Skateboarding in Afghanistan

Skateistan is a Failed State

It’s Silly Friday, a time to look at development projects that transcend the ridiculous to reach a kind of clueless, navel-gazing glory.

Let’s hear a round of applause for Skateistan, an Aussie Skateparks-for-Afghanistan(-and-Camb0dia) non-profit that achieves a rare, perfect 10 on our Development Bloat Checklist.

Given the sheer, prima-facie absurdity of the idea, you almost feel bad for the guy who had to draft their mission-statment-spiel. He seems to have solved his unsolvable conundrum by relying almost entirely on buzzwordy jargon:

“has developed an innovative [1], youth-led [2] programming that builds confidence, trust and social capital[3] among children using “the hook”[4] of skateboarding for developing youth leadership[5]. Provides opportunities[6] for education and creative thinking [7] that help break the cycle of poverty [8] and exclusion [9].”

That’s nine airy, jargony buzzwords in a 40-word mission statement…chapeau!

OK, ok. I admit. One doesn’t want to be too Grinch-y about these things. The standard disclaimers apply: of course developing children’s confidence is a good thing, as is opportunity, and creative thinking and breaking the cycle of poverty and, indeed, even skateboards.

But one doesn’t want to be too polite, either, because in a world where aid has to fight a neverending rearguard action to establish its own legitimacy with skeptical donors, the mere existence of silly stuff like this is already a problem.

Let’s not mince words here: Skatistan exists so a bunch of guys in Australia who are into skateboarding can feel good about themselves. It’s the Churrigueresque of Development Bloat.

Its superfluousness is its raison d’etre. Its sheer wackiness is the key to its memorability. It explores the furthest reaches of development bloat with a lack of self-consciousness that’s almost admirable in its chutzpah.

I am in awe of them. But they need to stop.

15 thoughts on “Skateistan is a Failed State”

  1. They’ve thought of your objection, and their reply is right there on the site: “SKATEISTAN’S NOT JUST ABOUT SKATING. IT’S ABOUT GIVING PEOPLE LIFE SKILLS AND HOPE FOR THEIR FUTURE.”

    Here’s an example: Say you are standing on a Kabul hill, board in hand, when you see Al-Quaeda guys trying to kidnap a baby, who is running away. You scoop up the baby, and jet down the hill to safety! Thanks, Skatistan! (If the baby is the offspring of a prince, all the better! )

    Right there, you exhibited a “life skill” and gave that baby “hope for the future”.

    1. Right!

      To be fair, I make fun of them, but I’m also sort of in awe of these guys. This isn’t just a terrible idea somebody clearly had after a few too many bong hits, it’s a terrible idea somebody clearly had after a few too many bong hits and didn’t forget about and actually followed through and did the fundraising and implemented it on the ground in two countries!

      There isn’t a good word in English for the mixture of respect and contempt I feel for them…restempt?

  2. I once saw a presentation of this project, and in their defense, (call me naive) what I heard sort of made sense to me. Initially they (locals) were looking to build a space where they could teach, have town meetings, and keep the kids in an indoor space as long as possible after school. Locals had tried to engage kids in different sports, but none of them seemed to work. When the Aussies arrived, they (locals) found an activity aggressive enough (considering these are kids that live in war zone) to keep youth interested… even though the facility now includes outdoor areas for football, cricket, volleyball, and a playground. Kids have english, computer and life skills classes much needed for peacebuilding, making and keeping.
    Also, the CEO of this NGO actually lives in Kabul. Is not one of those people that is trying to ¨help the needed¨ and thinking they understand the needs from their cool loft in Brooklyn.
    Skateistan may have failed with development jargon… and sadly is a very common thing especially in new NGOs, but I can think of so many others that are even worse that the aussies.

  3. You guys have no f—– clue. Criticising from the comfort of your well furnished and cousy home. I actually met this people and this “bong hitters” are living in the middle of Kabul. Risking their lives to try and bring a better future, or at least a nice present, to this kids who have lived some of the worst lives you can imagine. I actually met 2 of their skate instructors in Dubai. This 2 young guys are afghans that teach other afghans to skate. One of them used to clean cars in the streets before getting into skating. Now he is a skate instructor that for the first time in his life was able to fly on an airplane and go to Dubai where he did an incredible amount of things for the first time in his life, including taking a dip in the sea.
    Whereas you might feel that skateboarding is not something useful in life -obviously given your article- it is not about it being useful or not, it is more about this kids having a place to go to where they can get away for a few hours of the harsh reality they have to live day after day. A place where they can rest their minds, have fun and mingle with other peers.
    Not only this, but something about 40% of the people attending Skatetistan are females. Females doing sport and playing in a country that has been under the Taliban dictatorship……. and 50% of the kids going here are street kids.
    And to finish this off, Skatetistan is not just about skating, they also have some education programs that include art and others.
    You guys better do some research before just sitting down in front of your computer and turning the sh— fan on.
    By the way, i only met one aussie in Skatetistan, the others where americans, canadians, english, etc.

  4. Franciso, you are being really unfair on these guys and I would challenge you do a little bit more research into them so you can write a “why Skateistan are actually pretty amazing” piece.

    I got to know the Skateistan guys and spent time at their facility over the two years I worked in Afghanistan. I went to one of their exhibitions where they displayed art projects produced by the kids (school children and street children) they are working with, and I was blown away by the poetry, the photography, and other art work these children had produced. You suggest their mission statement is hokey, and just a load of meaningless buzzwords, but, from what I saw first-hand, I think they’re nailing it.

    Kabul is a dreary and hopeless place for a lot of people, and these guys are doing something pretty special (and unique) to find ways to encourage and give hope to some vulnerable, hurting children.

    Give them a fair go.


    1. Here’s the thing, though. I have no doubt that everything you say is true. I’m also realizing that the way I wrote the post was counterproductive in all kinds of ways, but there we go. I’m learning too.

      The problem for me, the thing that makes it bloat-y and ultimately unhelpful, is the same question that you have to ask of *every* project. What happens when the funding stops? What happens when the guys pack up their bags and go home? Is there going to be a vibrant skater scene in Kabul 10 years after the last Skateistan volunteer leaves? Is anybody going to be in a position to pick up and carry on the valuable work that they’re doing?

      That’s obviously a very high bar to clear. And I’m afraid Skateistan – and a lot of projects like it – don’t come close to clearing it. An evaluation team trying to find any trace of project impact within a few years of the end of the project’s budget is going to have a *hell* of a time picking up any reason to believe Skateistan existed at all. That’s a hard truth, but shit, kids in Kabul live through 10 truths harder than that one by breakfast.

      You could say that the act of working with a kid who has no hope and giving him hope is worth doing in and of itself, fuck what comes 10 years from now. And I could even agree with you. JUST DON’T CALL IT DEVELOPMENT! It’s not. It muddies the waters to call it something it’s not.

      Because as we speak, there are people out there writing columns like this one, calling for an end to development aid in general because “it just doesn’t work.” Academics desperate to legitimize aid are going through datasets and having the hardest damn time figuring out a reason to believe “aid works”. And that happens, in large part, because so much of what we *call* aid is really a form of charity – certainly virtuous in its own terms, but totally unable to shift the needle in terms of people’s livelihood trajectories.

      So listen, I’ll meet you halfway. Yes, Skateistan is pretty amazing. It’s also bloaty as hell.

  5. The initiative does look silly or frivolous compared to others seeking to provide more directly tangible benefits to people in need, nonetheless there may be some merit to any program that can help build up useful character traits or personal habits that improve peoples capacity to deal with their very difficult enviroments . In Venezuela there is of course the very succesful Sistema, teaching kids the value of music and the hard work and team work that go with doing it.. One might argue that there are more useful ways of helping people improve the quality of their lives !!

  6. I would be curious to see what, in those datasets, you think aid experts look for when they want evidence of things like confidence building, social inclusiveness, a sense of self-worth. How is a child-friendly space measured in terms of DFID’s Value for Money? Does the USG include an indicator for “a girl’s knowledge that there might be something in life other than an early marriage to a man her parents owe a debt to?”

    Skateistan is one of the best NGOs in Afghanistan. Perhaps instead of criticizing how it doesn’t fit into the established models of “development,” you should be spending time thinking about adjusting those models so they can account for good organizations who are actually making a difference.

  7. “An evaluation team trying to find any trace of project impact within a few years of the end of the project’s budget is going to have a *hell* of a time picking up any reason to believe Skateistan existed at all.”

    So, it’s obvious that you pretty much just found their website and came up with all this bs language to bash them with, without doing any true exploration of their work impact. I worked in development in Kabul and saw firsthand the work of many NGOs there, large and small. I explored and ultimately volunteered and supported Skateistan (still do) based on what I saw as lasting and daily positive impacts on the kids’ lives. They are keeping kids off the street, teaching them valuable skills, giving them leadership opportunities, and instilling confidence to pursue higher standards of life. If they suddenly had to leave, these kids would perhaps be lacking an official designated space, but what they have learned and the ability to keep seeking education and skills from other means does not simply dissipate into the air.

    You clearly have not been to Kabul nor have you even tried to speak with someone from the NGO for some evaluation data. Criticism in this field is very important and much of the aid complex is highly flawed, but it makes you look like a bloated jerk for not even doing your own research before lashing out blindly based on the fact that they used jargon and skateboarding.

  8. Francisco, your world must be very very small and sad…waiting all day for increased likes on Facebook and watching viral video snips. This program is probably the most successful NGO in Afghanistan because it actually does what it states it is going to do. Putting their lives at risk the volunteers do make an outstanding difference for the youth they are involved in. I have been in Kabul and know first hand this is one of a hand full of programs that has been successful in making real change! Obviously the last real change you had involvement in was getting quarters for your laundromat!
    Tell us all what you have done to make this world a better place! Pls I am dying to know from what perch you have the audacity to judge anything or anybody. You do get the award for using the English vocabulary! Perhaps you should focus on playing scrabble!
    I real journalist would research before throwing literary hand grenades from the comfort of their comfy loft; but, that would involve common sense and compassion ; two traits that you obviously lost during a turbulent adolescence. I am truly sorry for your wretched life experiences that have made you the person you are and really hope that you can get better.
    Maybe a stint volunteering with Skateistan would be a character building positive experience! Living amongst the afghan street children as a volunteer in a war torn country and seeing the eyes and smiles of children who are affected daily by their interaction with Skateistan may in fact thaw that cold soul that so comfortably resides in you!
    That blog of your experiences in Afghanistan would be something the net public and I would be very interested in reading.
    I wish you Godspeed in your recovery from uniformed hack to a journalist/ blogger who brings something truthful, real and informative to the public.

  9. Wow, Francisco, I have to believe you wrote this piece just to receive some attention.

    Buzzwords are indeed abused and you can find them everywhere, but they are just like sarcastic bloggers that write posts based on nothing but some half-funny jokes. Don’t know what’s more useless.

    Next time you criticize something try to be less witty, and to produce either facts or clearly stated opinions based on a real analysis. In that way you may be actually able to really show the problems of the development sector. Good luck to you and good luck to Skateistan, which I know is doing a good job in Cambodia.

  10. I just came across a video of Skateistan for the first time. I googled to find out what others were saying about Skateistan too and came across your blog post.

    Perhaps you are right and once the program champions are no longer there it will disappear, as is often the case in our evolving world. And it may not fit other people’s idea of, or need for a particular definition of “development”, but to say “They need to stop” seems a bit over the top. I wonder what the Afghan and Cambodian kids themselves would say if we put it to them that we think it has to stop?

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