x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

More than 'Three Cups of Tea' for Afghan education

As headlines about the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson punctuate major US papers, two important messages still should be heeded.

As headlines about the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson punctuate major US papers, two important messages still should be heeded. First, Mortenson's stories about his experiences building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan - whether true or, as is alleged, sometimes false - highlight the importance of providing Afghan children with access to primary education. This is a human right, which has been universally accepted.

And the book's focus on girls' education in rural Afghanistan has been recognised by the Afghan government as part of its firm commitment to meeting the Millennium Development Goals, based on the understanding that educating girls will empower more than half of the Afghan population. Indeed, a healthy mother makes a healthy family, which in turn constitutes a healthy and productive society.

But the other message that complements Three Cups of Tea has received scant attention and resources from the international community. Improving the quality of education and investing in the higher education sector, which must prepare a new generation of Afghans to begin gradually owning and leading the process of rebuilding and developing their own country, continues to be neglected.

For the purposes of publicity, fund-raising and politics, donors and their related NGOs, as well as private individuals, have collectively focused on school-building projects without necessarily ensuring that those schools have qualified teachers, a modern curriculum, or labs and libraries equipped with information technology systems to develop a productive labour force that can help integrate Afghanistan with the global economy.

Without looking further afield, the crumbling status of Afghanistan's major university, which once educated students from developing countries, is tragically telling. In November 2009, I paid a visit to Kabul University's library, which used to be one of the largest academic resources in the region. But I found the front section of the library partitioned into divisions, each temporarily staffed and run by a donor country with its national flag sitting on the corner of the receptionist desk.

Going through the larger, orphaned, half of the library with its broken shelves, outdated science books from the 1940s or earlier, and no central heating or AC system, I wondered where the hundreds of millions of dollars, which donors have committed and even disbursed to the education sector, had been spent.

Sadly, as any Kabul University student would tell you, much of the aid resources have been wasted on empty schools in the middle of nowhere. But those school schemes have provided parallel non-state structures, such as Provincial Reconstruction Teams and an army of NGOs, with photo and video opportunities to showcase their efforts in Afghanistan and to raise more resources to spend on similar quick-fix and half-done projects that are completely extraneous to Afghanistan's list of development priorities.

Setting details of Afghanistan's higher education strategy aside, it is time that one or a number of serious donors commit to assessing the various needs of Kabul University for effective assistance over the next three years. The international community has set 2014 as the deadline for the transition of security, governance and development responsibilities to the Afghan government. Such inclusive transition of responsibilities to Afghanistan can hardly take place without helping the country's key institutions of higher learning become functional to meet the basic standards of modern higher education.

We have a saying in Afghanistan: "Without morning tea, the war cannot begin." So the right place for donors and education advocates to begin work at Kabul University is its cafeteria where students can actually take a break and have a cup of tea. With such a beginning, we can be sure that the war in Afghanistan can start ending, if Afghans are increasingly able to stand on their own. But this initial effort must usher in university-wide curriculum development, modernisation of the partitioned library into one functional institution to support student research, and building decent extracurricular facilities to make the students' educational experience at Kabul University whole.


M Ashraf Haidari is an international security and development analyst who works with Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs