EQUAL PARTS HOPE AND LEARNING

By Joe Holt | Spring 2018

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Notre Dame’s partnership with an Afghanistan university has an audacious goal: Promote peace and stability through education.

I witnessed vast unmet human need in developing countries during my 12 years as a Jesuit. After leaving the society, I chose to teach graduate business students for two main reasons. The first is because many of the business people I knew were deeply good individuals who wanted to do well for themselves and others. Secondly, I believe that business is the institution best equipped to satisfy unmet material needs.

Business is a calling, rather than a job or career, when it seeks not only to make a profit but also to meet a genuine human need. In its 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pointed out that managers have a calling if they demonstrate “commitment to the public good and not simply the private good of their firms.”

I am thinking of this important ideology as I reflect on an exciting partnership between Notre Dame and Balkh University in Afghanistan that aims to promote the greater good.

The Notre Dame team consists of 10 faculty members and a cross-University collaboration among four groups: the Stayer Center for Executive Education, the Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development, the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning, and Notre Dame International.

The goal is to develop a master’s program in finance and accountancy (MFA) for students at Balkh, which is the third largest university in Afghanistan. The partnership is possible through a $1.15 million contract funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and supported by the Afghanistan University Support and Workforce Development Program (USWDP). The project is implemented by FHI 360, a nonprofit human development organization.

Particular aims of the MFA include attracting capital investment for economic development in Afghanistan and reaching the goal of 20 percent females in education and industry by 2020.

The hope is that helping Afghans to help themselves through an improved MFA program will lead to enhanced peace, prosperity and opportunity in Afghanistan.

That help is badly needed, given widespread violence, poverty and corruption in Afghanistan.

FANNING THE EMBERS

Yet there is reason for hope. USAID reported in February that “Afghanistan’s economy is edging towards recovery,” with its GDP nearly five times greater than it was in 2002.

The Notre Dame team first met its Balkh counterparts in Mumbai in January 2017. Four week-long residencies would follow over the next 18 months involving both the Notre Dame and Balkh teams meeting in either Beijing or Mumbai.

Ten Notre Dame faculty members plus others from Saint Mary’s College and Indiana University were paired with 12 Balkh faculty teaching in their areas of expertise. The faculty members met virtually at least twice with their Balkh mentees before meeting in person at their designated residency.

Frequent power outages and interrupted internet access make the virtual meetings a challenge, as does the fact that although courses in the MFA program are taught in English, not all members of the Balkh faculty are fluent.

At each residency, the Notre Dame team hosts faculty development workshops on topics including case teaching, action learning and team building. The workshops also helped Balkh faculty craft effective learning objectives and learn best practices for assessing and evaluating those objectives. Balkh faculty then participate in one-on-one mentoring sessions with their Notre Dame mentors.

Textbooks and other teaching materials are hard to come by in Afghanistan, so the Notre Dame team delivered suitcases full of textbooks at each residency, and created an online portal that makes articles, cases, recorded workshops and videos easily available for Balkh faculty. Some textbook publishers made materials available free of charge.

The specific role of the Stayer Center is to design and direct the academic portion of the project. Balkh faculty are able to view recorded Notre Dame EMBA class meetings. That enables them to see the ideas they are learning about in action and get concrete ideas on how best to design and deliver their own courses.

As part of the Notre Dame team, I was fortunate to be paired with Masud Akbari, who will be teaching Ethics in Accounting and Finance in the MFA. Masud won the teacher of the year award at Balkh, so he needed my help not with teaching per se, but with creating a syllabus for a course he had never taught and selecting textbooks, cases and other course materials. 

All Notre Dame mentors sought to design a course uniquely tailored for Afghanistan, since American coursework naturally does not take into account the unique resources, challenges and circumstances in Afghanistan. For example, Afghanistan follows the principles-based International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) rather than the rules-based GAAP standards followed in the U.S., so I found a textbook focused on IFRS rather than GAAP standards.

Given the pervasive corruption and violence in Afghanistan, I also recommended inclusion of readings and cases on both bribery and peace through commerce — topics I would not include teaching the same course in the U.S.

Some members of the Notre Dame team brought a unique perspective to our work. Mendoza’s Scott Nestler, Robin Kistler and Jim Leady, along with the Kaneb Center’s Alex Ambrose, all served in the U.S. Army or Army National Guard during Operations Desert Storm, Desert Shield, and Iraqi Freedom. Alex stressed that he joined the military to serve a higher purpose, and that with the Balkh project he continues to do so.

Robin calls the project “a labor of love.”

“It speaks directly to our mission of inspiring and developing leaders who want to transform their own lives, their organizations, and the world,” she adds. “The Balkh faculty see a new path forward for their country and believe that education and economic development are the engines behind that progress.”

REASON FOR HOPE

I was initially motivated to join the partnership by Catholic concerns for justice and helping the poor, ideally in such a way that they no longer need outside help. But my motivation quickly shifted to a deep admiration after I met Masud and his Balkh colleagues.

Masud earned his MBA in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship. Friends told him he would be “stupid” to return to Afghanistan when he could earn significantly more by staying in the U.S. But he returned home because he was more concerned with serving and making a positive difference in his country than achieving a higher level of material comfort and security.

Masud’s sacrifices are all the more impressive because he is married with three young children. He acknowledged life would be easier with more money but said he has a house and car. “How much do you really need to be happy?” he asked.

Many of the Balkh faculty earned their graduate degrees abroad, principally in the United States and Germany, and could be earning a lot more under safer conditions if they had stayed abroad.

Hassim, who served as an interpreter during our residencies in Beijing, said he returned to Afghanistan after earning a degree from Ball State University because, “If I had stayed in the U.S., I would have nice things, but work would just be work and I wouldn’t be making a difference for my people.”

One of the Balkh faculty members is in constant danger because he belongs to an ethnic group hated by the Taliban. Yet he is determined to continue teaching, despite the threat.

That level of selfless devotion is difficult to grasp but easy to admire. 

Afghanistan is a youthful country. More than 63 percent of its population are under the age of 25. That leaves me finding optimism in the sage observation of Jesuit scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that “The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.”

While the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan prey on hopelessness, Masud and his Balkh colleagues work to give the next generation in their country well-founded hope. That is well worth fighting for, and it is good that we have joined them in the fight.


Joe Holt is an associate professional specialist in Management & Organization. He teaches business ethics, negotiations, spirituality, sustainability and other topics at the graduate level. He graduated from Boston College and then spent 12 years as a Jesuit seminarian and priest, earning graduate degrees in philosophy (Fordham University), theology (Weston School of Theology) and Biblical theology (Gregorian University in Rome). He then earned a law degree at Harvard University.

 


BY THE NUMBERS

  • Civilian deaths & injuries (2017): 10,000+
  • Internally displaced by conflict (2017): 200,000+
  • Internally displaced by natural disasters (2017): 44,000
  • Percentage living in poverty (2013-2014): 39%
  • GDP per capita (2016):

$58,600 (U.S.)

$2,000 (Afghanistan)

  • Unemployment (2013-2014): 22.6%
  • Infant mortality rate (2015):

5.8/1,000 Live births (U.S.)

110.6/1,000 Live Births (Afghanistan)

  • Life expectancy at birth (2015):

77/82 M/F (U.S.)

59/62 M/F (Afghanistan)

  • Opium production in Afghanistan: Up 87% (2017 over 2016)

Sources: U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, World Bank, CIA World Factbook, World Health Organization

IT TAKES A TEAM

The ND-Balkh program has been guided by:

  • Robin Kistler, Director of Non-Degree Programs at the Stayer Center for Executive Education
  • Melissa Paulsen, Associate director of Education and Training Programs at the Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development
  • Alex Ambrose, An associate director at the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning
  • Dhiraj Mehra, Director for Initiatives in India, Notre Dame International
  • Reagan Li, Program coordinator at the Beijing Global Gateway, Notre Dame International

Faculty and staff involved in the program includes:

  • Notre Dame Faculty: 10
  • Saint Mary’s College Faculty: 2
  • Indiana University Faculty: 1
  • ND Initiative for Global Development: 2
  • ND Kaneb Center: 3
  • Stayer Center for Executive Education: 2
  • ND Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures: 1
  • Balkh University Faculty: 12

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