Rick Burns’ thoughtful approach to Iraq and Afghanistan

Humanitarian Rick Burns, a retired civil affairs officer in the U.S. Army, has been helping people in the war-torn countries of Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. He’s seen a lot of good, but he’s also seen what happens when good intentions go awry.

Take the fertile grounds of Arghandab River Valley in Afghanistan, for example. Burns recalls an initiative to help fruit exporters become profitable again after the war. Cold storage facilities were built, but because no one considered the country’s spotty electricity, the facilities ended up being too expensive to maintain.

“We really want to make the world a better place,” says Burns, “but if we don’t consider the outcomes of these projects, we can cause more damage than good.”

He’s seen similar failings at vocational training centers, where the unskilled and the unemployed receive training but not jobs. Then there are wells that fall into disrepair because no one planned for ongoing maintenance. Watching all this good energy and hard work go to waste is one reason Burns started his nonprofit, Karadah Project International.

“I’d been whining and complaining for so long, I thought that it’s time I do something,” says Burns, who is a member of the Rotary Club of Atlantic, Iowa, in the U.S.

The organization helps communities in Afghanistan and Iraq create international partnerships to help solve such pressing problems as hunger, poverty, and disease.

Smart partnerships

Burns is a big believer in partnerships. He says more gets accomplished when organizations are connected. So last March he arranged a conference in his hometown of Elk Horn, Iowa, and invited representatives from 30 nonprofits working in Afghanistan and Iraq to share their knowledge and resources.

“Small nonprofits pop up in response to a need they feel passionate about,” says Burns. “But we can do so much more if we all work together.”

He also approached his Rotary club, which donated $1,000 to his nonprofit. The money was given to the Shindand Women Social Foundation (SWSF), Burns’ Afghanistan partner, to help purchase two goats each for 15 women (total cost $10,000). The goats not only provide food for the women’s families, they also provide an income. The women sell the goats’ milk in the village. The SWSF also purchased 10 goats for breeding, to ensure the project’s sustainability.

Like Heifer International, each family is required to donate the first offspring of their donated animal to another needy family, giving even more families the chance at a better life. In fact, Burns first approached Heifer International for help with this project but was told they didn’t work in Iraq and Afghanistan. So he found a local group, the Shindand Women Social Foundation, who could adapt Heifer’s model to fit their needs. The SWSF works with village leaders to determine which families receive the goats. It also purchases milk processing equipment locally and hires men in the village to train the women in milk production, further helping the local economy to recover.

Focused on outcomes, not spending money

As a soldier, Burns saw the success of projects measured solely on the amount of money spent and number of projects completed. “Those are very poor metrics,” he says. “I try to do things intentionally and perhaps slower than other organizations so we can get it right.”

Burns started by building upon the relationships he had developed while based in Iraq. In 2008 he established a friendship partnership between the Karadah (Baghdad) District Council and Council Bluffs, Iowa, through Sister Cities International.

He later formed a partnership between the University of Baghdad College of Dentistry and Creighton University School of Dentistry in Nebraska. With the help of the sister city committee, a delegation of professors from the Baghdad school visited the Creighton campus. Burns hopes to take advantage of a vocational training team through Rotary to further the mentoring relationship.

And then came the goats, a project so successful that a second group of 15 families is set to receive the animals. Burns worked through friends he’d made while on duty in Afghanistan to find the right partners and community support before launching the project. To ensure its ongoing success, he’s put a priority on maintaining accountability and obtaining data through photographs, reports, and observation. But it’s not always easy.

“Everything we do (in Afghanistan and Iraq) is fraught with risk,” says Burns. “But by being intentional and focused on the outcomes — and not just simply spending money because we have it and it’s easy — we can make a difference in the lives of these amazing people.”

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