This is the start of an ongoing series on OLPC in Afghanistan –sj
I travelled to Kabul, Afghanistan last week with two purposes: To assess prospective partners on the ground, including the Ministry of Education (MOE), in order to get a sense of both intent and capacity; and to meet with potential supporters for OLPC in Afghanistan, and craft a strategy for the coming year.
Afghanistan is a hugely complicated part of the world. Regional politics are impacted by the politics of India, Iran and Pakistan, and the geopolitical wrangling of America, Russia and China add an entirely different element into the mix. Combine this with decades of virtually uninterrupted war, limited natural resources, and low rural literacy, and you have a country that needs dramatic change in education.
Although relatively rapid progress has been made recently in the education sector, just over half (52%) of primary school aged children are enrolled in school. Furthermore, due to a shortage of schools and teachers, schools are forced to operate in “shifts”, the average being three “shifts” per day, meaning that each child generally receives only 2.5 hrs (5 x 30min periods) of school each day. The time constraints imposed by the shift system, combined with the fact that teacher-student ratios are often as high as 1:50-75, result in Afghan children receiving only about half the OECD recommended average time in school. In addition, many teachers in Afghanistan have an education level only a few years greater than the students they are teaching. The result is a cycle of rote education, with limited opportunities for innovation.
The conventional remedy of building more schools, training more teachers and providing more materials would require a six fold increase to the education budget (over a billion USD per year), would take 10-15 years to yield measurable results, and would be prey to some of these same problems.
According to the Ministry of Education, while a steady increase in teacher capacity and educational infrastructure is essential for long-term educational sector development, they cannot wait ten years for new initiatives to be started.
In Kabul, conditions have not improved since I was last there. There are more security check points, more people with massive weaponry, and more wariness among the expat community. This feeling is echoed by the Afghanis themselves, many of whom are tired of the military presence, but fearful of what awaits them if that presence were to disappear.
MOE: I met with the Ministry of Education, and with Roshan (the Afghani telecommunications company), Deloitte Consulting, and USAID. The MOE will serve as the primary partner and catalyst for olpc in Afghanistan. While this is generally true in countries where olpc is deployed, it is especially true in Afghanistan where every potential supporter has a primary objective of building capacity within government ministries. This is essential to any successful project.
And only the MOE has the capacity to reach the number of children we wish to reach. With 217,000 employees, MOE represents 67 percent of all civil servants in Afghanistan. Of their overall budget of $400 million per year, 92 percent goes to salaries for teachers and staff. It is disturbingly underfunded, but still has enormous potential human resources.
The MOE will nevertheless have to find third-party partners to help with implementation, and to assist in the preparation for any new large-scale project in schools. Minister of Education Wardak’s support for the ideals of olpc is strong. And Roshan, which has a long history of supporting us in the region, continues to feature OLPC prominently in their lobbying-based materials in Washington, DC.
Other Potential Partners: I discussed potential partners with the reach to help implement olpc. International agencies such as UNICEF seem ideal and could be invaluable to our efforts. And I also met with some national business executives who are very big supporters of OLPC generally.
Prior to my arrival, MOE had been putting together a proposal which lays out a very clear analysis of the challenges facing education in Afghanistan. The statistics are simultaneously alarming and compelling. While it is extraordinary that enrollment has increased from less than 800,000 in 2001 to over seven million today, roughly 50 percent of Afghani girls and 40 percent of Afghani boys do not attend school. In addition, close to 75 percent of Afghani teachers are illiterate or have an education level one year greater than the students they teach. It is against this backdrop that we are working.
Add to this the fact that the US – Afghanistan’s largest donor – contributes only $90 million annually for education in Afghanistan via USAID, and you quickly get the sense that progress – while indisputable – is slow and insufficient.
In part 2 of this series: I meet with General McChrystal in the ISAF headquarters in Kabul.