Originally posted December 2009

Experts throughout the massive aid community in Afghanistan agree that education is vital for development. Education shapes the quality of productivity, products, and services. Education informs citizens of the roles that they must play so that good governance may thrive. Education molds the quality of leadership. Yet, despite the rhetoric, the education sector is perennially underfunded; typically, it receives scarcely 10% of what is provided to other sectors.

Nevertheless, the expansion of the education sector has been spectacular, even as it suffers from the fast pace with which this growth has occurred. Surges in enrollment of a million new primary school students each year have been extolled since the blitz on education began in 2001. True, many heartwarming success stories can be told. Opportunities for girls have increased enormously. But the pace in enrollments creates major problems for the future, because substantive quality improvements in the learning system continue to be elusive.

The prominent afflictions plaguing the system indicate the enormity of the problem. Traditional rote learning and memorization remain deeply entrenched. The shortage of qualified teachers is serious. The rigid curriculum is replete with glaring omissions while reforms to teach skills relevant to the lives of the children and those demanded by the national and international market places remain agonizingly slow in materializing. In addition, an embedded bureaucracy resistant to change, as well as weak policymaking leadership preclude creative thinking. Of these, the continued pervasive reliance on rote learning is the most pernicious, for it impedes the introduction of modern techniques and discourages students from asking questions or engaging in inquiring interchanges. Teachers expound; students listen. Remembering, rather than reasoning is all-important. Individual expression is thereby dampened, initiatives discouraged, self-confidence crippled, and leadership development muted.

There is a pressing need, therefore, to spread information beyond classroom doors for the purpose of arming citizens with knowledge that they can use to enhance the quality of their lives. Only with such renewed capacities can individuals be motivated to participate in transforming the bare bones of the recently implanted democratic framework into an effective structure of governance.

Every sector, from economics to microfinance, agriculture to industry, health to education, or human rights to governance can benefit from stimulating learning opportunities. Readers may wonder why such a simple observation needs repeating. Simple it may be, but high-sounding strategy papers too often ignore the obvious. Short-term fact-finding missions avidly collect data, write profound analyses, propose expensive recommendations, and launch quick fixes, only to omit sustainable components that would supply players with the knowledge they need to keep programs afloat. Additionally, faulty conceptions and just plain ignorance thwart many promising programs. Unless such attitudinal constraints are addressed through corrective learning experiences, even the best designed programs will falter. Providing practical knowledge at all levels, however, is a time-consuming, multi-pronged task requiring long-term commitments that too often lie beyond the interests of the quick-fixing consultants.

Nevertheless, now is an ideal time to reach marginalized as well as mainstream communities. During the many harsh years spent in exile, the refugees widened their horizons. Schools were available as never before, and evidence of the benefits of learning was clearly evident all around them. Refugee populations learned to expect services they had never before envisioned and developed a heightened political awareness that currently spurs expectations not only for more services but that their voices will be heard. This is a positive development, but these voices must be informed if they are to speak effectively. The yearly increases in school graduates further raises aspirations that are foiled by limited job and economic opportunities. Herein lay the seeds of the volatile unrest already making its way to the surface.

But one thing that must be remembered is that the Afghan people have shown a remarkable resilience throughout this tragic period; their coping skills are ingenious and their adherence to cherished cultural values unshakable. Given access to knowledge they can, and will, achieve, through their own efforts, a good deal of the elusive reconstruction so fervently desired, without the need to become dependent. Experience has shown repeatedly that the responses of those most in need can be brilliant. This is particularly evident in the health sector, where high child and maternal mortality rates have been dramatically lowered by making basic information on good health practices available.

The Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU) believes in the country’s potentials. Sharing information for nation building is its primary goal. Established in Peshawar in 1989, ACKU has amassed 48,000 documents generated by UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments (including the Taliban), scholars, and strategists on all aspects of Afghanistan’s heritage and history, as well as current aid and development issues. Since 2006 the documents have been housed in Kabul University’s Main Library where over a thousand readers visit the ACKU reading room each month. A database of its holdings is available to users worldwide on http://www.ackuaf.org. Thanks to the generosity of the Afghan government, a more spacious facility is now under construction on the campus where more wide-ranging information-sharing activities such as lectures, exhibitions, conferences, and video dialogues between Afghan students and students abroad will soon be possible.

For further accessibility, the documents are being digitized so that information may be shared through CDs, DVDs, and other IT marvels with universities and libraries throughout Afghanistan and abroad. However, ACKU is fully mindful of the fact that most Afghans live in rural areas. The ACKU Box Libraries Extension (ABLE), which is ACKU’s outreach component, sends libraries into provincial communities, to high schools, and Provincial Councils. Some 123,000 books are now in circulation through the ABLE project; thousands more have been distributed by others following the ABLE model. Many of these books in Dari and Pashto are ABLE publications — especially designed for the newly literate. Some 83 titles, ranging from history and folklore, agriculture and the environment, and health to home management have been published. Works on law and governance are provided to Provincial Councils, where too often even copies of the Afghan Constitution are unavailable.

Titles are selected to ensure sustainability. They aim to supplement knowledge beyond the school room and beyond short-term, quick-fix development projects. Primary education and adult education programs, for instance, are so often a waste of time and a waste of effort because graduates will soon lose their newly learned skills unless they are given something to read. The ABLE books discussing the essence of democracy, including the rights and obligations of both the government and the governed, are hot items these days. Planting democracy requires so much more than mastering the basics of where and how to vote.

These are small steps, but one cannot, and should not, presume to remodel a society which has lived in a certain manner for centuries overnight. Nor should the values that sustain the Afghan society be eroded. But the people of Afghanistan do have the right to access knowledge that will strengthen these values and enrich their lives.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.