Afghanistan Field Journal: Parting Thoughts

Today I leave after a week of meetings with different ministries, international development organizations, embassies, and NGOs.  My only real regret is not having had the opportunity to meet too many regular Afghans–to visit their schools, clinics, shops, and homes–to see how they really live beyond what I observe in the street and through the security lens.  Regardless, Kabul was worth the visit. Now to discuss why.Where should I begin?

I could tell a story about development aid effectiveness, the securitization of urban space, 21st century
imperialism of the US and NATO, or more a story of hope–hope masked with the fear of uncertainty.

Kabul is a surreal place—from its terrain and 19th century clay houses built along the mountain sides to its bazaars and men sipping chai in gutted street corners—the heated steam from their mouths against the cold winter air. The city emanates a mountain culture that at once reminds me of James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. Scott’s hypothesis about the isolation of mountain folk and them developing their own styles of governance, resistant of a centralized state seems accurate for Afghanistan.  Why is it that development partners and international bodies fail to recognize this facet? 

At the same time the state has come a long way in 10 years, and I am increasingly convinced that this is not a mirage dreamt up by the international community.
There are real people in this country who work everyday for change.  They are seeking to modernize and bring
Afghanistan into the 21st century, through a system of governance, improving education institutions, health facilities, and basic infrastructure.  Despite high security and the presence of weapons guarding every building, I got a real sense of hope from the Afghans I did meet in Kabul.

What’s the story on education in this country? Well, after the collapse of the Taliban and the emergence of the international community in 2002, educating the Afghan girl child was about the sexiest thing an international organization could do, and they all jumped on the education bandwagon.  The 60(+) international donors that entered Afghanistan all wanted a piece of the education pie.  Education in this country had been left in shambles.  The Taliban had banned girls from attending school for more than five years. In 2002 it is estimated that there were approximately 20,000 teachers –all men, and only four teacher training colleges that produced about 400 teachers total per year. We are really not sure
how many children were enrolled in school in 2002.  The first school census was not conducted until 2006. The international community estimated the student enrollment rate to be around 400,000.  This was estimated using the number of teachers and the last conducted census from 1979. In the first five years of the new government the sector had many new projects ongoing, but there was not an
overarching strategic vision that linked these projects.

The Ministry of education also lacked a strong and capable Minister prior to 2006.  Everyone in the donor community had their projects ongoing and they tried to coordinate somewhat with varying degrees of success. It was not really until Haneef Atmar became education Minister in 2006 that there was any formal donor coordination.  Atmar pushed for the creation of a National Strategy
for education.  This strategy focused on governance, equity, access, and school infrastructure.  Atmar worked with the international community also to engage communities through the  creation of community bodies, school management committees. Prior to Haneef Atmar this work had been started, but it was really under
him that we saw coordination and the consolidation of a vision. Projects in the international community emphasized  infrastructure, teacher training, and community mobilization through community-based school management committees.  Massive strides were made between 2006 and the present, including:  dramatic increases in enrollment, Building of schools and infrastructure—providing school walls, separate latrines for girls, drinking water; and teacher training–including getting the girl child in school. Today girls comprise 40% of the total enrollment in education.

While these are huge gains there is still a long way to go and with the international community is still paying the salaries of civil servants, including teachers, the future remains uncertain for the transition period.

The future of Afghanistan rests in the hands of the international community and the choices we make. We can push for hope and success by making strategic decisions on financing, or we can allow decisions for financing this country to be determined by the political whims of individuals in Washington DC, London, Berlin, Oslo, Ottawa, and so on…

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