Foreign Projects Give Afghans Fashion, Skate Park and Now 10,000 Balloons

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Correction Appended

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Braving jeers and provoking smiles, volunteers spread through Kabul on Saturday, giving away 10,000 pink balloons as part of a performance art project called "We Believe in Balloons."

Aimed at "creating a stream of shared instances of unexpected happiness" in a war-torn land, the project is the brainchild of the New York-based artist Yazmany Arboleda, who said he had the support of the minister of culture and a half-dozen internationally financed aid groups.

One volunteer gave a street vendor, Sayif Rahman, 27, a balloon and said, "This is for peace."

"Where is this peace?" Mr. Rahman asked. "Day and night we are enduring attacks in Kabul."

Speaking of the project, Mr. Arboleda quoted his critics as saying, "It's plain silly, what a waste of time and money and resources." His previous claim to fame was a New York City installation that some thought advocated the assassination of President Obama and former Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, which got him hauled in for questioning by the Secret Service. "I get e-mails saying, why not give away food or health care or things that are, quote-unquote, more meaningful, substantial or lasting?"

Many international organizations, public and private, try to do just that. But when it comes to the ephemeral, the meaningless and the just plain silly, "We Believe in Balloons" has plenty of competition. With more than a hundred billion dollars in Western aid and private philanthropy sloshing around Afghanistan in the past dozen years, and thousands of groups trying to find ways to spend it, examples abound of efforts from the ridiculous to the sublime.

An effort surely intended to be in the latter category was that of the Amanuddin Foundation, which consisted largely of a French travel writer, Amandine Roche, and a male model from New York, Cameron Alborzian -- who went from appearances in Madonna videos to Ayurvedic consciousness, becoming a yogi and wanting to use that calling to help end the war.

"As part of this program, prison inmates, soldiers, police, school children, youth, mental hospital patients, and Taliban will be all taken through yogic practices and meditation; this will foster greater peace," Mr. Alborzian said on the group's Web site.

That program was self-financed, but many odd projects have attracted serious support. In 2011, Travis Beard, an Australian musician, put on what he described as the world's first "stealth rock concert," aimed at teaching Afghan youth how to "rock out." The stealth was essential; the last time an Afghan rock band performed in public, earlier this month, its members were attacked by the police, who interpreted their gyrations as evidence of public drunkenness.

Mr. Beard said he had financial support from a half-dozen embassies, including that of the United States. His grant -- the American Embassy refused to disclose the amount -- came from the public diplomacy budget, a discretionary fund that totaled $148 million in 2010-11 alone, according to a special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction. American officials refused to say how much it is now, though it is believed to have declined to about $80 million in the past year.

"At one point we were throwing money at anything with a pulse and a proposal," said a former embassy aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was out of control."

The fund underwrites projects ranging from Fulbright fellowships to cellphone towers. "Public diplomacy is how we engage people around the world, it's how we explain our values," said an embassy spokesman, David D. Snepp. "All of these programs fit together to provide a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy that we feel has been very successful in the last 10 years or so."

One group, Young Women for Change, run by an Afghan woman attending college in the United States and two friends here, said it received American Embassy financing to put on a fashion show in February, which it described as a "female empowerment project." The audience was largely foreigners and journalists.

"I think we should spend American money in more practical and lasting ways," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a commentator for Tolo TV, an Afghan station that itself has received millions. "People come here with an idea and want to do it in this country, but they open us to critics and even attacks by the conservatives in this country, and there are many of them."

Some bizarre-sounding aid groups have done very well. Skateistan, an Australian aid group that teaches skateboarding to Afghan children, would not seem to make much sense in a country where even the potholes have potholes. But it built a skate park and provided schooling and lunches for street children here, attracting support from several European governments.

At the peak of the spending spree, American money underwrote an Afghan version of "Sesame Street" in late 2011. In what may have been a first in the annals of war and diplomacy, the American ambassador at the time, Ryan C. Crocker, was photographed with the Grover character in downtown Kabul.

Some well-intended ideas have run up against the harsh realities of Afghan life. In 2007, a representative of the United States Agency for International Development addressed an audience at Kabul University to discuss plans for a gender empowerment project that would give free bicycles to women in Kandahar, a city in the deeply conservative Pashtun south.

That project never took off, since no woman would dare go out in Kandahar except in a full-body burqa, which makes it hard enough to walk, let alone pedal.

Looking for a way to spend some of the $35 million U.S.A.I.D. grant to promote the rule of law, DPK Consulting, an American contractor for the agency, arranged an event to hand out kites and comic books to children. The kites were festooned with slogans about gender equality and rule of law that most of the attendees could not read. Police officers guarding the event stole many of the kites, beating some of the children, while fathers snatched kites from their girls to give to the boys.

For Saturday's pink balloon event, the American Embassy turned down a request for financing. So did the Dutch Embassy, but it provided a place for fund-raising. "Another story comes from Afghanistan than the military one," said the embassy's first secretary, Vasco Rodrigues. "We thought it was an original idea." He added that the balloons were reassuringly biodegradable.

The organizer, Mr. Arboleda, said he had originally considered passing the balloons out at the Afghan Parliament, which has been debating a bill that would outlaw violence against women, with sentiment decidedly against the bill.

Pink, after all, was chosen because it represented women, he said. In the end, volunteers were unable to find any members of Parliament.

That may have been for the best. Some members of Parliament were spitting mad just hearing about it. Qazi Nazeer Ahmad Hanafi, who represents the city of Herat, said, "Tell that foreigner that if you bring two million such things to us, you will have to kill all of us Muslims before we will pass that law."

Sangar Rahimi and Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.

Correction: May 25, 2013, Saturday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the "Sesame Street" character with whom Ryan C. Crocker, the former United States ambassador, was photographed in Kabul. It was Grover, not Cookie Monster.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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