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An Arts-Based Investigation of Nation and Identity in Afghan Youth

Tue, April 16, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Bay (Level 1), Bayview B


Western development organizations frequently target youth in conflict settings to participate in peaceful, cooperative activities to promote nation-building and deter violence. In this article, I examine the narratives of fifteen youth who participated in a US-funded nonformal arts education program in Afghanistan, which operated with the key objective of promoting national identity in its participants. Using open-ended interviews coupled with an arts-based research technique, I investigate how Afghan youth perceive their identity in relation to the nation. My research indicates that national identity arguments do not adequately address other salient intersections of identity, such as an individual’s developmental stage in life and the significance of gender, and largely leave out the influence of colonialism on the way national identity is conceptualized in non-Western contexts. I argue that program designers and policy makers must incorporate the local knowledge and experiences of youth and address the unique needs of various groups, including marginalized populations and young women versus young men, to effectively engage them in education efforts.

States and governments frequently employ schooling systems and education programs to promote national identity, citizenship values, and common traditions (Burde, 2014; King, 2014; Smith, 1991, 2005). While such efforts are inherently complex, complexities intensify when foreign governments are at the helm of designing education programming for these purposes. Nationbuilding and the promotion of national identity are common themes in development efforts in conflict-affected settings, particularly those funded by Western nations (Hassan & Hammond, 2011). Development aid agencies spend millions of dollars each year on nonformal education programs for youth (USAID, 2012). Organized educational activities that take place outside of formal education systems are utilized in conflict-affected settings to provide both training for marginalized individuals who do not have access to formal schooling and life skills training not provided in formal school settings (UNESCO, 2014, 2017; USAID, 2012). Scholars point to the benefits of nonformal learning to reach youth who are both in and out of school, to allow youth greater flexibility and agency than structured, formal education environments, and to promote citizenship through youth-led activities in local communities (Romi & Schmida, 2009; Stewart, 2011). Such programs typically aim to engage energetic, capable youth in peaceful nation-building activities and to deter young people from joining extremist groups (Bužinkić, Ćulum, Horvat, & Kovačić, 2015; Lopes Cardozo, Higgins, & Le Mat, 2016; UNESCO, 2017).

In Afghanistan, a salient if inconstant aim of US efforts since 9/11 is the promotion of democracy for the purposes of nation-building, undergirded by the notion that a sense of national identity promotes social cohesion and unification among citizens (Hudson, 1977; Reicher & Hopkins, 2000). With billions of dollars spent on this effort, it is important to interrogate the assumptions underlying nation-building in Afghanistan (Shahrani, 2002, 2009). Despite the global interest and funding for development efforts, donors and aid organizations rarely consult Afghans as experts in discussions about the direction of the country, particularly with regard to social experiences, memories, and reflections on living in a setting of war and occupation (Daulatzai, 2006). Knowledge about Afghans more broadly, and Afghan youth in particular, centers on a limited number of concepts, and policy makers largely leave out the experiences, opinions, and aspirations of the very populations they target (Daulatzai, 2006; Hakimi, 2014). Moreover, the prevailing discourse surrounding Afghan youth focuses on radicalization and violent extremism, depicting a largely negative and fearful portrait of the ever-growing “youth bulge” in the country (ANYP, 2014; Lavender, 2011). In an effort to counter negative representations and generalizations about this population, this article amplifies voices of youth who were targeted by one such nation-building effort in Afghanistan.

In this article I explore the ways Afghan youth who took part in a nonformal arts education program funded by the United States spoke about the nation and their identities. Rather than focusing on effects or impact, I interrogate the program’s underlying assumptions surrounding national identity and those of Western-funded programs aimed at youth in conflict settings more broadly. To that end, I conducted open-ended interviews with fifteen youth to investigate the research question, How do Afghan youth perceive their identities in relation to the nation? I employed an arts-based research technique to frame these interviews and asked youth to first select an object to represent Afghanistan and then an object to represent themselves. Youth selected evocative object metaphors to represent the nation and themselves and provided articulate and frank explanations for their selections. Findings from this inquiry indicate that Afghan youths’ perceptions about national identity are largely shaped by the history of colonial projects and foreign interference in the nation, their experiences of oppression related to their tribal and religious affiliations, and the precariousness of youth as a unique life stage, and distinct experiences and expectations related to gender.

Like other foreign-led educational efforts, the program’s objective to promote national identity appears to apply a Western conception of nationhood and national identity on a cohort of non-Western youth, whose individual identities are unknown to the donor country. My aim with this inquiry is to flip the expert-subject dichotomy by placing the discussion of nation and identity into the hands of the young people targeted to participate in the program in order to examine how youths’ perceptions about themselves and the nation might nuance US and/or Western donors’ understanding of Afghan young people and shed light on how education programming aimed at youth in conflict-affected contexts might improve. With anti-Muslim rhetoric increasing and amid growing fears over violent extremism worldwide, understanding the young people targeted to participate in these programs is vitally important.


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