Down But Not Out in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan – Skateistan is a media darling. The nonprofit organization teaches young Afghans to skateboard and has been lauded in dozens of major radio, video, print and online outlets across four continents.

Still it teeters on the brink.

"We spent the last few months doing a lot of press and the attention is really great, but the fact is, we're broke," said Director Oliver Percovich in September, sitting on a shabby couch in the sparsely furnished Skateistan headquarters. "Getting funding is not easy, especially when you don't have a great deal of experience at it."

Ever since Percovich and Sharna Nolan, his girlfriend and a fellow Australian, first dropped their skateboards on a Kabul sidewalk in early 2007, they've been swarmed with interest - from local kids, the press and, more recently, potential donors. But turning those good vibes into money - and establishing Skateistan as a stable and valuable organization - has been a stickier proposition.

Dancing with donors

Kabul is home to an estimated 60,000 street kids. Illiteracy is rife, along with crime and drug addiction. In an effort to improve some of those young, precarious lives, Skateistan has been offering free skateboarding lessons several times a week at an empty fountain not far from central Kabul. But no funding and minimal equipment limits what it can do.

Thus Percovish and Nolan are trying to build an indoor skate school that offers free skateboarding and that will expand into personal health education, English-language courses, computer skills classes and arts instruction. The duo prepared a few polished funding proposals and has since mid-2007 been knocking on the doors of nearly every major donor - from the United States and Canada to England, Germany, Australia and several arms of the United Nations.

"Everyone expresses interest," Percovich said. "But when it comes to donating even $10, it's been a lot more difficult."

Nolan has been spearheading Skateistan's fundraising efforts, wielding the knowledge she gained during a year working for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank, and on a rural project funded by the U.N. Development Program. She put together a proposal requesting $45,000 to build an indoor skate school and submitted it to the U.S. Agency for International Development via a friend - a consultant working under USAID's Assistance to Small and Medium Enterprises Development project. Nolan had come across consultants of ASMED, which funds locally-driven business projects with up to $50,000, while working with UNDP in Herat.

"They have millions and require minimal reporting and supervision, which was perfect for the Afghan management in Skateistan," Nolan said via e-mail from Darwin, Australia, where she is working on a government-backed community water project. "They deliver funds much faster than major donors and can be more flexible in their outlook. The only catch was that they needed an economic component to the proposal which we thought could be filled with merchandising."

Skateistan failed to quickly put together a compelling merchandising component and the proposal was turned down. A representative of USAID, which tends to fund much larger projects, told Devex that Skateistan "doesn't really fit into any of our objectives."

Despite the fact that Percovich and Nolan are Australian, making contact with their own government has been a long, strange trip. In early 2008 they applied for a direct assistance program. Months later they were turned down. Then Percovich, after dozens of calls and e-mails, wrangled a meeting with the Australian consul, who told him the Australian government was considering pitching in - not with money but with free shipping assistance.

Other governments have been more accessible. The Canadian aid arm expressed interest for months without settling on a funding amount. In September the Deutsche Entwicklungsdienst, the German aid agency, expressed its desire to pay the wages of one full-time Skateistan employee. A recent visit to the Norwegian embassy was promising.

"The Norwegian ambassador gave me an hour of his time," said Percovich of a meeting set up with the help of a friend of Nolan's. "That was really fantastic of them. They expressed interest, support, but what that will mean in the future I have no idea."

The Afghan government promised a free plot of land if Skateistan wins funding to build their skate school. In May, Percovich found an ideal spot in Wazir Akhbar Khan, an upscale, heavily patrolled neighborhood popular with embassies and expats. The Afghan government was supportive until August, when they gave the plot to the government of Kuwait.

"I'm guessing they represented a good deal more money than we do," Percovich said.

For the major donors, Nolan believes Skateistan's size has been a disadvantage.

"As there is the same reporting requirements no matter what they give, it's to their advantage to give larger grants rather than smaller ones to save on administrative costs and paperwork," Nolan said. "Two people with big hearts and the support of dozens of kids and the broader community often can't compete against the big giants on paper."

A bit of good news

The tide may be starting to turn. In August and September Skateistan raised nearly 2,000 euros from the sale of skateboarding photos and t-shirts and two fundraisers, one in Germany and another in Australia. More recently a private Austrian donor pledged another 2,000 euros. Weeks later Electronic Arts, the American video game giant, did the same.

As of early October the pledges had yet to arrive.

But donated goods have poured in. An Australian sporting goods firm donated safety equipment. Titus, a chain of sporting goods and skate shops in Germany, will donate to Skateistan all second-hand boards sold by customers to the store from July to November. DHL has pledged $15,000 worth of shipping fees to transport goods from Germany to Afghanistan.

In late September, Percovich began to receive offers of assistance from the type of international NGOs - People in Need and Mercy Corps, namely - that USAID tends to fund. Representatives of both organizations told him they'd help find funders.

And finally, in early October, a breakthrough: the Canadian International Development Agency donated $15,000 and the Norwegian aid arm promised $30,000. Percovich was ecstatic as he left for several charity events in Germany.

"I've learned that the people who've been here three, four or more years are really impressed with what we've done because they know how difficult it is to get anything done here," Percovich said. "It's a matter of getting to the right people and hopefully we'll get there."

Still, total costs have exceeded $15,000 and Skateistan is barely scraping by. A web of charity and Percovich's personal savings keep the organization afloat. Tired of working for no pay, staffers have begun to leave.

"It's not exactly the easiest thing for an Afghan to be a volunteer on this type of project," Percovich said. "The employees we have at the moment - I don't know how long we can keep them without pay."

Costs will rise during the coming Kabul winter. Outdoor skate venues will freeze. And relationships will be strained. One already reached the breaking point: Though they remain friends and working partners, Nolan and Percovich broke off their three-year relationship this summer.

A sustainable vision

Some have questioned Skateistan's sustainability. On this issue, Percovich and Nolan still speak with one voice.

Both admit that the whole plan hinges on building the skate park. Once that's done the school would require about $1,200 per month in donations to operate as they envision. The school would be run by Afghans and a couple international volunteers. Kids would sign up for sessions and borrow equipment, all without charge. They would be required to take care of the space and the equipment, which many already do at the current space, an empty fountain in north Kabul.

"We are confident that the Afghans can manage things pretty much themselves," Nolan said. "A lot will fall on the shoulders of the project volunteers. We have no shortage of students who are keen as mustard to volunteer. The kids already sweep the fountains where we skate and are caring for the boards - it's part of the life skill training."

Percovish and Nolan hope donor interest will at some point come to fruition. Dozens of Afghan students, teachers and artists have offered to help, in various capacities. Photo and t-shirts sales represent a slow-growing revenue stream.

"There are some other ideas for business development but first and foremost is the development of social capital that allows youth in Kabul to create opportunities for themselves and solve their problems," Percovich said. "Money hasn't solved many problems in Afghanistan and it is high time to try another approach. Aid has focused on providing money when a simple link with the right person would have sufficed. Intangible assets in society are frequently ignored or undervalued simply because they are hard to value. They do make a hell of a lot of difference, though."

An uncertain future

Inside a nondescript warehouse in Melbourne, 40 new skateboards, 50 pairs of sneakers and a variety of skating supplies sit shrink-wrapped on a palette because Skateistan cannot afford the $1,200 shipping costs.

On a late afternoon in September, meanwhile, a couple dozen Afghan children made do with torn sandals, no kneepads and two beat-up skateboards. They laughed, smiled and tried out a few new tricks, but some grew frustrated with the long wait for their turn.

Kids drifted off in twos and threes as an egg-shaped, red-orange sun sank low. A couple of girls lingered, one pushing her friend across the sidewalk on a skateboard. "Could I have the board back?" Percovich asked, reaching his hand out.

The girls pushed away from him, laughing. He and an assistant chased them down and gently took the skateboard as the girls whined playfully.

With that, darkness fell on Kabul.

-- posted on devex.com on October 20.

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