Nation Building: Applying Frames of Analysis a Case Study of Afghanistan

Nation Building: Applying Frames of Analysis a Case Study of Afghanistan

By Chris Taylor Cartwright, MPA, Ed.D.

Sultana Parvanta, Ph.D.


We live in a time where the peoples of the world are both highly interconnected, interdependent, and fraught with uncertainty. This makes us all aware of and even engaged in the trauma occurring so frequently in the world. It also brings us viscerally, morally, and emotionally close to the myriad of differences that societies inculcate. In crises, when a nation has suffered greatly it may need support, guidance, and even blueprints to reorganize or reform the nation’s vision, mission, and trajectory in order to rebuild as a nation. Many take up the call, and with good intentions extend themselves in support. But do they (the nation needing support, the agency, and the people offering support) realize the layers of complexity they are about to engage? Are they prepared to find the nature of their involvement and parameters for partnership, much less negotiate for reciprocal outcomes? In this essay, we explore an example of a successful nation-building endeavor that was enacted in Afghanistan and examine it from several frames including the contexts of complex geo-political issues, and internal atmospherics, as well as trust, culture, and cultural competencies, and leadership. Using appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005) as an entrée to the work, we examine this case of success and then share the challenges for this work based on the frames noted above. Our goal is to offer the reader some points of reflection points to consider as they may embark in this ever-present dilemma in a world full of crises.

Key Words/Phrases

  1. Afghanistan,
  2. Nation Building,
  3. Crisis,
  4. Trust,
  5. Culture,
  6. Intercultural Competence,
  7. Leadership,


At the core of any society is the construct of belongingness; as social beings, humans require relationships with others. We need each other in order to survive, meet our basic physical and emotional needs, and ultimately thrive and find our purpose or agency in life. We form civilizations and create sets of norms that govern our relationships with each other and how we govern ourselves. Looking at history, this connects to our core as humans; our humanity is what ultimately matters.

“Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink, or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said. “We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.” (Byock, 2012)

This passage emphasizes the importance of human connection, care, and compassion. In the case of nation-building, we face the challenge of supporting people who may have lost this foundational level of connectedness. Afghanistan society had experienced over 50 years of wars, turmoil, and raw human trauma before the United States launched its nation-building endeavors in 2001. There had been coups, civil war, and invasions by the former USSR, a fundamentalists Islamic regime, that toppled long-standing rulers and upset the order of governing and societal norms. The US intervened to fight the terrorism that had contributed to the 9/11 attack in 2001 and attempted to free Afghanistan from a medieval Islamic Taliban regime 2001 and assisted its devastated people; their environment, cities, infrastructure, economy, homes, and families – all were in ruins. The metaphorical femur that needed tending was a people without hope, and with limited trust that their fellow humans had their best interests at heart when proposing to reestablish order.

A civilization is a collection of people who have joined in a sense of community to mutually benefit or care for each other. Nation-building then must consider what this means to those involved in the endeavor and, where necessary, support rebuilding this sense of community. Theologian Richard Mouw framed this idea as follows:

“… to be civil comes from “civitas” and it means learning how to live in the city. The origin with a guy like Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, who said early on, as little children, we have a natural sense of kinship. We have strong positive feelings toward those who are blood relatives, my mother, my father, sisters, brothers, cousins, and the like. And then as we grow up, we have some of those same positive feelings that develop toward friends. So we go from kinship and we build on that to a broader sense of friendship where you have that same sense of bonding or something like it that isn’t just based on blood relative stuff.

But he said to really grow up, to be a mature human being, is to learn in the public square to have that same sense of bonding to people from other cities, people who are very different than yourself. And that’s not just toleration, but is a sense that what I owe to my mother because she brought me into this world, what I owe to my friends because of shared experiences and memories and delights, I also owe to the stranger. Why? Because they’re human like me and I have got to begin to think of humanness as such as a kind of bonding relationship.” (Mouw & Tippet, 2011)

In Afghanistan, the metaphorical ‘city’ is an ancient and culturally complex civilization that has stood at the crossroads of Asia, between the Middle Eastern and Mesopotamian cultures to the West; the Indo-Aryan cultures to the Southeast, the East Asian and Mongol Cultures to the East, and the Turkic and Slavic cultures to the North. Alexander the Great of Macedonia pushed his empire through the territories we now identify as Afghanistan and died in the region. Alexander’s chroniclers remarked on the cultural and linguistic complexities of the peoples of this region in 223 BC. Stitching together a sense of community in a culturally complex metaphorical ‘city’ and with a population suffering physical, emotional, and financial ‘broken femurs’, Afghanistan in the 2000s was fraught with challenges that required deep thought and profound patience to engage.

There are as many perspectives on where and how an agency ought to initiate and engage in nation-building endeavors as there are waves in the sea. This article, like the others in this volume, posits that a focus on culture, the norms, and values form to create a sense of belonging, is an appropriate starting point to navigate the unpredictable currents and shorelines that such a voyage will inevitably endure. The proposed starting point of such a sojourn is cultivating empathy rather than sympathy for the nation and its people. In the Christian Bible, Matthew 7:12 states, “Therefore for all things what so ever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”. This is commonly referred to as ‘The Golden Rule’. An agency operating from this sympathetic perspective assumes they can step into the shoes of the people and see the city as they see they do. This naïve mindset minimizes the cultural richness of those who are to be served and assumes that it is possible to comprehend what this devastated ‘city’ of people with ‘broken femurs’ needs or wants. This ethnocentric perspective is rarely true or even sustainable. Conversely, if the nation-building agency can move beyond sympathy to empathy, they can participate in the healing work that is needed as co-authors or collaborators of a new chapter. With this more ethnorelative perspective, nation-builders are more likely to respect that what the people need is different from their own experience and to affirm that those in need know what is best. This is defined as ‘The Platinum Rule, “Do onto others as they would have done unto them” (Bennett, M.J., 1979).  Conceptually this shift from sympathy to empathy is simple, but operationally it is difficult.

We share a story in nation-building as a case study of success as an endeavor completed in 2015 in Afghanistan called “Mobile Public Awareness and Drug Prevention Exhibit”. This project was funded by the DEA Educational Foundation [DEA-EF] (DEAEF, 2013 & 2015), based in Washington D.C., with support from the US State Department, and managed by Sultana Parvanta, Ph.D., an Afghan expatriate who returned to her home country in 2003 to participate in the rebuilding of her homeland. I interviewed Dr. Parvanta 5 times over several weeks, and the data gathered in those interviews (Parvanta, 2022) with additional readings is the foundation of this article. We are employing an appreciative inquiry approach (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005), in that we are focusing on what occurred that was positive or contributed to a positive outcome, rather them on what was a deterrent to success. With this approach, we hope to highlight what was successful, and what we are still learning, and then share questions to be asked when considering nation-building work.

The Case Study

The “Mobile Exhibit for Public Awareness and Drug Education and Prevention” (DEAEF, 2013 & 2015), (‘Exhibit’), was an initiative in nation building designed to raise awareness and educate young people, (including adults, with a particular emphasis on children and women), about the dangers of the opium and addiction. When this project had begun in 2011, Afghanistan had become the world’s largest producer and exporter of opium. In 2012 this trade was worth about $65 billion and was selling 80 percent of the world’s raw ingredients for the production of heroin. In 2010, it was reported that 8 percent of the adult Afghan population were users of opium and its derivatives — twice the average for other nations in the world. While these numbers are staggering, this trade devastated families, communities, the economy, and the culture of Afghanistan. To nurture citizens who could engage in the civic life of a reemerging country, required people who can access own their faculties and make conscious and considered decisions that benefit their society. But this was not possible so many in the society were incapacitated by addiction or terrorized into surrendering their rights and lives to propagate the drug trade. Many families were overwhelmed trying to mitigate the impacts of drug use on themselves, their children, and their communities. Under such conditions, it was difficult to foster trained and competent citizens to unite in rebuilding their nations – there were just too many with ‘broken femurs’.

Dr. Sultana Parvanta was contacted by the DEA-EF to develop an educational curriculum and campaign to keep young people away from drugs. As an Afghan expatriate and educator with experience advocating for deprived and at-risk children, the project spoke to her heart. She admits that at this time, she had only a cursory understanding of the national and geopolitical problems associated with drug production, trade, and use in Afghanistan and the region; as well as issues related to addiction, prevention, or recovery. She asked for and was granted time and resources to research the situation in a nine-month recognizance and needs assessment period with fieldwork throughout the country. She meet with communities, officials, and individuals that had overlapping interests and jurisdictions. She formed a diverse team of experts and co-created multiple sets of mobile exhibits that could barely fit in two large trucks accompanied by two 16-passenger vans that carried the exhibit and the exhibit teams of approximately 45 people around the country over a 5+ year period. During this time hundreds of thousands of people visited the Exbibit in the major provinces of Afghanistan with an immeasurable impact of educating youth and their families to avoid or get off drug use. Being a somatic educator (interweaving spirit, mind, and body) Dr. Parvanta included elements of how we think can impact our decisions and quality of life – encouraging behaviors that can foster and maintain healthy bodies. Topics of good nutrition and exercise were also included in the Exhibit curriculum. Street Theater performances, as an ancient art form of public education and discourse in Afghanistan, offered supplemental information and awareness-raising mechanisms to further the aim and goals of the Exhibit. This project no is no longer active.

The link to the DEA Educational Foundation:

Context, the Socio-Political Frame:

To begin the analysis of the Exhibit as an illustration of nation-building, we consider the socio-political milieu that Afghanistan faced at the time of the US occupation. After five decades of turmoil, a majority of the Afghan population had never known a time of peace, or order, of relative security. Coups and the succession of wars had devastated every aspect of their lives. Although never rich, before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan provided a relatively stable life for its citizens. They tended to live in compounds encircling a courtyard with expended family members, brothers,s, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts, and grandparents all looking out for and after each other. The streets of the capital of Kabul were lined with flowering and fruit trees, whose beauty and produce were free to all who came to enjoy or sit in their shade. Vibrant expressive arts throve, including painting, music, culinary, literature, and poetry.

Afghans aligned with the Suni sect of Islam predominantly, and with other sects in smaller subgroups: Shia, Sufi, Wahabi, and a few Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists all lived in relative tolerance and harmony in different regions of the country and were represented in the capital city. Boys and girls attended schools, usually separated by gender, and both were encouraged to pursue higher education to seek professional careers. The economy was largely agrarian and was able to produce the diverse foods necessary to support its populace. The central government, while not strong, was able to maintain a level of law and order as well as external relations with the rest of the world. Local and region tribal governing bodies, usually headed by regional Islamic clerics, managed law and order within their regions so that most people could survive and even thrive. Afghanistan was considered a poor country by international standards, with poor transportation, infrastructure, and uneven health care services. Many practices in societal transactions, governance, commerce, agriculture, and so on, were simple and even antiquated by world standards. Straight forward and trust-based interactions were fruitful and sustainable, however. A discernable civilization thrived for thousands of years, building on trial-and-error and bartering systems with a clear level of belongingness that the environment fostered and provided.

The coups and protracted wars were destructive and damaging to the people, as they can only be; annihilating their society, values, and ultimately their humanity.  People were often left without proper housing, adequate or reliable food sources, and poor if any healthcare services. Families had been torn apart; it was rare to find a family that could not name 5 to 10 family members killed by some soldiers, suicide bombings, or drug-related events. Drug traffickers typically passed out free heroin to teenagers as samples to try and quickly them addicted to drugs; then they were recruited to work in selling or farming the opium. By the time these mostly young men were about 28 to 30 years old, their bodies had been ravaged by the drugs and they were no longer valuable to employers and the drug lords. These abandoned lost souls were abandoned created additional challenges for their families and communities; giving birth to a new cultural sub-set with associated norms and demands.

The Afghan people’s love and appreciation for artistic expressions had been denied to them for generations and many were lost. For example, the preparation of many once common foods is no longer taught and they are gone from stores and family tables. Law and order were rare, brittle, and undependable. Local circles of clerics applied religious laws strictly to sort out local judicial and legal issues. Sectarian violence and extreme political ideologies had left the society fractured and intolerant of their diverse brothers and sisters, denying and depriving them of traditional channels of reciprocity and reverence. Without hope and suffering deeply from the multiple levels of trauma, the Afghan people were confused as to whom and how to trust and for how long.

Much has been written about the history and wars in Afghanistan, especially in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. Novels, plays, and movies that offer stories of suffering and/or redemption. Accounts of women, families, tribes or ethnic groups, religious adherents, and successive governments explain how they fought, lost, or possibly even rose up during these times. The socio-political perspective reveals for us now how Afghanistan had been devastated and its people were deeply scarred. They had been left as a people with broken femurs and no sense of belonging to a city. Any nation-building endeavor would need to take into account how the web of human connection and agency that forms a civilization had been unraveled. This loss of humanity would require attention before or at least simultaneously to the building of governments and infrastructure.

Dr. Parvanta explained that for the first couple of years after repatriating to Afghanistan, she spent most of her time simply listening to people as they told their stories; sharing the names of their lost family members and friends; describing their lost homes, farms, businesses, and basic sense of security; lamenting their loss of health, culture, and their sense of wellbeing. Trauma and shattered nervous systems were very prevalent; people were distressed in many ways and could not stop talking about the suffering they had experienced and endured.

During the 13+ years working for various local private agencies, as well as national and international organizations, with the Exhibit being one of her last projects, Dr. Parvanta kept in mind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1968). She knew that attending to the basic needs of shelter and safety is important for the citizens of a poor and war-torn country. She made certain her Afghan compatriots in the Exhibit project were paid well so they could house and feed their families.  She also made their safety the highest priority, both within the project team and especially once they started touring the country. Traveling in Afghanistan in this period was exceedingly dangerous, especially for a caravan of 45 people with two trucks and two passenger vans. Every route was carefully mapped; each regional and provincial government, municipality, and community council were consulted. Formal approvals were sought to ensure her team’s safety and to obtain entry to each new school or a new venue such as mosques, municipal parks, zoos, regional military bases, provincial Women’s Centers, and so on. She worked to build a collegial culture of respect and cooperation, as well as a learning environment within her very diverse team. Members of the team were cross-trained so they could take over roles if another member was missing. She handled emerging conflicts, negotiated clear expectations, and fostered a sense of purpose and belongingness.  She shared the vision, accomplishments, and accolades for members’ work openly; and made certain they felt pride in their individual and collective work. Finally, she crafted a clear vision of the Exhibit project and saw to it that all of her constituents including, team members, local officials, Exhibit hosts, and participants understood its purpose and value. They were given the information and the tools to learn to protect themselves from drug addiction and the skills to choose a healthy and productive life. It was a slow, carefully crafted, and nimble sense of actualization that initiated healing from the individual and collective trauma that Afghanistan was suffering from at that time.


Consultant and executive coach Ted Baartmans (2022) has developed a model of Trust for an upcoming book on the topic that frames nation-building in Afghanistan. In this model participants in an exchange work through stages of understanding, acceptance, and respect in a serpentine pattern in order to reach a full stage of mutual understanding.

Figure 1; Model of Trust

Baartmans, 2022, De Presentatie Groep, The Netherlands.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

This illustrates how the deep cultural differences between the Afghans themselves and, more importantly, the US-centric nation-builders impeded and often prevented the mutual respect needed to facilitate their work. On a micro-level, Dr. Parvanta shared that she needed to recognize and negotiate these stages of trust within herself in order to understand her own motivations in returning to her homeland after a 35-year absence to help her nation rebuild. She had to recognize and accept what she knew and didn’t know about her homeland, its peoples, and her capacity to reengage it. Finally, she had to respect her own cultural foundations, her capacity to learn, and her vision of a better future for her people.

Many negotiations and consultations took place prior to the final version of the Exhibit in all aspects of its content, design, and delivery. Meticulous care was given to ensure that the educational and utility value of this project was viable, constructive, and empowering to the Afghans and provided a guiding principle of wellbeing. Both DEA-FE and Dr. Parvanta operated in an atmosphere of mutual trust, transparency,  collaboration, respect, and frequent communication. She trusted and understood the impeccable commitment of her US counterparts to the vision and the potential of this project.

She also recognized their interest and understanding of the people of Afghanistan, and the role that drugs played in their lives. This same trust-building via inner reflection was facilitated again and again as she built her team for the Exhibit project because they too needed to build trust in themselves, in the project, in each other, and in their varying constituents. They needed to find mutual acceptance of serviceable interventions to this complex crisis and mutual respect for the roles they would each play in this endeavor.

Once the research, recognizance, and initiatory processes were completed, the drug awareness and prevention curriculum was formed and the Exhibit was built with many drafts and discussions over late phone meetings and over many months. Then the team that would implement, manage the logistics, and disseminates information was assembled. Dr. Parvanta intentionally hired a team that represented the richly diverse ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and social environments that Afghanistan possesses. The team also reflected gender equity and intergenerational balance. Leadership and decision-making responsibilities were given to both female and male members of the team, as well as to the younger men and women. The process of team building clarified how much cultivating trust and respect were needed.  Special attention was given to acknowledging and addressing conflicts and taking the time to work through them thoroughly, so the team members could depend on each other as they traveled through dangerous zones. The time and diligence needed to get the team to work well were never considered excessive or inappropriate. Trust, mutual respect, and reciprocity were essential to the project’s success as were fostering a sense of well-being, belonging, and joy team members felt for their service.

To ensure her team’s safety and security as they traveled the country, Dr. Parvanta carefully negotiated trust with and articulated the reciprocal benefits of this project to various regions, municipal, and district-level governmental agencies, including the local educational and religious entities and diverse constituencies. This was more of a macro-level negotiation establishing vision and trust. Sometimes these negotiations required her to travel back and forth to Kabul to seek the central government’s blessing for the exhibit to enter regions where the local officials resisted or lacked trust in either the project’s US funding or in the work itself. This was a constant juggling of regions, permissions, agreements, and guidance, with safety being all-important.

As the work of nation-building progresses on a more macro-level, citizens’ capacity to trust governing bodies and to hold them accountable is required. In a country ravaged by war and vastly different ideological mindsets, mistrust of others was rampant among the Afghan people. For them, these recent waves of nation builders from various nations, cultures, and competing national interests had come too quickly; they had implemented changes without consideration of peoples’ concerns and inputs, their contextual needs, and culture. They had left abruptly, often without considering and establishing sustainable infrastructure to support their nation-building initiatives. Dr. Parvanta observed that many officials and directors in the new Afghan government installed by US agencies were highly distrusting of the American teams dispatched to support them. Most of these officials were leftover former personnel from the communist régime and they were resistant and skeptical about the US funding and the value of their initiatives. There were also other cultural and linguistic gaps that prevented the Afghans from engaging in a reciprocal manner. The US delegates generated technical, conceptual, and descriptive reports in English at governmental agencies where only a few employees could read and write in English. The US expatriates and their international cohorts were usually given short-term assignments and were paid exorbitant salaries by Afghan standards. Her first official assignment in the new Afghan government was as the third in command of the Department of Commerce and frequently she was asked to manage the non-Afghan delegates and also serve as a translator because she could speak English and might understand what they were doing, despite having other pressing responsibilities to fulfill.

As Dr. Parvanta shuttled between the offices of different US agencies charged with nation-building for over 10 years, sometimes as a representative of the Afghan government or as an employee of these agencies; she found that the ethnocentric attitudes of US and other nation’s staff often disparaged the Afghan people. Many US staff referred to the Afghans as ‘illiterate’ when the Afghans were quite fluent in their own language and possibly even 2 or 3 others, though not English. A great deal ‘was lost in translation due to cultural and linguistic barriers. The construct of ‘policy’ was foreign to most Afghans for there is no such exact word in Farsi. In most documents prepared by western experts policy formulation for this and that was common, and the US personnel’s constant referencing to a policy as well as pie in the sky type goals evoked a deep disconnect. It was common during meetings with their American counterparts, for the Afghan government officials to lean over to her, speak in Farsi, to complain that these Americans did not understand that they have a history and culture of thousands of years before the US had arrived and that they felt that they were being treated as if they were stupid children.

The temporal cultural difference was particularly profound; the US delegates often sought quick, short-term infrastructural solutions to deep problems that had festered for generations. Seasoned expatriates sent to Afghanistan often had only 6-8 weeks to complete a task and were uninterested in learning about the Afghan people, let alone forming trusting relationships with them. Dr. Parvanta shared a story of a US agency representative that she worked for early on who did not understand the complexity of the work to be done by the agency in Afghanistan. This agency director was focused on gathering and disseminating progress reports, no matter what was being accomplished in the field that week. So she would seek out Dr. Parvanta toward the end of each week and ask for what Dr. Parvanta jokingly referred to as the ‘happy bullets’ to send back to DC. Even those US delegates sent on longer assignments were given less than a 6-hour training on the country and were required to leave Afghanistan at regular intervals to recoup from the stresses of living and working in the country, thus interrupting and impeding their ability to reach deep mutual respect for what all the parties brought to the table.

Baartmans (2022) offers a second diagram that illustrates the levels of trust that can be negotiated, depending on the commitment and depth of the negotiations.

Figure 2; Trust Model Phase 2

Baartmans, 2022, De Presentatie Groep, The Netherlands.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Dr. Parvanta had to negotiate different levels of trust for the Exhibit project to safely travel across the country. With some agencies with only marginally overlapping interests or jurisdictions, a simple memorandum of understanding-level of the agreement was necessary. But for communities and agencies that wanted to partner in furthering the drug awareness and prevention agenda, a coalition-building level of trust was necessary. At the deepest level — with the government of Afghanistan and its people — a full social agreement-level of commitment to eradicating the drug trade was required.

In conclusion, trust is both essential to the success of any nation-building initiative and simultaneously complex, often culturally bounded, and very time-consuming work. We encourage those interested in launching and maintaining nation-building work to consider trust-building as an essential foundation for their work.


Looking at nation-building through the lens of culture can be insightful. Many social scientists have learned to look at the phenomena of culture through what is called ‘cultural general dimensions’, meaning observing and then defining a dimension that is shared across most cultures but in an array or spectrum of highs to lows in terms of the holding of the dimension. Mead and Métraux (1962) initiated this level of analysis by uncovering the construct of cultural preferences for collective community wellbeing versus a more individualized preference for accomplishment. Hall (1959) looked at communication styles across differences. Triandis led a team to look at risk aversion (Triandis, Leung, Villareal & Clack, 1985). Trompenaars and Hampton-Turner (2011) looked at hierarchy or what interculturalists call power-distance dimensions. Hofstede (2001) completed the most comprehensive research in the 1980s, surveying 20 thousand employees of IMB from around the world. He noted that while they all did the work of IBM, they approached the work differently based on their culturally bound preferences. Wursten (2019) synthesized the 4 dominant cultural dimensions of Geert Hofstede and formulated 7 clusters of combinations of the dimensions, covering the global diversity of cultural groups. These clusters can offer a ‘Gestalt’  to expedite the analysis of their norms, values, and behaviors.

Dr. Parvanta describes the culture of Afghanistan as one that used be place greater value on loyalty, honor, compassion, reciprocity, and civility. The Kabul of her childhood and adolescence, before her family fled the Russian-backed invasion in the 1970s, was a gentile place. Families gathered, elders were loved and obeyed, and there was a structure to live, but it felt like a warm collective hug. Food, music, poetry, and art were enjoyed by many. Women moved freely and without a veil if they pleased and could choose to pursue education and careers.  There was law and order; parents, uncles, and councils of elders had to be consulted on big life decisions like marriage and infractions. But it did not seem oppressive.

Wursten suggested that the cluster named ‘The Pyramid’ might best describe the Afghan culture when employing his clusters of cultural frameworks and Dr. Parvanta agreed in our interviews. In the Pyramid cluster, hierarchy is preferred to an egalitarian sense of order; loyalty is highly valued, as unloyalty severs trust irrevocably. Dr. Wursten includes a preference for a centrality or central power place, and Dr. Parvanta explained that this is highly contextual in the Afghan culture. Some structures, like the building of infrastructure, originate from the central government and so are centralized; whereas the setting of behavioral standards is usually decentralized and monitored by the local council of elders from the mosque. Formalism is preferred, meaning that social order and engagement have a specific structure and cadence, dictated by the culture. Respect, especially for elders and people with high rank or position, is highly valued and maintained. Communication is often indirect, with back channels and conflict avoidance highly valued. But these cultural norms are difficult to navigate for the uninitiated, especially after 50 years of turmoil.

Returning 35 years later, Dr. Parvanta found a people ravaged by displacement and exodus from rural settings. They were often houseless, without familial or community connection in large urban centers, and deeply traumatized by the lack of order and safety. Learning to engage this new world with humility was a challenge and an opportunity to reengage with her people. Listening deeply and without an expected outcome was how she enacted the Platinum Rule (Bennett, 1979) we discussed in the opening section. Thus, without formal training in intercultural dimensions, she pursued establishing trust and respect for the individuals and their identified cultures.

We have already discussed the temporal differences that Dr. Parvanta experienced in negotiating the Exhibit project between the various US-backed agencies and the Afghan constituencies. Timelines, pert-charts with deadlines, and the need for immediate or short-term accomplishments displaying a task-over-relationship-orientation were antithetical to the Afghan cultural mindset. Not only was a time not held that way on a day-to-day basis, but in the context of nation-building, security, safety, stability, order, and healing took precedence over the tasks that the US and other overseas agencies supporting nation-building came prepared for to do. Dr. Parvanta pointed out that there is no word for ‘policy’ in Farsi. The fact that the US delegates kept framing their work as ‘forming policy’ confused her Afghan colleagues, linguistically as well as culturally.

Remaining humble and open to learning what might be the frame for the right action takes talent and practice. Dr. Parvanta often found her US-centric colleagues ill-informed about the people and cultures of Afghanistan; often even openly disparaging the Afghan people and their cultures. This judgemental and lack of open-mindedness, bordering on arrogance, served as a barrier to their nation-building efforts. She often found the more seasoned professionals to be the least open to learning about the people and culture of Afghanistan. They had a task and a way to complete their task and zeroed in on completing their work with laser focus, to the detriment of seeking sustainable measures that met the needs of the local people. In addition, Dr. Parvanta observed that young people being brought into agencies with excellent language skills, often had no grounding in the cultural norms of the Afghan people, so their interpretation of ongoing negotiations was often flawed. We used the term ‘House of Cards’ to describe the infrastructure left in place before this most recent retreat and takeover of the government by a resurgent Taliban in 2020. This Exhibit project with the DEA-EF in Afghanistan could not be sustained under a regime that is complicit in the drug trade. In conclusion, learning about the culture of a people can support the work of nation-building.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence played a role in the success of the Exhibit Project. This is defined by Janet Bennett as:  “a set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills and characteristics that support effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts.” (Bennett, J. M. 2008). For this project to get built, launched, and deployed across Afghanistan, diverse constituencies had to be engaged effectively. Recently, the term ‘diversity’ has seemed to focus more on race and ethnicity in an almost ethnocentric desire to ignore the myriad of difference that the world presents. But in the case of Afghanistan, the diversity to be engaged was more nuanced and complex. Yes, there is some ethnic diversity across the country, with linguistic, religious, and tribal affiliations, as well as gender balance all playing a role in learning about the needs of the differing populations related to drug use and trade. When forming the teams and negotiating deployment for the Exhibit, this diversity was explicitly sought to ensure representation; with respect for this diversity clearly articulated and modeled. But other forms of diversity also needed to be considered. Ideological and spiritual perspectives could not be ignored when engaging people from across the country with differing views on communism verse democracy as a ruling order; for example, or the roles and responsibilities of a theocracy with strict Islamic caliphate verses a centralized government, verses a somewhat benevolent royal family form of government. The diversity of jurisdictional, organizational tasks or authority had to considered with agencies focused on commerce, health, education, transportation, safety (military and police), and their regional, national, NGO, or mostly US governmental backed organizations.

The Exhibit project was led by a woman, who received most of her higher education in the US to the level of a doctorate, and had returned to a country where, until the US takeover, the previous Islamic caliphate would not have encouraged her to move freely about, let alone to manage teams of people or a project of this scale and complexity. Thus the diverse cultural expectations of gender and education status also played a significant role in how the project moved forward. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights (1990) stated that:

  1. A woman is equal to a man in human dignity, has her own rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform, has her own civil entity and financial independence, and the right to retain her name and lineage.
  2. The husband is responsible for the maintenance and welfare of the family.

However, de facto, the practice of Sharia law seems to obfuscate this stance in Afghanistan. This situation, depending on the interpretation, could be quite binding to the point of breaking Afghanistan women’s metaphorical femurs, especially now that the Taliban has returned to power.

We should mention the diversity and sophistication of perspectives and the access to technology. Dr. Parvanta observed that although it was common to see Afghan farmers riding donkeys while talking on a cell phone, they were still bringing their produce to market as their grandfathers had done for centuries. She was able to collaborate with her US colleagues in late-night video calls and to meet with the Afghan youth and families using this technology. Communicating with international constituencies across the country and globe was facilitated with technology and helped Dr. Parvanta find allies for her work across all of these differences. This level of technological access, facilitation, support, and sophistication is uncommon and almost privileged in the nation-building space.

Mendenhall and Oddou (1985) have researched a model of intercultural competence based on expatriate adaptation that is illustrative of the work that Dr. Parvanta and her colleagues engaged in with the Exhibit project. In their model, the individual needs to be willing to learn about themselves and others in order to engage with humility and openmindedness; they need to learn to make and maintain relationships across difference in order to build and maintain the alliances necessary to be effective in diverse contexts; and finally they need to learn to self-manage in order to navigate in culturally complex contexts, as they inevitably find themselves off-balanced, feeling inadequate, and emotionally challenged in such circumstances.

Dr. Parvanta was clear about her purpose as an Afghan expatriate, having left her country as a young woman and being away from her homeland for over 35 years. She reentered Afghanistan with curiosity, trepidation, and anticipation as to what she would find and experience. She embarked on learning about the deeper underlying issues of drug production, consumption, and trade by conducting thorough field research regarding the need and value of the Exhibit project. She fully admitted that she knew little about the drug trade, addiction, recovery, or preventative education in Afghanistan. She knew that her US sponsors and collaborators, although they had expert knowledge about drug-related issues, were open to learning about and adapting to the Afghan context.  She was also aware that not all of her constituency partners shared her curiosity and she chose to engage at the level that met the needs of the project. Avoiding judgemental helped her find and form alternative alliances across different sectors.  She cultivated and recruited a representatively diverse project team; paying particular attention to their intergroup relations, so might be good ambassadors for drug prevention wherever the project was welcomed. But these relationships were extended to the broad constituencies mentioned earlier across the myriad of differences so that the Exhibit could be built and deployed to do its work. Finally, she had to face personal safety threats and dangerous circumstances to advance her work and prepare her teams to self-manage in such contexts. Learning to reframe such situations as learning opportunities for better future performance and relations is exceedingly challenging work that plays a major role in supporting this level of self-management. Thus we see how this model of intercultural competence supported the Exhibit project in its nation-building endeavor.

As mentioned earlier in this article, not all agencies (national and international and NGOs) engaged in this level of intercultural competency development. They were often sequestered in compounds for safety and security away from the Afghan people and contextual environments; often they were on specific task assignments that prohibited fruitful opportunities for cross-cultural relationship-building. Dr. Parvanta observed instances of judgemental and lack of openmindedness by some ex-pats. For example, they often imposed formal administrative procedures that required a level of sophistication inappropriate for the Afghan context. Identifying and developing intercultural competence is always a huge undertaking in any context. These competencies may not be an agency director’s mind when looking for staff to deploy to areas of the world in crisis; to rebuild a broken nation, however, we recommend it can be.


The Personal Leadership school (Schaetti, Ramsey, & Watanabe, 2008) offers a model and practice of deep self-reflection that can illustrate this concept and serve as the bridge to the final section of this paper. In the Personal Leadership model and practice, the individual is open to and even cultivates a sensitivity that ‘something is up, indicating that a challenge or opportunity, often cultural, has arisen and must be addressed. Then, relying on a clear alignment to their vision and mission, the individual ascertains what is the right action. By reframing difference as a learning opportunity, a leader remains nimble and responsive to diverse contexts. Dr. Parvanta, as a somatic educator and practitioner, found the integration of mind, body, and spirit embedded in the Personal Leadership model and practices, particularly valuable in her own journey into being an effective leader of the Exhibit project.

Leadership has an enormous role in nation-building. This construct is often impacted by the ways it is implemented across diverse populations. The Connective Leadership Model (Lipman-Blumen, 1996) serves as a way to analyze how the Exhibit project was led. In this model, 9 distinct leadership styles are identified and can be employed at various levels of capacity in response to constituents and contexts. Birthed from feminist research on why women were hitting the glass ceiling in leadership roles, the Connective Leadership Model has become foundational in uncovering and developing inclusive leadership behaviors. It includes 3 factors emphasizing completing and managing tasks (Direct); bringing oneself and others into the work (Instrumental), and engaging and supporting others to complete the work (Relational). Applying this model, we can analyze leaders’ ability to leverage their strengths and shore up or compensate for weaknesses, with the ultimate goal of becoming an effective leader through flexibility and strength. The diagram below illustrates this basic model.

FIGURE 3; The Connective Leadership/Achieving Styles Model

Jean Lipman-Blumen, 1996.  The Connective Edge: Leading in an Interdependent World. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 112.  Copyright 1996 by Jossey-Bass.

Reprinted with permission © Connective Leadership Institute

In our interviews on the Exhibit project, Dr. Parvanta explained that the Relational Leadership styles were very important to her work. She needed to collaborate with many different agencies and people to design, launch, and deploy the Exhibit around the country. Some of her collaborators might be considered counter-intuitive to the expected partnership she might seek in drug prevention work. For example, the US and Afghan Military had recruited many young men to learn to become soldiers and police officers for the newly formed Afghan army and police force. These trainees had little or no exposure to drug awareness and prevention education and were themselves highly vulnerable to being recruited into the drug trade industry. For this reason, the Exhibit project was welcomed into military bases by both national and international forces such as ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces).  This counter-intuitive collaboration helped to both protect the caravan in its travels while providing a learning and skill-building opportunity for the recruits. Dr. Parvanta had her teams cross-train each other in their roles so that the Exhibit could be offered without waiting for absentee team members to arrive. This, she and her team members all learned how to deliver the curriculum in the spirit in which it was designed and implemented. They also learned to pack and unpack the exhibit, cook for each other, and to find housing for the team. The scope of work often required mentoring, skill-building, and leveraging the unique talents of everyone from the drivers to the educational specialists.

Next, Dr. Parvanta also found that the Instrumental suite of leadership styles was important. She often had to use herself as an instrument and a symbol of the vision of the project in front of officials and constituents at all levels of the Afghan and nation-building agencies and governments. She cultivated new team members, using her networks — both familial and professional — to recruit individuals who could be trusted to hold the project’s vision and then, empowered people who may not have been ready for new roles, circumstances, and associated challenges, to step up and take on the necessary and multi-layered tasks.

Finally, in terms of the Direct set, Dr. Parvanta’s personal vision and standards for an inclusive work environment that could reeducate the Afghan people to stay away from drugs and the drug trade became her passion. She lived this vision and mission and used everything in her array of tools to advance it. She saw little need to compete for resources or with other governmental agencies. Taking care of tasks required to build and deploy these exhibits was all-important. Recognizing that budgeting was not among her best skills, she cultivated a productive relationship with her colleague at the DEA-EF who provided guidance in managing the financial resources from afar and well. In this way, she chose to shore up a personal weakness by enlisting a colleague with the necessary skills. Still, there were many logistical and project management tasks that Dr. Parvanta assumed, shared, and leveraged in order to carry out the work of the Exhibit project.

In this section, we have discussed the personal and professional leadership competencies that were and can be engaged in order to form an inclusive environment and carry out the work of nation-building.


In this paper, we have offered a singular case study of a nation-building initiative in Afghanistan and then analyzed it from multiple lenses in order to clarify the interrelationships of context (socio-political circumstances, powerful human conditions, and influences) that emerge when viewed from the lenses of trust, culture, cultural competency, and leadership. We note that we are aware of numerous national building initiatives occurring in Afghanistan at this same time that also did very fine work. Most importantly, they worked directly with the Afghan people, listened carefully to their context and needs in order to build trusting relationships; learned about the Afghan culture, and developed their own cultural competency in order to work effectively in the country; and finally, they built inclusive leadership structures to foster shared meaning and value in their work. We recognize that with only a single case that our analysis may not be replicable to other national building endeavors. A future service might catalog and study the many nation-building interventions that took place in Afghanistan during this time to identify best practices to share. This would be the purview of another team, at a later date, and with greater resources for such an extensive study.

There are clear limitations to a single case study approach in examining the field of nation-building generally, considering the extensive history of such work having been done in Afghanistan over the past 20-plus years. Being unable to follow up with the Exhibit team or its constituency’s progress on the ground due to the takeover of the inhospitable Taliban regime recently is a huge limitation. A wise colleague counseled me recently after a beloved educational agency closed, that legacies are very rare in educative project work; we can only strive to serve those engaged at the time of the initiative to our highest capacity and hope that they, the learners, can carry the learning forward in their lives.

By using an appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005) approach, however, and demonstrating what is possible in nation-building in this culturally complex context, we hope that the reader can reflect on and even apply any or all of these lenses for analysis in their own nation-building initiatives. In returning to the opening metaphors of this article, there are many broken ‘femurs’ that need to be healed in the world of ‘cities’ full of mistrust and disarray; but to be our highest and best as humans, we need to care enough to engage, and to do so with love and respect for the humanity of our fellow citizens.


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Chris Cartwright, MPA, Ed.D. is a consultant, and instructor supporting individuals and organizations in assessing and developing intercultural competence, global leadership, and inclusive leadership capacity. He has 40+ years of experience in multiple sectors. He recently completed three book chapters, as well as a peer-reviewed journal article on a longitudinal study on the assessment of intercultural competence and its impact on learning outcomes. He is an associate of Aperian Global, the Connective Leadership Institute, icEdge, and the Kozai Group.

He is an adjunct faculty for the Portland State University, in International and Global Studies. He is the 2022 recipient of the Academic Excellence Award for Adjunct Faculty.

He has also taught for Minerva, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, University of the Pacific, and Pepperdine University. He served as Director of Intercultural Assessment and Associate Director of the Graduate Program for the Intercultural communication Institute for 10 years. Prior to this work, he served as the Dean of Academic Programs for the International Partnership for Service Learning and Leadership.

Contact:, 503-901-9849

Sultana Parvanta, Ph.D. grew up in Afghanistan, and began as an educator at the age of 16, when at the urging of her mother, she taught Afghan languages to Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s in Kabul.

Following her studies at Kabul University, she traveled to the U.S. and earned her B.S. degree from Buffalo State College in NY, Master’s, Ph.D., and Specialist degrees, using a multi-disciplinary approach to studying ‘change process’ at the School of Education, Indiana University.  As a researcher, she served at Johns Hopkins University and taught at Emory University and California State University Monterey Bay.

In 2003, Sultana returned to assist in the rebuilding and re-development of Afghanistan which was both suffering horrendous wounds of protracted wars; while being faced with a new and tremendous opportunity for assistance in nation-building and redevelopment by many countries, international agencies, and individuals.

She served with numerous Afghan ministries, including Urban Development & Housing, Commerce & Industry, Finance, and Agriculture, and as the Economic & Business Development Manager for the Independent Board for building the New Kabul City, as well as serving on various national committees.

Sultana served as a Special Projects Assistant at the new American University of Afghanistan as it was being established in Kabul, and with other agencies, including NATO and USAID.  Dr. Parvanta, as a volunteer, was one of the founders and Chancellor of the first private Cheragh Medical University.  She also managed various initiatives and projects that directly focused on women, children, environments, health, and the arts.

Currently, she lives in Ojai, CA, and offers   Somatic and healing therapies.

For contact:    (816 808 9044)