Stanford Team’s Law Books help Afghan Students
September 15, 2010
This article, originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, profiles The Asia Foundation’s Senior Advisor for Governance and Law and Stanford law Professor Erik Jensen, who along with his students, launched the Afghan Legal Education Project to write law textbooks for Afghan students.
In fall 2007, Afghanistan had a new Constitution and eager students lining up to learn its laws. What it didn’t have was law books.
Seven thousand miles away, two students at Stanford University’s law school thought they could help.
Stanford law Professor Erik Jensen smiled as he recalled the two law students, Alexander Benard and Eli Sugarman, standing in his office doorway, asking him to help them write textbooks for law students in Afghanistan.
“I gave them a few ideas, wished them luck and turned back to my computer,” he said. “But, in the end, I have a hard time looking commitment in the eye and saying no.”
That year, Jensen, Benard, Sugarman and a handful of classmates formed the Afghan Legal Education Project. They gave themselves a crash course in Afghanistan’s laws, politics and history and began writing their first textbook, “An Introduction to the Law of Afghanistan,” an online version for use at the American University in Afghanistan, a fledgling school in Kabul that was introducing a law program.
Today, the group has written three online law books, with a fourth being published this fall. The textbooks have been so successful that the U.S. State Department awarded Stanford a $1.3 million grant to continue the work.
“There’s really nothing like this program,” Jensen said. “These books are so in demand.”
As they wrote the books, the students consulted with Afghan government officials, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court and top-ranking members of the military.
Hard, thorough work
Twenty years ago, Jensen wrote an economic law textbook in Sri Lanka, so he built off that experience. He and his students worked to explain complex legal topics in simple English so Afghan students with limited English skills could easily understand. This year, they will use some of their grant money to translate the books into two of Afghanistan’s languages, Dari and Pashto.
“Writing a textbook is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Morgan Galland, a third-year Stanford law student and the education project’s 2010 student leader. “I had to learn a whole different area of law for a whole different country in my free time. … It felt like a full-time job.”
The hard work is already producing results. Last spring, the first 60 students earned legal certificates from the American University of Afghanistan, which is housed in a building formerly used by the Taliban to torture rival factions. The certificates will allow them to take the next step toward a law degree. Seventy-six more students are now enrolled in the program, including a handful of women.
Many of the students take night courses so they can work during the day to finance their educations. Each course costs at least $500 – more than the average yearly income of an Afghan family.
“There was a general hunger to learn the law,” said Hamid Khan, an American professor of Islamic law whom Stanford hired last year to teach from the new textbooks in Afghanistan. “In Afghanistan, no one has knowledge of the law. The students are … already being recruited to work for non government organizations. Some even have their sites set on parliament.”
A student’s view
One such student is 21-year-old Wasima Muhammadi, one of Khan’s star students. She hopes the Afghan National Assembly will elect her finance minister someday.
“Taking this law class was an eye-opener for students like me,” Muhammadi said in an e-mail. “The course provided me an opportunity to learn about some of the rules that prevail in this country.
“Having said that, it is also heartbreaking that those rules lack application in this country. Our Constitution has defined some very clear and obvious rules, but they are never applied, and those who are in charge of enforcement are corrupt and uneducated.”
Optimism for future
Khan agrees that a “bumpy road” lies ahead for his students who aspire to practice law or govern in Afghanistan. But he said that Afghan leaders and citizens hold the Stanford textbooks in high regard, and that gives him hope.
“In Afghanistan, everyone knows what Stanford is,” he said. “And military members all over the world are using the textbooks. The people at Stanford should be extremely proud of how well regarded their textbooks have become in such a short time.”
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