Reza Deghati and his organization AINA are helping rebuild a strong and democratic civil society in Afghanistan through the development and diffusion of independent media. His models of rapid media training and “emergency education” focus on empowering women and children in particular and are now being replicated in areas heavily affected by war and conflict across the globe through Reza’s new initiative “Open Mind.”
Reza is the founder of AINA, a network that fosters the development of civil society through the education of women and children, and through sustainable media and communication outlets. Since 2001, AINA has shaped an independent Afghan media by training local journalists (many of them women) in everything from photojournalism and video production to radio and broadcast management. In addition, AINA has led multiple nationwide education efforts, using both print media and innovative mobile cinema to reach millions across the country and present topics as varied as vaccinations, tolerance, cultural history, and democracy. In short, AINA empowers citizens with the education and skills needed to create media, reinforce democracy, resist oppression, and speak out in a country where they have been voiceless for a generation.
Decades of war and destruction have not only destroyed Afghani lives, homes, and entire cities, but have stripped generations of Afghanis of their very identities. After working for thirty years as a photojournalist with communities devastated by conflicts and wars, Reza recognized that traditional relief and aid focused almost entirely on food, housing, and infrastructure. Issues related to “wounded souls” as he calls it, are neglected. Reza founded AINA to overcome decades of psychological and cultural destruction and restore the minds, souls, and culture of Afghanis. He does so through education and media training—tools critical for citizen empowerment and for a strong civil society. Reza has said numerous times that educated children and an independent media in Afghanistan represent a vastly more powerful force for battling extremism, oppression, and intolerance, than any army ever could.
Since its inception, AINA has trained over 1,000 women and men in media and communication skills, with more than 90 percent now employed using these skills. Eight publications, including two women’s magazines and one children’s magazine, Parvaz, have been developed and reach millions in circulation. Thirty AINA-produced mobile educational films have been viewed by over a million Afghanis across the country and women-led radio stations are broadcast across the country. In addition, the first documentary by an all-female production team, produced by AINA, was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2005. All of AINA’s efforts are meant to create sustainable media enterprises that are produced, managed, and staffed locally.
Reza chose Afghanistan for piloting his model because of his close connection to the country and because he thought that as one of the harshest, most difficult countries on the planet, if his model worked in Afghanistan, it could work anywhere. His initiative, Open Mind, will introduce many of AINA’s strategies across the world, beginning in countries that are suffering or have recently suffered through turmoil, including refugee crises, wars, and natural disasters. In particular, Open Mind will continue to test the concept of “emergency education,” tailored to the specific context of displacement and refugee camps where children have been deprived of education for months or years. All education materials are mobile (e.g., buses and cinema vans), based on visual learning, and produced with the help of local women who gain employment.
In 2001, civil society was almost nonexistent in Afghanistan. Decades of war crushed freedom of expression and open dialogue in the country. Internal conflict left the country ethnically divided and continues to threaten the nation’s stability. Women and children have suffered disproportionately: Not just from the physical violence and destruction of families, but also from the psychological toll of a lifetime of war and oppression. Women live in complete isolation, often like prisoners in their own homes and minds. With no avenues to tell their stories, those stories are simply never heard. And with no access to education or jobs, they are left feeling helpless as the country they know becomes less and less familiar.
Children grow up knowing nothing but war. Without education they have no access to the outside world and no knowledge of the rich, wonderful history and culture of Afghanistan. Often having lost their homes, schools, and supportive neighborhoods, children are displaced into refugee camps where they go months or years without any education. In their critical formative years, they receive little to give them hope, and very little that is positive from which to form an identity. As they suffer, so does the future of Afghanistan.
In war and conflict-affected regions like Afghanistan, especially in refugee camps, many other organizations address the physical needs of society, including shelters, latrines, roads, and hospitals. But education is often neglected and so too are the psychological needs of survivors. Little effort is made to develop a strong civil society and independent media—critical to a free and open society, human rights, democracy, national and regional stability. Most citizen organizations bring relief in the form of rapid and specialized responses within a delineated and budgeted time frame, with an ensuing withdrawal at the termination of a project. This makes it nearly impossible to follow up with the development of a project and unlikely that affected local communities will take ownership. When conflicts flare up or situations get worse, aid workers and international journalists are often the first to flee, leaving behind populations that find themselves living the same nightmares over again.
Established in 2001, AINA was the first organization with the goal of building up civil society nationwide in Afghanistan and restoring the Afghan people’s sense of culture and identity. AINA’s core strategies are to (1) train women in media, culture, and communication, so they can develop long-term autonomous and sustainable business entities and (2) educate children for the long-term peace and progress of Afghanistan.
After thirty years experience with heavily affected communities, Reza launched a program for the Afghan people in 2000. He saw Afghanistan as a pilot for rebuilding a society’s social fiber in extreme conditions, in a way that could be replicated in similarly affected areas across the world. Essential to his idea was to involve local people in spreading the program, so that it is by and done for Afghanis.
As a first step Reza focused on creating a pool of “master trainers” in the area of media and communication. These film-makers, photographers, radio journalists, and writers, mostly women, became the core training team. But more importantly, Reza began to identify potential “managers and administrators” for media enterprises, recognizing that these were the individuals key to the long-term success and growth of any independent media business. Often these were people who have greater strengths in managerial roles than within the creative media industries. With a pool of both—media experts and management experts—Reza and AINA could begin building a self-multiplying community of media professionals to quickly transform the media landscape in Afghanistan, particularly with respect to women’s voices.
Once any media organization is successfully directed and managed by local staff, AINA supplies the funding and professional experience to develop the organization into sustainable business entities. Although these businesses are entirely creatively and financially independent, a Memorandum of Understanding is signed between the enterprise and AINA to ensure that all business entities continue to adhere to the ethics as convened in AINA’s charter.
Within three years, AINA trained hundreds in communications and media production. Dozens of sustainable media businesses flourished, including women-led radio stations that disseminated information on health, nutrition, domestic violence, education, and more. One of the most notable, “Afghan Women’s Voices” airs nine hours daily and is completely autonomous and sustainable.
AINA also supported the production and creation of eight independent publications, training the journalists, providing the publishing equipment, and covering the initial print and distribution costs. One of the most successful, Kabul Weekly, was designed to accurately reflect the concerns and desires of Afghan citizens across all topics. Since its inception, close to 3 million editions have been printed and today the paper is autonomous, sustainable, and directed by AINA trained Afghan journalists.
AINA also facilitated the launch of Parvaz, Afghanistan’s first and only children’s magazine. Parvaz is a colorful, visually rich educational tool full of stories and illustrations that teach children (and subsequently their families) about health issues, brotherhood and tolerance, sharing, and Afghanistan history, among many other topics. To date, thirteen issues have been produced totaling 390,000 copies, for an average of 30,000 copies per issue being distributed throughout Afghanistan. Each issue of Parvaz is read by almost half a million children and adults.
Finally, AINA created the first Afghan television serial, “Palwasha” (meaning, “rays of the sun”). The series follows a female judge (the heroine) who within each episode deliberates and rules on issues such as domestic violence, gender equality, drug addition, child abuse, and others. The first series of twenty-five episodes has aired in Afghanistan and parts of Europe to great acclaim. Such a series is a remarkable achievement only seven years after the expulsion of the Taliban.
Reza’s focus on media and communications is closely tied to his belief in the power of information and education. Another of his key initiatives, “emergency education,” involves mobile visual learning packages that can reach the furthest corners of Afghanistan to educate and empower its citizens, particularly children. Films are projected on huge screens sometimes in the middle of a desert, all powered by a generator that operates from a bus that travels across the country to the most distant and disenfranchised areas. Topics of the films include health and vaccinations, tolerance, cultural history, democracy, equality, and more. Reza believes these are critical for reconstructing the identities of Afghanistan’s citizens, and ensuring the country progresses towards democracy and peace.
AINA has had a measurable impact in Afghanistan since its inception. The radio station “Afghan Women’s Voices” reaches over 5 million listeners. The first and only Afghan Photojournalism Institute has trained over 100 photojournalists who now work for national and international media and institutions. The video production and training unit trained the first Afghan camera woman and produced the first documentary film by an all-female production team—entitled, “Afghanistan Unveiled”—which was nominated for an Emmy Award (2005). AINA’s mobile educational cinema has shown more than thirty AINA-produced educational films throughout the country to over 1 million people. The films have helped spur national awareness campaigns with the support from the UN on health issues, participatory government, and equality for all. AINA is predominantly locally run and is moving toward being 100 percent self-sufficient.
Perhaps most importantly, AINA has promoted a spirit of volunteerism among Afghanistan’s people and has given women the freedom to express themselves—a privilege most women never dreamed of.
Reza is looking to build on the successes of AINA and take his idea to a global level. His Open Mind initiative will combine long-term strategies of media development with “emergency education” programs—including mobile cinema, women’s radio, and children’s magazines—meant to re-establish cultural touchstones, keep refugees connected to their homeland and traditions, and provide education and a sense of hope amid the turmoil.
Reza will launch Open Mind in Sudan, Kurdistan, and Burma in 2009.
Reza was born in Tabriz, Iran. A French citizen, Reza is a world renowned photojournalist. Published by the most prestigious international magazines—including Time, National Geographic, and Life—he travels the globe with an unmatched capacity to tell stories through his lens. For decades, Reza focused on areas devastated by war and conflict, believing that through his images he could foster understanding and change.
After watching Afghanistan closely for nearly three decades, Reza understood that true change would only come from empowered Afghanis. His background in media and his belief in the power of communication and education led him to found AINA.
Reza has reiterated that the more than 1,000 trained journalists and media experts in Afghanistan as a result of AINA’s efforts represent a potent force for battling extremism, oppression, and intolerance well into the future. As the community of journalists grows, and as independent media in Afghanistan gains surer footing, so too grows the chances of Afghanistan becoming a peaceful democratic society.
Reza has received dozens of prestigious awards throughout his career, including the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite, France’s highest civilian honor, for his philanthropic work in children’s education and the empowerment of women in the media, given by Christian Poncelet, President of the French Senate (November, 2005).
A teacher since 1983, Reza has given lectures in prestigious universities and institutions across the world since 1990.