In an Afghan refugee camp, she looked to universal principles of law

Setting up services at an Afghan refugee camp meant creating some kind of rules. Sakena Yacoobi looked at 'what was fair, moral, and just – what we could want for ourselves. I now know that these are sometimes called universal principles of law.'

By , Skoll World Forum

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    Sakena Yacoobi is executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning. 'I founded AIL in order to help my people become educated and healthy and learn the critical thinking skills and other skills that they needed to live together with others in peace,' she says.
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I founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995 in the refugee camps of Pakistan when there were over 7.5 million refugees.

Although the Soviet Union had been defeated, there was still fighting in Afghanistan. Our country was mostly destroyed. We had no functional government. Refugees could not return because of the fighting, no homes, no jobs, no way to live; the structure of society had broken down; war was the norm and often people did not know how to decide what was right and wrong.

Afghan women and children needed education, health services, and training in order to rebuild their country. They also needed to have a foundation other than fighting and survival so that they could rebuild their lives and country and live in peace.

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I founded AIL in order to help my people become educated and healthy and learn the critical thinking skills and other skills that they needed to live together with others in peace.

In the refugee camps there were various laws for Afghans to follow—the rules of UNHCR and some of the laws of Pakistan and the rules that various groups set up in the camps. We did not have a functional government with a system of rules and there was an absence of laws in various areas—particularly in education and health. So, we in AIL looked at what was fair, moral, and just—what we could want for ourselves—I now know that these are sometimes called universal principles of law.

We did not actually research our principles; rather, they were created through consensus by the staff. There was no time or money. We needed to start schools and clinics and train people. So AIL staff discussed amongst themselves what was important to them in light of the culture, tradition, and religions of Afghanistan, and we came up with our own rules and standards and philosophy—essentially a system of laws that would enable Afghans to feel safe and secure and would build trust for our work together. 

  1. We wanted our people to be educated and healthy because we think these are basic human rights.
  2. We wanted our people to be free and to think for themselves and get along together.
  3. We would treat people equally and with dignity, as we wanted to be treated. We would respect them and their culture, and we asked the people we worked with to do the same.
  4. We worked at the grass roots involving the people we worked with in the decisionmaking about the programs that we would provide.
  5. We wanted the people to contribute something for the schools and clinics so that they would have responsibility toward and feel a sense of ownership of the projects.

One day, the people from a distant camp asked us to set up a school for their girls. They did not have a teacher, so we went to a respected mullah in the camp and asked if he would be willing to teach. After discussions, he agreed to teach classes out of his home. We signed a contract and ultimately there were seven classes being taught in the camp where he lived. This happened because we followed our basic principles by finding a solution to meet the needs of the community, involving the community and treating them with respect.

In a conflict situation, you do not always have a set of consistent laws to guide your work; in some areas there may be an absence of laws. My suggestion to others working in this type of situation is to look to Universal Principles of Law. There’s a great deal that has been written on this topic, and I suggest beginning with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

As I was doing research for my panel discussion at the World Justice Forum, I found that many of the articles of the UDHR applied directly to the way AIL chose to do its work. The UDHR takes in to account the universal principals of law from various cultures and can be applied to a varied of situations.

I’m not saying that everyone will agree with everything in the document, but I think it’s a great place to start when you’re in a place where the rule of law is ambiguous or absent.

• Sakena Yacoobi is executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning.

This article originally appeared at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.

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