2011 Archive of Blog posts
How Will We Ensure Our Projects Are Successful?
As threatened in my previous post, another key ingredient to mission success that I am going to discuss is Design, Monitoring and Evaluation (DM&E). The development community has focused its attention increasingly on optimizing DM&E to ensure that individual projects are worth their time, effort and money in the long run.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the burgeoning Counterinsurgency effort found a similar need for effective, thoughtful DM&E as the number of military and joint civil-military development projects increased exponentially.
Many of these projects have been of the Quick-Impact Project (QIP) variety: fast turnaround, simple solutions, local results, limited in scope and time. There are many reasons why QIPs have been favored over longer-term, larger-scale projects: limited expertise in more complex projects, limited timespans due to deployment cycles - perhaps, above all, the desire to quickly change local dynamics in order to reduce violence and enable more long-term projects.
The imperative to optimize DM&E applies even more acutely to QIPs. In their exuberance to 'do something', combined with the novel and untrained-for experience of essentially being a local community's mayor, many a soldier and civilian development worker alike has spent significant amounts of money on rushed projects that collapsed under the weight of poor planning and execution. Many of the right lessons have been learned from these early projects, but a lesson learned doesn't always mean a lesson applied. What remains is a bitter aftertaste of these earlier projects and persistent anxiety about repeating past mistakes - which wasted countless millions of dollars.
A major shibboleth of development in Afghanistan is that we mustn't just consider the basic soundness of how to execute a project, but its "second- and third-order effects" -- which is a fancy word for the long-term consequences of such a project. Because the Commander Support Program fills a niche that requires us to specialize in quick projects, and because of our nation's (and international partners') many documented failures in the QIP realm, we are going to be very much focused on optimizing our internal DM&E processes. We want to milk every last drop out of the resources available to us. And we want to make every project have the best-possible consequences for both the Afghans and the soldiers/Marines we work for.
That means being realistic in our own DM&E process, being competent, being thorough, and remaining in constant communication with our stakeholders about their needs and results. Yet we will also have to be able to act fast and adhere to the maxim that processes are handrails. Outcomes are ultimately the only things that matter.
Of course, the preceding paragraph made me think of this:
It's easy to write a fancy paragraph about excellence. Simultaneously, there's only so much I can boil down a complex subject in a blog post. I'm not going to sugarcoat the difficulty, or simplify the complexity, of successful DM&E, because that would be dishonest to both you and myself. So I'm going to leave it here before I give you too much pathos and not enough substance.
This post gave a basic overview of why we need to optimize our DM&E. In the coming month or two, I will follow up with concrete examples of how my initial projects went through their design, execution, monitoring and evaluation stages. Hopefully, I will be able to cogently describe to you how these experiences influenced, or will influence, the DM&E processes in the projects that then follow. Describing these project experiences should in turn help you gauge whether the donor money spent by Spirit of America is spent well.
My next post will probably explain my views of how Spirit of America's Commander Support Program fits into the concept of humanitarian neutrality.
In the meantime, if you have any comments or suggested readings on DM&E - both military and civilian - my email address is
Integrating With Our Military Partners
Technological hickups aside, we are just about ready to fly to Afghanistan. Most of our gear has arrived. Flights are booked. We've been gobbling up any relevant information we can find to add to our knowledge toolbox. I have been particularly interested in re-familiarizing myself with the District Stability Framework, a common development and stabilization planning framework taught to uniformed and civilian personnel in Afghanistan.
The Commander Support Program integrates closely with the military, so it is important for us understand the prevailing planning processes and terminology in order to "sing from the same song sheet".
Because the CSP is designed to integrate so closely with the military, Spirit of America remains fairly unique in the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) world: we don't mind singing from the same song sheet; we don't feel a need to artificially separate ourselves from the military's perspective in particular. We don't want to have a separate agenda.
Many NGOs in Afghanistan never quite seem to 'gel' with their military counterparts, despite receiving much funding and support from the uniformed/governmental side. There is a great amount of 'us and them'.
On the other hand, most NGOs are absolutely in the right place to execute their deliverables in a manner that suits them best: the diversity among NGOs is pretty vast and each requires a different position, different relationships with government and military stakeholders, to maximize its effectiveness.
I will soon write a follow up on how Spirit of America's position works well to fill a niche in the NGO world; a niche that to me exists pretty undeniably, but one that doesn't actually reflect badly upon our NGO counterparts working across Afghanistan and elsewhere. Everyone has a different role to play, a different need to meet, a different niche to fill.
Tomorrow, I will write about another key element that I have been focusing on during my preparations: Design, Monitoring and Evaluation (DM&E).
Satellite Communication Test Run
Anyone who has been in the military knows that the only foolproof plans are the ones that are never attempted. Today was a perfect example of just that. The six of us who went out to Topanga Canyon today were blessed with great weather, cool, with a slight breeze and not a cloud in the sky.
However, we were not blessed with cooperative satellite-communication technology. After troubleshooting the hardware and the software all we could on site, we had to pack it in once we realized that, at that moment, we were all out of ideas. However there is a silver lining in this cloud. First, it is better to find out we have problems here in the States, where we have help more readily available than in Afghanistan where it will be more difficult to find. Second, we identified that we do have problems with the technology and realized that we need to amass a Troubleshooting List, in order to rectify problems previously identified that could occur in the future. We eventually had to bounce around West LA. First we had to pick up some anti-malarial pills that Matt, Toby and myself need for Kandahar, which has been known to have quite virulent strains of the virus. Additionally, since I really haven't had any outdoor equipment since I left the Army, I had to get a bit of gear for myself. The weekend will be really easygoing. Merely resting and packing so that Monday, the day before we leave, can be left to all those unforeseen factors that will suddenly pop up. There always are at least some.
School Partners-Afghanistan and Technology Introduction
As we are getting close to the wire and are 5 days from leaving the States, there was a lot of moving pieces occurring today. Roger and Rachael gave Toby and I an intricate explanation of the School Partners/ Afghanistan program.
Building off the success of the April 2011 event that brought the Windward School in Los Angeles together with the Kodoala Drab School in Helmand Province through a video teleconference, we would like to find at least 10 more schools in the US and Kandahar Province, respectively, to repeat the success of that earlier event. We went over a ton of info all stemming from the central objective of the program of creating a genuine connection between Afghan and American school kids by letting them actually meet each other. This seeks to overcome negative generalizations that they may have picked up about one another from outside sources. Key to this is understanding the technology that Spirit of America has acquired to make this happen. We have Satellite hookups, webcams, computers, and a whole slew of hardware and software alike that Toby and myself went over today to see how we can establish a link between the schools. But the technology is only one part. We also went over some timelines and schedules we have planned for now to encourage interaction between the students and truly give vice versa a peek into each others lives. Tomorrow should be pretty exciting since we will be in Topanga Canyon to get some sunshine on us and test the the satellite technology and the rest of the hardware and software in a Field Training Exercise of sorts. We should be getting some great pictures of us in action as well.
Vaccines and Discussions
Today, went by really fast. After getting through yesterday's introductions and flood of information and material, Matt, Toby, and myself, went to go get our medical screening. Thanks to all three of our various stays in Iraq and Afghanistan prior, and all the vaccines we had to take to prepare for those trips, all Toby and me needed was one shot each.
The most interesting part of the day was when all three of us spoke with Jim about an article in a magazine recently published that dealt with the US' role in Afghanistan and what that role should evolve to in the future. We had a frank discussion of what the article, in our view got right, as well as got wrong. We also discussed how in the author's future that he advocates for, the Commander Support Program still has a role in Afghanistan as well as in other regions. In the end, our discussion made it clear that Spirit of America, can only do so much. The Commander Support Program can do much more, but even it has its limits. However, where Spirit of America and the Commander Support Program is active, we have a proven track record of positively affecting the relationship and position of US military units with Afghans and Iraqis. We can fill gaps that are apparent within the military and between other federal agencies that are currently active in Afghanistan. Although projects may seem trivial to some people, to that Soldier or Marine who lives and breathes everyday on the streets of a particular village, this project maybe something that can give them buy-in with the locals.
Tomorrow will involve us getting a briefing on the School Partners/Afghanistan, which brings together schools in the US and Afghanistan through video-teleconferences to increase understanding between our two cultures. We will also be starting be picking up and starting to take our anti-malarial pills and seeing how we adjust to those.
New Command Support Program Field Representative-Toby Bonthrone
My name is Toby Bonthrone, and alongside Mike Press, I will be heading to Afghanistan's Kandahar province as a Spirit of America Field Representative.
One of new field rep Toby Bonthrone's many unsuccessful attempts to grow a beard
For my part, I will set up operations in the Arghandab district - which came to America's attention after former NPR reporter, Sarah Chayes, founded the Arghand Cooperative there - and the city of Kandahar itself.
Kandahar city has gained great renown as a center of both culture and conflict. It is the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban - indeed, the city was also the capital of Afghanistan during the Taliban years - but that association as well as our foreign presence are mere blips in the city's extraordinary 2,300-year history. Yet while our presence in the province will be (comparatively) short, the lives and livelihoods of the Afghans who call Kandahar their home are worth the risk and investment the international community has committed to them. In the coming months, I intend to inform you not only on the progress of the Spirit of America projects in my area of responsibility, but also on the engrossing past and present of the province of Kandahar and its people.
I am originally from Great Britain, and have enjoyed brief stints as an infantryman in both the British Army and the United States Marine Corps Reserve. When my time with Spirit of America eventually comes to an end, I will attend a pre-medical post baccalaureate program in Baltimore, moving on to medical school soon after, with the ultimate goal of becoming a trauma surgeon. That new career is something for the nebulous future, though, and I remain above all focused on assisting American service members and the Afghan people in their attempts to build a more peaceful, prosperous future for others and themselves.
This will be my fourth time in Afghanistan, with previous stints in Helmand, Farah and Kunduz provinces. Spirit of America's mission and execution appealed to me as unique: an opportunity to make an immediate impact, meeting the needs of both our Marines/soldiers and the Afghan population, with a minimum of paperwork or delay.
I will be blogging in more detail on my reasons for joining Spirit of America in the coming days, as Mike and I prepare to fly to Afghanistan (ably assisted by Matt Valkovic, who has set a high bar as one of Spirit of America's original Field Representatives). One of the first themes I will talk about is my perspective on how Spirit of America fits into the current stability operations in Afghanistan, Spirit of America's value in future conflict prevention and stabilization, and how Spirit of America fits in among the broad constellation of humanitarian and development Non-Governmental Organizations that are all working in their own way to make Afghanistan and the world a better place. As my months as a Field Representative go by, I will periodically update you on how my experiences have affected my perspective and expectations.
In the meantime, if you have any questions, suggestions or other comments, you can reach me at
I look forward to hearing from you.
New Commander Support Program Field Representative-Mike Press
Hello Everyone,My name is Michael Press and I was born and raised in Los Angeles. Following college graduation in 2001, I enlisted in the US Army Infantry. After serving for over five years overseas in Europe and two tours in Iraq, I finally completed my service in 2008 with the rank of Staff Sergeant.
Upon returning stateside, I eventually relocated to Washington DC for graduate studies at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program within its School of Foreign Services. I recently graduated from the program in May 2011, focusing on International Security. In summer of 2010, I was an intern dealing with terrorist-related issues in the New York Police Department. I also participated in Fall of 2010 in the US State Department's Institute of International Education's Young Leader's Dialogue with America Conference in Prague, which brought 47 American and 150 Central and Eastern European young professionals together for workshops and group projects dealing with issues such as Transatlantic Security. Additionally, I was one of seven Americans out of 70 international young professionals to participate in the Atlantic Council's Young Atlanticist Summit in Lisbon, Portugal that coincided directly with the NATO summit of November 2010 occurring in the same complex. Among the many international leaders who addressed the young attendees, I had the honor of giving the introductory speech for then-General David Petraeus. I also be completed a stint as a Research Assistant at the Center for Complex Operations, which focuses on diplomacy, development and defense issues within low-intensity conflicts, at the US Department of Defense's National Defense University and recently was selected as a 2011 Presidential Management Fellowship finalist.
You can see from my background that I am well-versed in many issues that Spirit of America deals with. I am really excited to get some dust on my boots once again, but this time armed additionally with the knowledge that I have gained in work and academia since I left the US Army. Also, I am really looking forward to working with everyone in the Spirit of America office this week while I am here in LA and soon enough, Afghanistan.
Support Operation Care in Afghanistan
Spirit of America has supported Operation Care, based out of Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, since 2007. Operation Care is an all-volunteer group comprised of military and civilian personnel who strive "win hearts and minds, one child at a time" by providing for basic necessities such as clothing, shoes, school supplies and more.
Operation Care routinely installs a new managing team each time a troop rotation occurs. The new President of Operation Care is a Marine Corps Captain serving with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) currently deployed to Afghanistan. The Captain wrote to Spirit of America recently asking for our continued support of Operation Care. To respond to this new request, we have posted a new project page, Operation Care: Part 2, so that we can help the Captain and the rest of the team at Operation Care reach out to the local community.
From a recent distribution of 150 care packages to Afghans through the Egyptian Hospital at Bagram, one Operation Care team member had this to say, "We know that we aren't going to win the war by kicking down doors. The way we are going to win is through the support of the people, so we provide what little amenities that we can and try to build a stronger relationship with the locals here in Bagram.