Phi­lan­thropist’s aid to Afghan vil­lage a model for the na­tion

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Mike Sny­der

A hun­gry child can’t learn. A man af­flicted with dysen­tery from foul drink­ing wa­ter can’t work.

These prin­ci­ples in­form Joanne King Her­ring’s ef­forts to help vil­lagers in Khairabad, Afghanista­n. She’s con­vinced that the best strat­egy to im­prove the lives of im­pov­er­ished peo­ple is to pro­vide di­rect aid in a few key ar­eas all at once, then get out of the way.

“We can­not fix it; they have to fix it,” said Her­ring, the 88-yearold Hous­ton phi­lan­thropist and so­cialite por­trayed in the 2007 film “Char­lie Wil­son’s War.” “So how do we equip them? Food, wa­ter, ba­sic health care, ed­u­ca­tion, and jobs.”

The ap­proach has been so ef­fec­tive in Khairabad that the gov­ern­ment in­tends to use it in other ru­ral set­tle­ments, said Ham­dul­lah Mo­hib, Afghanista­n’s am­bas­sador to the United States, who vis­ited Hous­ton on Fri­day.

“We’re im­ple­ment­ing that on a larger scale,” said Mo­hib, who sat next to Her­ring at a lun­cheon event spon­sored by Sis­ter Cities of Hous­ton and the United Na­tions As­so­ci­a­tion.

Be­fore Her­ring tucked into her ham­burger and Mo­hib into his chef’s salad, Her­ring worked the crowd of diplo­mats, busi­ness lead­ers and oth­ers.

Chat­ting with Mo­hib, she oc­ca­sion­ally put her hand on the am-

bas­sador’s shoul­der for em­pha­sis.

Amid the clat­ter of plates at a River Oaks-area restau­rant, Mo­hib thanked Her­ring for her well­known role in per­suad­ing Amer­i­can lead­ers to sup­port Afghans re­sist­ing Soviet in­vaders in a more than nine-year war that be­gan in De­cem­ber 1979.

“A woman from this city started help­ing our free­dom fighters,” Mo­hib told the gath­er­ing of about 50 peo­ple.

Be­hind the scenes

Her­ring rose to speak briefly, but her words were hard to hear, and some­one en­cour­aged her to hold the mi­cro­phone closer.

“I’m not a rock star,” Her­ring said, laugh­ing.

“Yes, you are!” some­one in the crowd replied.

The vil­lage de­vel­op­ment project, of course, is not Her­ring’s first work in Afghanista­n. Her be­hindthe-scenes role in the Afghan-Soviet con­flict is fa­mil­iar to many Amer­i­cans through “Char­lie Wil­son’s War,” a 2003 book by Ge­orge Crile that was adapted into a movie star­ring Tom Hanks as the hard-par­ty­ing East Texas con­gress­man and Ju­lia Roberts as Her­ring.

After the 1979 in­va­sion, Her­ring and a small crew slipped into Afghanista­n and made a film doc­u­ment­ing Soviet ag­gres­sion. Her­ring showed the film to of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton and found a cham­pion in Wil­son, a Demo­crat from Lufkin who was a mem­ber of the pow­er­ful House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee.

Wil­son, who died in 2010, played a key role in chan­nel­ing shoul­der-fired Stinger mis­siles and other weapons to the Afghan fighters, known as mu­ja­hedeen.

These weapons gave the Afghan forces the fire­power to down he­li­copter gun­ships, ul­ti­mately forc­ing the Sovi­ets to with­draw in Fe­bru­ary 1989.

After the war, much of the world for­got about Afghanista­n, Her­ring said. At­ten­tion was re­fo­cused on the na­tion, how­ever, after the at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when a U.S.-led coali­tion launched a mil­i­tary cam­paign against ter­ror­ist stronghold­s in Afghanista­n.

That launched a con­flict that has lasted for more than 16 years.

About a decade ago, Her­ring be­gan look­ing for an op­por­tune tar­get for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in the coun­try.

A friend in the U.S. mil­i­tary sug­gested Khairabad, say­ing he knew and trusted a vil­lage leader there.

“I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Her­ring re­called.

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of the broad net­work of con­tacts she had made in her pre­vi­ous work as honorary con­sul to Pak­istan and Morocco, Her­ring started lob­by­ing for money and po­lit­i­cal sup­port to be­gin a de­vel­op­ment project in Khairabad. She talked her way into a meet­ing with then-Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton and “forced my way into Ad­mi­ral Mullen’s car,” she said, re­fer­ring to Mike Mullen, then the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I didn’t get a good night’s sleep for 10 years,” Her­ring said.

Flour­ish­ing vil­lage

In the end, though, much of the $450,000 she raised came from donors in Hous­ton, she said. Her as­so­ciates in Afghanista­n asked the vil­lagers what they needed most, then be­gan meet­ing those needs through Mar­shall Plan Char­i­ties, a non­profit led by Her­ring.

The money that Her­ring raised was used to build a school and a health clinic, to buy seeds for crops, to train vil­lagers to re­pair bi­cy­cles, and to pro­vide fab­ric and train­ing for women to weave rugs and sew school clothes for chil­dren.

Her non­profit dug wells. It pro­vided tablets and pen­cils for the school.

A 2015 let­ter from a vil­lage elder, trans­lated from Urdu, made its way to Her­ring. Its mes­sage: The vil­lage was flour­ish­ing. Vil­lagers were learn­ing skills to help feed them­selves. The health clinic was sav­ing lives. The school was thriv­ing, but more pen­cils and pads were needed.

“Those were the most beau­ti­ful words I ever heard,” said Her­ring, who has never seen the vil­lage she worked so hard to as­sist.

The trans­for­ma­tion of one small vil­lage might seem in­con­se­quen­tial in a coun­try of more than 34 million peo­ple. But if the Khairabad strate­gies were ap­plied more widely, Her­ring said, the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence in Afghanista­n might no longer be needed.

The de­vel­op­ment work her non­profit is do­ing is far less costly than keep­ing sol­diers in the coun­try, she said.

Mo­hib, the am­bas­sador, said Her­ring’s work in Afghanista­n of­fers an im­por­tant les­son.

“If one woman from Hous­ton can make such a dif­fer­ence,” he said, “imag­ine what mil­lions of Hous­to­ni­ans could do.”

Melissa Phillip / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Hous­ton so­cialite Joanne King Her­ring, cen­ter, joins Afghanista­n’s am­bas­sador to the United States, Ham­dul­lah Mo­hib, left, dur­ing an award lun­cheon at Ouisie's Ta­ble in River Oaks on Fri­day.

Melissa Phillip / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Joanne King Her­ring raised $450,000 to de­velop and as­sist a vil­lage in war-rav­aged Afghanista­n.

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