Center Alumnus Ethan Frisch: Working for Change in Afghanistan

efrisch_crop_vhColin Powell Leadership Alumnus Ethan Frisch (2006–2008) is now working in Afghanistan with the Aga Khan Foundation, a humanitarian organization. We recently followed up with Ethan to learn more about his work, goals, and trajectory.

What are you doing in Afghanistan?
I’m working for the Aga Khan Foundation–Afghanistan as the national program coordinator for engineering, helping to oversee the administration of grants dealing with physical infrastructure and engineering projects in northern Afghanistan. I’m based at AKF’s headquarters in Kabul, working closely with our regional teams and traveling regularly throughout the five provinces in which AKF works.

At this point, early in both my career and my time in Afghanistan, my goal is primarily to learn; I want to deepen my understanding and appreciation for the level of nuance and complexity that exist here. I chose to come here exactly because of that complexity, and I find Afghanistan to be such an interesting case because there are so many forces at work. I want to understand the specific ways that Afghans, as individuals and communities, have interacted with violence, and the ways that those interactions have impacted their decision-making.

How did you prepare academically?
My major at CCNY was a self-designed program in Conflict Studies through the CUNY Baccalaureate Degree program, and my master’s degree (from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London) was in Violence, Conflict and Development, so I’ve long been oriented towards working in a country dealing with violent conflict.

My academic interests focus on the organizational and logistical underpinnings of insurgency—how insurgent organizations grow, adapt and attempt to achieve their objectives. Afghanistan is home to one of the most complicated, decentralized insurgencies in modern history, and I hope I can learn more about their inner workings while I’m here. [Note: Ethan’s master’s thesis on the organizational structure and strategic decision-making of insurgencies, was published earlier this year in the Peace and Conflict Review.]

The Vanj Bridge, fourth in a series of bridges funded by the Aga Khan Foundation, will aid in the delivery of humanitarian services.

What do you hope to accomplish?
In terms of what I hope to accomplish, I don’t see myself as a particularly powerful agent of change, nor do I believe that my personal contribution, in the scheme of all the challenges that Afghanistan faces, is particularly significant. The work that the Aga Khan Foundation does, however, is critically important and is on a scale that improves livelihoods for a great many people. I’m honored to be a part of it.

Beyond the wide impact of the physical infrastructure projects I’m involved in, I think my greatest opportunity to affect change, however small, lies in my personal interactions with my Afghan colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. While I’m definitely not an official representative of the United States or its policies, my nationality is one of the first things people ask about and is probably my defining characteristic in many people’s eyes. Afghans’ opinions of the United States are often suspicious at best, and through my behavior, I hope I can at least to encourage people to reconsider. Being able to do that, though, is probably my greatest challenge. Beyond the logistical difficulties, including security concerns that restrict my movement and therefore my opportunities to interact with people, there are linguistic, cultural and gender-based boundaries as well. I’m taking Dari language classes, and doing whatever I can to observe and interact with Afghans in my daily life. The slice of Kabul in which I live and work, because of its large and wealthy international community, often feels removed from the realities of life that most Afghans face. As long as I’m here, building and maintaining a nuanced appreciation for those realities will be a challenge I’ll need to continue to overcome.

Do you have any advice for current fellows?
The Powell Fellowship was an integral part of my personal and professional development, allowing me to intern abroad while I was in college, introducing me to some of my best friends and ultimately helping me get my first job after college. My advice to current Powell Fellows would be: Appreciate nuance. Especially in policy, it’s too easy to see things in black and white, and to be satisfied that one perspective is right and another is wrong. Push yourselves to understand not just what people’s opinions are, but why they have them. Nuanced understandings can be tricky to achieve and even trickier to work with, but at the very least they’re more interesting, and they’re usually more accurate.

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