New year, new hope for well-balanced Afghans

February 1, 2002

John Daniel examines how war-torn Afghanistan is rebuilding its education system with the help of donors.

At last week's donors' meeting in Tokyo, the new leaders of Afghanistan proclaimed education as their second imperative, the first being the creation of a central bank to stabilise the currency. The education system will reopen on March 22, Afghanistan's New Year's Day.

Donors sometimes accuse countries in such circumstances of placing too much importance on higher education for the middle classes at the expense of basic education for the masses. Afghanistan seems to have got the balance right. In emphasising basic and rural education, it is also convinced of the need to rebuild the country's intellectual and professional community, not least by training and retraining large numbers of school teachers.

Restoring higher education will be costly. The Tokyo conference was informed of a capital investment programme of $200 million (£138 million) over the next ten years. Without such a programme, can the country's universities cope? Afghan girls and women were excluded from schools and universities during Taliban rule. What will they find on their return? Last week, Unesco officials accompanied Sharif Fayez, the minister of higher education, on a visit to Kabul University, his alma mater. A sea of empty shell casings surrounded the women's residence. Steel reinforcing bars poked through concrete broken by mortar fire and windows and frames were gone. The building is retrievable - for some $2 million - but not by March 22.

Women entered higher education in Afghanistan in 1947 with the establishment of a women's faculty for teacher training in science and social studies at Kabul University. In 1960 it was integrated into newly co-educational faculties. By 1990 some 60 per cent of the 10,000 students at Kabul University, and almost one-third of students at tertiary level, were female. The figures dropped in the early 1990s and fell to zero in 1996 when the Taliban banned women from universities and the workplace. This contributed to the collapse of the education system. Many teachers in boys' schools were women. There was little government money to pay salaries or buy books. Many school buildings were destroyed, damaged, looted or appropriated for other uses during the inter-mujahideen fighting in the early 1990s.

By 1995, the five universities were operating under very difficult conditions with damaged buildings, few qualified staff and little in the way of laboratories and libraries. They closed frequently because of the fighting.

One challenge now is the backlog of potential applicants, including women whose studies were interrupted and returning refugees. Opportunities for refugees to study in universities in Iran and Pakistan were few and expensive, and the single Afghan university established in Peshawar in 1999 has a minimal budget. Since applicants will have varied educational backgrounds, Afghan universities will need flexible admissions criteria.

A foundation course could be introduced to refresh students' skills. Up-to-date curricula must be developed quickly. Policy issues include student fees and the role of private institutions. There is the challenge of allocating scarce human resources between the flagship of Kabul University and other universities.

The universities must focus on expertise for national reconstruction, so the expansion of medicine and engineering must not be at the expense of agriculture. Study visits and fellowships through twinning arrangements with universities overseas are urgently needed.

The Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals mechanism, which has been used to good effect by the United Nations Development Programme and Unesco in similar situations in 30 countries, will be activated.

A first goal is to create incentives to bring back expatriate Afghan experts and academics. Second, the country needs a massive teacher education programme, covering training in content and methodology at all levels. Third, an open university should be a motor for the use of distance learning. Finally, there is a desperate need to repair and re-equip university buildings.

Countries in need frequently counter criticism from donors with the complaint that development agencies fail to consult them. Indeed, at the donor meetings for Afghanistan held in Brussels in December and in Tokyo last week, Afghanistan's new leaders made this point about some of the reconstruction plans that were put on the table. Sensitive to this, Unesco has worked closely with the transition government and Afghan non-governmental organisations, and is helping ministers to organise a broad consultation within the country on the nature of its future education system.

Sir John Daniel is Unesco's assistant director-general for education.

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