this can be manageable.” Refugees, however, may have to barter or sell some of the package to get what they need. “The end result is shortage and vulnerability for the most poor.”

Braunschweig’s time in Guinea reinforced his decision to pursue a career in international public affairs, though he didn’t leave Chicago planning to go that route. After graduating, he worked as an archaeologist in “the exotic locations” of Illinois, North Dakota, and Iowa. After his Peace Corps stint, he returned to archaeology for about a year before joining the WFP and then going to grad school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs. While at Wisconsin, where he earned his master’s in 2002, Braunschweig traveled to Thailand and Angola, as well as Sierra Leone and Liberia, to produce a report on education. During international emergencies, “education has been sort of sidelined,” he says. “You think food, shelter, health, but especially in protracted situations where it takes a long time, education is a vital need for these communities.”

When he joined Catholic Relief Services in February 2008, he renewed his focus on education. Two decades of civil war in Afghanistan—as well as five years under Taliban rule, when women were banned from formal schools—gutted the educational infrastructure. Today the literacy rate hovers at 28 percent. Since the Taliban’s 2001 fall, women can attend school, and the formal education system is being rebuilt in parts of the country, but it’s a slow process. Braunschweig works with local communities in the west and in the central highlands to implement community-based and early-childhood education for some 3,000 Afghan boys and girls.

The community-based schools around Kabul, Braunschweig explains, cover grades 1, 2, and 3. Once students complete basic math and Dari or Pashto (the national languages), they can move into formal, government-run schools, which have national curricula and teacher standards. Supported and monitored by CRS, local organizations train teachers (often a mullah, or religious leader), provide materials such as chalkboards and books, and develop a basic curriculum.

Braunschweig also works with the Afghan National Association for the Deaf, started in 2001 by members of the country’s hearing-impaired community. Because of war-related injuries, like those caused by land mines or bombs, and disease, Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest disabled populations—some 1 million people, according to USAID. Several years ago the association opened a school for deaf children, and many of the teachers are also hearing-impaired. The head of the school developed Afghan Sign Language, based on Dari, which is also taught to parents. “Without sign language, parents and kids can’t really communicate,” Braun-­schweig says. “So the school just opens the whole world to the kids.”

He doesn’t get to spend much time at the schools, primarily because of his schedule in Kabul, where he meets regularly with government officials, UN staffers, or his staff. Gender restrictions keep him from the girls’ schools, but whenever he can, he goes out to the communities, where he also monitors other projects. In December, for example, he traveled with two CRS agriculture field officers to the Bamiyan province, “where the giant Buddhas once stood,” Braunschweig explains; carved into the side of a cliff during the sixth century, the Taliban destroyed them in 2001. In Bamiyan, his organization has set up an “agroenterprise” program, “helping farmers with markets and looking at different opportunities to improve their incomes.” With the two field officers he checked on CRS-sponsored greenhouses, which extend growing seasons and incubate crops in a region where food production is often restricted by high altitudes and cold weather. “The greenhouses are working very well,” says Braunschweig, “with solid growth going in late December, a good two months after the regular growing season ends.”

The work he’s doing now, advocating for local communities, is not much different from what he did when he arrived in Afghanistan in 2004, right before the country’s first democratic presidential election. He got a job with the Tribal Liaison Office, an Afghan NGO that generates dialogue among community leaders, the government, and the international community. Originally meant to be a three-month position, it grew into a year-and-a-half. He oversaw elections outreach, civic education, and research into the structure of the tribes, which still hold power in parts of Afghanistan, to educate external organizations. “The idea was to get out there and show [the international community] what the tribal structures were, how they operated, how they were accountable to the greater tribe, and how these were not things to be avoided or afraid of but actually great opportunities in working toward stability and better governance in the area.”

Because the U.S. military had stations throughout the country, it was “critical,” says Braunschweig, to make the troops aware of “basic dos and don’ts” when communicating with the population.

In the years since his arrival, security has deteriorated—not only on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the south and southeast, sites of Taliban and antigovernment insurgence, but even in areas around Kabul, the country’s more cosmopolitan capital. “The south is by far the worst,” says Braunschweig, but this year “the Taliban said they would hit the roads, and they have”—kidnapping and killing travelers and attacking supply convoys. The country’s “ring road,” for example, a highway connecting Kabul to Herat, is “completely off-bounds for Afghans, for national employees of NGOs.”

A small part of Braunschweig’s job is to serve as the region’s security point man, keeping his eye on trends both generally and specifically involving foreigners. Until 2008, he says, the rate of violent incidents involving nongovernmental organization workers or UN workers in Kabul was low—“you could almost break down all the incidents as things that happened for other reasons,” like theft. But in the past year, that has changed.

With three murders of Kabul-based internationals in October—one woman the Taliban claimed was preaching Christianity and two executives in an international company’s Kabul office—he continues to closely monitor the security threats for his staff. “If I feel the risk is too great,” he says, “I’ll talk to my organization about pulling out. … It’s something that we have to continually follow.”

Braunschweig expects to stay at least another 18 months, through the 2009 elections into 2010, though he doesn’t expect the security or poverty situation to greatly improve anytime soon. He’s focused on the long term. Part of what he likes about working with CRS is that it is not tied to donor contracts, which, he says, “are often short-term and focused on single issues.”

“Single-service programs,” says Braunschweig, like health or education, “are important but not the full answer.” Programs also need to take into account the “social, political, and economic dynamics of the local context” to ensure that the services reach the intended people. Although he’s working to help desperate people, he says, “we’ve got to accept that it’s a long process on all fronts.”

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