The Earl of Sandwich, that doughty and persistent campaigner, put down yet another question on development in Afghanistan. The answer was upbeat – 5 million children go to school, half a million families belong to microfinance schemes, 82% of people live in districts where there is access to basic health care. Of course it is the Government’s role to emphasise the good news and this they do regularly. However, one has to question where the figures are coming from.
Let me give an example, the Government told the House last July that education for all was within reach in that benighted country. Meanwhile Dr Hanif Atmar the widely respected Minster for Education produced the following statistics: 5,000 schools have inadequate buildings, half of school age children have no access to any kind of education, and 80% of teachers are untrained. Only 6% of the non-defence budget is allocated to education so these sombre figures are believable.
I have a vested interest in Afghanistan and its schools because in 2001 I visited Afghanistan after a break of some 20 years. I happened across a charismatic man who had trained as a teacher while a refugee in Pakistan. Having returned immediately after the rout of the Taliban, he set up a school in the poorest and most derelict district of West Kabul. The ‘school’ was a ruined building with no roof which he divided in half with a torn sheet to create two classrooms and held three shifts each day. The teachers slept in the ruined building and the ‘school’ was crammed with children and adults wanting to learn everything from carpentry to geography via mathematics. I began to raise money and with the first tranche Aziz (the charismatic teacher) organised the neighbours to build a large hall which he heated. This was a master stroke because it attracted entire families in the cold winter months and gave Aziz the opportunity to start adult evening education classes.
Anyhow it is a long and happy story of development over the next seven years; today the school has nearly 3,000 pupils in 3 major purpose built buildings. More than half the children are girls and he is now, with more funding coming in, setting up vocational training.
Having watched over this remarkable development like an anxious parent I think that the main ingredients of Aziz’s success lie in organic growth, almost brick by brick: for example, engaging parents in the school construction; persuading local businesses to provide transport to bring children from more outlying districts and training local women teachers. He has also been adamant about sustainable development – for example, the American Government offered to install electricity and Aziz accepted on the basis that the parents would fund the fuel for the generator. In other words it is a genuinely community-owned programme and the waiting list for entry to the school is long.
A recent generous donation from a family in my village will now enable another classroom to be built and to pay the 1$ per term fee for something like a hundred of the poorest girls.