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Why International Aid In Afghanistan’s Education System Was A Failure

by Hassina Sherjan

After international aid left Afghanistan’s education system unchanged, GlobalGiving Community Voices fellow Hassina Sherjan reflects on how to revolutionize it.

The billions of dollars the international community spent on improvements to the educational system in Afghanistan may go down as one of the largest failures of development assistance in modern history.

The assistance money spent on Afghanistan’s education system from 2002 to 2021, coupled with decades of violent conflict, has created a legion of at-risk students subjected to poor-quality educators and outdated learning systems.

I grew up in Afghanistan, where education was based on rote learning, memorization, and indoctrination. I was not a good student because I didn’t know why I had to memorize useless facts and study subjects I had no interest in. Our art teacher was an old man, and he drew a water pitcher on the blackboard during every class and asked us to copy it. For every final exam, I asked one of my uncles, Niamat, to draw a pitcher for me. I brought it to school and put it under my paper to copy it perfectly during the exam.

I graduated from high school without any real knowledge or skills and without any passion or curiosity for learning. It was only after my visit of Jalozai refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1995, that I felt like a prisoner of my own ignorance.

Investment without intention

Although many countries around the world have education systems that are designed to control and manipulate the population, Afghanistan deserves special attention. Allocation of billions of dollars and reporting on “successes” do not solve the problem. For example, Global Partnership for Education gave $162 million through the World Bank to support education in Afghanistan. There were other such programs outside of the government expenditure, such as Education Cannot Wait, focusing on community-based education since 2017. Another budget of $150 million was approved in 2019 for Afghanistan’s Education Cannot Wait program. Millions were also funneled through international military-led programs called Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

The donor community was focused on increasing enrollment rates, especially for girls, without paying attention to what kind of education the students were receiving or whether the system was improving. This resulted in a superficial improvement that did not address the underlying issues of conflict, poverty, and cultural barriers that affected education in Afghanistan.

One of the barriers was generations of illiterate parents who were the victims of war since 1979 and couldn’t help their children. At Aid Afghanistan for Education(AAE), our cook became a math teacher after completing our program. Later, her 11-year-old daughter said, “I am the first student in my class because my mother is now educated, and she helps me.”

From 2002 to 2021, the Afghan government did not allow young women to complete high school if they were married, on the misguided basis that they could “corrupt” the minds of other students. Therefore, we at AAE designed an accelerated education program for women and girls and signed an agreement with the government so they could receive an official high school certificate from the Ministry of Education.

The country fell into the hands of the Taliban again in 2021, and the education system shows no improvement from 2001.

It is still based on a rote system of memorization, and there is a severe lack of access to education and qualified teachers, despite billions of dollars given to the government of Afghanistan and USAID contractors for school building, curriculum reform, and teacher training.

Repairing (and reimagining) education in Afghanistan

I envision education as a force for positive change and peace in the world. Instead of being used for destruction, conformity, and greed, it could promote introspection, self-awareness, and happiness.

The solution requires three steps: 1) acknowledging the failure, 2) assessing the access to education, and 3) developing an online education program in local languages and English with a reflective curriculum that allows students to take an online SAT and apply to any international universities. This will allow them to have an income working from home to support their families during these challenging times.

I believe that to achieve sustainable peace, we need to have an introspective education system. One that encourages students to explore their own identities, values, and aspirations, and to respect and appreciate those of others.

A system that nurtures students’ talents and passions and helps them find their highest potential, purpose, and meaning in life.

This is not a utopian dream. It is a realistic and achievable goal. There are already examples of such education systems in different parts of the world, such as Finland. These systems have proven to be effective in producing happy individuals who are also successful in their academic and professional endeavors.

We need to challenge the outdated and oppressive paradigm of education that has been imposed on us. We need to reclaim education as a human right, not as a commodity or a weapon. To transform the world, we must revolutionize both education and the systems that deliver it.

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