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This article was published 24/8/2011 (3347 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When I first visited Afghanistan, just after the Taliban's fall, the physical signs of war were everywhere. Here was a country utterly decimated. Kabul's buildings, the same beige dust colour as the surrounding mountains, were often roofless, pockmarked with bullet holes, the windows long ago shattered, the frames leaning precariously.
The roads were in ruins and many major cities were poorly connected. City power came on for only a couple of hours a night, and to this day Kabul remains perhaps the largest city in the world largely using an open-air sewage system. Piles of red spray-painted stones warned of land mines, the piles becoming more frequent on the city outskirts and into the provinces.
These are the visible signs of war. Less visible is the destruction of human capital. The wealthy and the educated are often the first to get out when violent conflict starts, and Afghanistan saw one exodus after another in each successive chapter of its long-running conflict. Eventually, the country's intelligentsia was decimated, and its artists, planners, engineers and entrepreneurs exiled. Included, too, in the flight have been the vast majority of trained, experienced teachers. This void has perhaps been one of the most detrimental to Afghanistan's rebuilding effort.
To fill the gap, the education ministry desperately recruited new teachers, many with no post-secondary education, not to mention any training as teachers. Some of the country's 170,000 teachers have not even completed high school themselves. Yet they may be the only people in a community willing to teach, a profession that pays a mere $120 per month; that is, when teachers are actually paid on time. It's not uncommon for salaries to be delayed three, four or even six months. Unsurprisingly, many teachers hold down second jobs and there is a high rate of absenteeism among Afghan teachers. With these conditions, it's hardly an occupation attracting the country's best and brightest young minds.
And yet investing in Afghanistan's teachers could have been one of the cheapest, quickest ways to reinvigorate the country's human capital, and ultimately to ensure a better chance at permanent peace. And rebuilding its human capital is far, far more important than rebuilding its physical infrastructure. This is because an educated, skilled society will be able to rebuild its own physical infrastructure over time, drawing on the local population's skills, rather than the much more expensive alternative of importing specialists to do skilled labour.
An education official once told me that Afghanistan should have focused foremost on its human resources, investing above all else in basic education, vocational training and advanced studies. He pointed to the example of South Korea, which in 1953 was one of the poorest countries in the world, and today is among the wealthiest and best-educated countries on account of government investments in education, training and technology in the post-war rebuilding period. The same official also said he would never dream of sending his own children to a public school in Afghanistan. They are enrolled in a private school, where they have a passing chance of university entrance.
In May, during the Global Week of Action on Education, my Afghan colleagues in Kabul decided to organize a panel discussion to be broadcast on a popular radio station, Radio Amuzgar. The topic was education as a human right. Teacher trainers joined with district education officials in a vibrant discussion of issues such as how to improve the quality of education and make access more equitable between boys and girls. The panel guests enthusiastically debated the main challenges facing the education sector and shared their recommendations for action.
The show echoed discussions that take place daily in families all over Afghanistan. Education is central in the minds of a people long denied the right to literacy, who know all too well the consequences of the ignorance that breeds extremism and violence so efficiently. The drive Afghans have for education in the post-Taliban period is so intense, I refer to it as The Education Obsession -- parents constantly plan and analyze their children's education in their desperate desire to secure a future for the young through the pen rather than the gun. It's an inescapable conversation in the living rooms and streets of urban Afghanistan, a society yearning for the modernization that has only ever started in fits and spurts throughout the last century before being derailed by political upheaval and war.
Yet it's not a dialogue that seems to be occurring with the same energy or intensity at the decision-making level among donor countries to Afghanistan like Canada or within the executive of the Afghan government. Education is just one sector among many needing attention in the humanitarian and development effort. It's given no special priority and its potential for radically transforming a nation perpetually at war and chronically mired in poverty has largely been lost from the strategy of peace building in Afghanistan.
But if we in Canada can find some of the enthusiasm Afghans have for the possibilities education can breathe into the country, we can push for education to be at the fore of rebuilding there. Canada has invested precious human lives and billions of dollars in Afghanistan. What greater legacy could we leave than to advocate for, and invest generously in, a robust public education system that could finally put Afghanistan on the path to peace?
Lauryn Oates, a Canadian aid worker managing education projects in Afghanistan, is projects director at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.
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