Inspiring stories from Afghanistan – how you can create change even if you don’t like change

The most inspiring presentation I have seen in years was in the closing plenary of IFC 2015. It was delivered by Alberto Cairo who worked in Afghanistan for the Red Cross for more than two decades.

He described how conditions on the ground were so dangerous at one point that physical rehabilitation for people who were missing legs was not considered a priority.  This was a policy which he initially felt was realistic. But his mind was changed by his strong-willed assistant, Najahuddin, and a man named Mahmoud who had lost both legs and for whom being able to walk again (through the fitting of prostheses) absolutely was a priority.

Their determination caused Cairo to not only open the centre again, (and it has been ever since, in spite of decades of turmoil), but also in due course to give Mahmoud a job in the facility. Initially Cairo had refused. With the pressure on, how could he give a job to an illiterate, unskilled man with no legs and only one arm?

Grudgingly he agreed to a one week trial. What happened?

Mahmoud was the fastest on the whole production line. His productivity was so extraordinary that Cairo initially thought it was a trick. But the 20% increase in the whole line’s productivity was indeed down to Mahmoud. And the difference not only gave Mahmoud back his dignity (no longer a beggar, he had a job), but it also gave hope to everyone without legs who came to have prostheses fitted and saw Mahmoud (and subsequently, many other disabled people) working with such dexterity.

The thing I liked most about Cairo’s talk was how humble he was about his role in the stories he told.

Many high achievers who speak from conference stages leave us impressed with their accomplishments, but not remotely feeling like we could make great things happen ourselves. But Cairo was disarmingly honest about being ‘a not particularly brave person’. He started his talk by saying with complete sincerity and that he ‘really doesn’t like change’.

On each occasion great things happened eg initiating positive discrimination to provide jobs for disabled people; setting up wheelchair basketball and ultimately Afghanistan reaching the world championships; expanding access to prostheses and physical rehabilitation beyond war victims, to anyone who needed it…On each occasion Cairo did not paint himself as the heroic agent of change, but rather someone as human and fallible as the rest of us, but who had the good fortune to be swayed by ‘people even more stubborn than me’.

A typical discussion in which Najahuddin asked Cairo to expand services went like this:

‘I told them this was just not practical. I refused.

They insisted.

I refused.

They won’.

Cairo’s talk left me inspired because he has helped so many positive things to happen, in spite of being as ill-equipped to initiate positive change as I regularly feel. His message seemed to be that even if initially you don’t feel courageous, if you are open hearing the brave voices around you, you can allow your mind to be changed. And when this happens you can become part of the momentum to achieve fabulous progress.

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My new book, available on Amazon, is called The fundraiser who wanted more – the five laws of fundraising persuasion.