Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 08:28 GMT

Afghanistan battles to restore educational opportunities

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Ken Stier
Publication Date 12 September 2003
Cite as EurasiaNet, Afghanistan battles to restore educational opportunities, 12 September 2003, available at: [accessed 25 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Ken Stier 9/12/03

After almost a quarter-century of internecine warfare, Afghanistan is now battling to restore the country's shattered educational infrastructure. A central challenge for Afghan education officials is coping with the so-called "lost generation" of students – those who had their education interrupted by conflict.

Education is the single largest item in the Afghan government's $1.7 billion development budget this year. Next year, education funding is slated to nearly double, from $250 million to $475 million. The year after, Afghanistan's Finance Ministry projects that educational needs will consume $600 million.

But these figures reflect the government's projected needs, and do not necessarily represent the amount of money that the Afghan government can attract or spend efficiently. The government is already running a $242 million developing budget financing gap, according to an Asian Development Bank report issued earlier this summer. Afghanistan also has a $234 million deficit on the recurrent budget.

Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, recently warned shortfalls might force school closures, of which unsubstantiated reports have surfaced in Afghanistan's provinces. Qanooni said in April that he had less than half the money he needed to equip schools for enrolled students. Donor officials involved in education insist acknowledged shortfalls are not causing shutdowns – at least not yet.

Keiko Miwa, the World Bank's educational team leader, says the education ministry's $250 million request was a "bit unrealistic" in its first year. "More important is to ask whether they can [effectively] spend 90 million dollars," she said in a recent telephone interview.

Afghan officials seem to give priority to renovating buildings, as well as providing textbooks and other tangibles, according to a recent draft evaluation by the World Bank. Donors, meanwhile, would like to see the school system focus more on educational outputs and process, including engaging private or community-based organizations. The latter strategy, the Bank reasons, would stimulate other sectors and could discourage corruption. "But that message is not coming across at the ministry of education," concedes Miwa, who suggests "more policy dialogue" on the subject is needed.

Qanooni, a member of the former Northern Alliance and a close ally of Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, brings limited credentials to such a dialogue. Prior to assuming the education post, Qanooni served as interior minister. He yielded that position in order to allow increased Pashtun representation in President Hamid Karzai's cabinet. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to Nina Papadopoulos, who previously ran the International Rescue Committee's Afghan education efforts, Qanooni has worked hard. "It is not enough to say he is not the best guy," she reasons, "because I am not sure who the right guy would be."

In 1979, the start of the Soviet army's occupation, roughly 54 percent of Afghan boys and 12 percent of girls attended primary school. More than two decades of war – and the Taliban‘s hostility to secular education, particularly for girls, and female teachers – saw enrollment rates plunge to 38 percent for boys and 3 percent for girls, according to a 1999 UNICEF estimate that was probably generous. Only 3 percent of students were completing secondary school.

Enrollment rates rebounded in 2002, following the Taliban's ouster by the US anti-terrorism offensive. The overall number of 2.9 million students enrolled in primary schools far exceeded original projections of 1.7 million pupils. Attendance by girls rose to roughly 30 percent. In Kabul, girls made up 45 percent of the capital's half million students.

Enrollment figures for the current year could reach 4 million, close to the estimated 4.5 million primary school-age children. But the percentage of these children attending school – the net enrollment ratio – is not clear. That's because current enrollment figures include an unknown number of so-called "lost generation" students. Afghans define the lost generation as those between 12 and 30 years of age whose education was effectively terminated by the years of constant fighting.

Some statistics indicate that Afghanistan is facing an educational bottleneck. A particular cause for concern is the fact that up to 50 percent of all students enrolled during the 2002-3 year were in the first grade.

Optimistic forecasters say that the Afghan lost generation can make a fast educational recovery by utilizing new technologies, especially the Internet. Edward A. Friedman, a Stevens Institute of Technology professor who served as dean of Kabul University's engineering faculty in the 1970s, believes this. "What was done in the past in 30 years can now be done in five years," he says.

Fast progress, however, presumes a sound education infrastructure. At present, higher education institutions in Kabul have only modest Internet access. American schools, including Purdue University, are working to expand this access. A joint effort between France and the United Nations Development Program has helped open Internet-enabled Telekiosks in post offices and UNDP is also teamed up with Cisco Systems, a large California networking company, to train network operators.

Even if information technology brings some teens up to their proper reading level, the question of equal access to educational opportunities will remain. Outside Kabul, very few Afghans have any access to computers- or electricity. According to the World Bank, 70 percent of schools need repairs. Donors are expanding their use of radio to reach beyond urban areas, especially for teacher training, but analysts say that regional disparities will remain stubborn into the foreseeable future.

A pattern in which more affluent Afghans receive stronger education is already becoming apparent. The World Bank issued a contract for a feasibility study about the role of private firms in college-level education. Many fear that expanding use of private contractors will lead to entrance fees for universities, aggravating economic disparities among Afghans.

The struggle to rebuild Afghanistan's education system found a poignant metaphor in a Hoboken, New Jersey conference room over the summer. The conference – arranged by Professor Friedman and hosted by Stevens Institute of Technology, featured nine Afghan university professors who recently wrapped up a six-week course in video and Internet proficiency. Their sponsor, the US State Department, treated them as honored guests, and each obtained a personal computer to take home.

The teachers, all women, said personal computers are of limited use in Afghanistan. As Zarghona Popal of Kabul Polytechnic noted, "these are not going be very useful because we do not have the Internet." In 2002, a World Bank grant enabled Kabul Polytechnic to install windows- the glass kind, not the computer operating system- for the first time in years. "Since then nothing major that has been promised has come," says Popal.

Editor's Note: Ken Stier is a freelance journalist with experience throughout the Caucasus and Asia.

Posted September 12, 2003 © Eurasianet

Copyright notice: All EurasiaNet material © Open Society Institute

Search Refworld