All of Central Asia Institute's schools in Badakhshan Province are marked with a white star, or "sitara," to signify the light that comes with education.

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The government of Afghanistan's remote Badakhshan Province recently heralded Bozeman-based Central Asia Institute as the No. 1 nongovernmental organization for its work promoting education in the remote, mountainous region.

Provincial Gov. Dr. Shah Waliyullah Adeeb presented the award to a CAI Afghan staff member in the provincial capital on Jan. 4, the worldwide day of literacy, said Greg Mortenson, CAI's founder and executive director.

Before a crowd of more than 1,000 people, provincial leaders declared CAI's projects "the best, most effective and useful projects of all NGOs in the region," said Jan Agha Jaheed, who helps direct CAI's work in Badakhshan and attended the ceremony. "And they said they hoped that these activities continue in the future."

"Badakhshan is especially dear to us," Mortenson said, "as it is where we first started to work in the country. We were able to do this by extending our relationships - three cups of tea style - from across the border in Pakistan."

CAI has established 44 schools in Badakhshan, each marked with a star, or "sitara," to symbolize the light of education. In addition, CAI has set up women's vocational centers and scholarship programs there, all with an emphasis on educating girls and women.

"The credit for the successful projects is due to the local community support," Mortenson said. "They are eager to have schools, and are some of the most hardy, dedicated people I've ever met. Credit also goes to our local staff, who work 12- to 16-hour days for months in a row without a day off -- there is no such thing as a holiday in Badakhshan if a school project is in progress."

Jaheed said this is the first time a foreign NGO has received the award. He said the award runner-ups were the Aga Khan Foundation, US AID and the U.S. military Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Badakhshan, the northeastern-most province in Afghanistan, is one of the most remote of the country's 34 provinces, and includes the rugged Wakhan corridor, a narrow 120-mile-long valley between the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains. CAI has worked there since 2002, Mortenson said.

"When I'm in Badakhshan, its rugged terrain and resilient people remind me of being home in Montana," he added.

But though the province's landscape is stunningly beautiful, most people are desperately poor and survive by subsistence farming, sometimes supplemented with opium production. The province has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, according to UNICEF, and is "one of the most underserved regions, receiving very little in Afghan government aid," Mortenson said.

"CAI has invested heavily in this region because our main focus is to establish education and schools in areas where there are few resources dedicated to education," Mortenson said.

And the projects succeed, Mortenson said, for three reasons: "We do not use any foreigners in our projects; we empower the local shura, or elders, and community leaders to be totally in charge; and we insist that there is 50 percent local ‘buy-in' or sweat equity, and that locals donate free labor, subsidized manual labor and free resources if they want a school."

However, the organization maintains minimal staff and infrastructure in the country, instead emphasizing the need to listen, build relationships and trust the elders, he said.

"As long as our Afghan and Pakistan friends want us to help, we will be there for them and we have no agenda except to serve the communities," he said.

Karin Ronnow can be reached at


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