Projects for Peace: The Vision of Kathryn W. Davis

"My challenge to you is to bring about a mind-set of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war."


In 2000, Kate Clark was the BBC correspondent in Kabul and the only Western journalist in Afghanistan. The Taliban, which controlled roughly 90 percent of Afghanistan at the time, decided to close the bakeries run by widowed women, insisting that all women’s work was illegal. The bakeries provided a small income for the widows, who had lost their husbands to one of Afghanistan’s wars and had no male relatives to support them.

Reporting on the story, Kate went to interview the women. Kate’s male translator was not allowed into the bakeries, so she interviewed the women alone in her broken Persian and recorded their angry protests for the BBC. Shocked and shamed by the widows’ eloquent stories, the Taliban relented and reversed its decision, allowing the bakeries to be reopened. “It was a moment when I realized the power of understanding someone in their own language, unmediated by a translator,” says Kate.

Kate grew up in England, but for much of the last 30 years she’s been living in Afghanistan. As a reporter for the BBC, she investigated Taliban massacres of civilians, visited clandestine girls’ schools and al Qaeda training camps, and followed the civil war. It was dangerous work, telling stories the Taliban wanted to keep quiet, but she was good at it. And she was able to go places her male colleagues could not.

“The BBC didn’t want to send a woman to Talibancontrolled Afghanistan. They thought it was unfeasible,” says Kate. She explained to her superiors that as a foreign woman in Islamic society, unlike a male correspondent, she could speak to Afghan women without threatening their honor. Everything was available to her. “It’s interesting to be female in a segregated society. If you’re not part of that society, you can swim through barriers,” she says.

Kate is deeply passionate about Afghanistan. She wants to help inform policy that can constructively support Afghanistan’s continued journey to a prosperous and stable democracy. Working with the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), an independent, nonprofit research organization based in Kabul, Kate conducts research on the Taliban, international military strategy and civilian casualties, security detentions and torture, and war crimes. Her analysis is read by global leaders, including U.S. military generals, ambassadors, and presidents.

“Because of the huge amounts of aid that come into the country, foreigners play a big role in Afghanistan,” says Kate. But too often, the policy that informs development work and military strategy is misguided and isolated from Afghan reality. The country’s ancient social mores and culture, as well as a complex mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups, create tremendous challenges for policy makers. Systems and approaches that may have worked in the Balkans or Iraq, for example, fail in Afghanistan. “You have people with enormous amounts of power,” she says, “but very little knowledge of the country. And also, often, no language skills.”

"I'm a witness to what goes on in Afghanistan. I don't have direct power, but I do influence the debate. I think that's a really important role."

Kate speaks Dari (Afghan Persian) and intermediate Arabic. But a new assignment studying foreign-backed militias in Iraq and Afghanistan requires even greater fluency in Arabic. A summer at the Arabic School has enabled her to listen, learn, and properly carry out thoughtful, useful research among Arabic-speaking people.

Despite decades of war and instability, Kate believes there is a way forward in Afghanistan. She believes lasting peace and prosperity are possible, but only if the mistakes of the past are not repeated. “History gets retold from hindsight,” she says, “and sometimes that hindsight gives a false impression. If you weren’t there at the time, then things that seem obvious might not be true. I’m a witness to what goes on in Afghanistan. I don’t have direct power, but I do influence the debate. I think that’s a really important role.”