Insights and Analysis

In Afghanistan: A Missing Piece in the Development Puzzle

May 23, 2007

By Jon L. Summers

The international community has engaged with Afghanistan in profound ways since December 2001.  Billions of dollars have been pledged and provided to rebuild the country, put the state back together, and help Afghanistan take its rightful place in the world.  This has been a collaborative effort involving bilateral donors, multilateral donors, nongovernmental organizations, companies, investors, and governmental institutions.  Roads have been built; schools and clinics have been constructed; power-generation projects are underway across the country; agricultural projects are in process; water and irrigation projects have been launched; and there are more children in school than at any time in the country’s history.

What is missing in the development puzzle?  A broad-based commitment to invest in a comprehensive, long-term plan for reform and strengthening of Afghan institutions of higher education. 

There are nineteen institutions of higher education in Afghanistan, with a total of 41,257 students during the 2006 academic year. Approximately 22% of them are women.  In the national examination to enter government-supported universities, 58,000 students took the exam in early 2007, and 23,000 were admitted to institutions of higher education.  The number admitted is tied to test scores and the number of available places in the universities.  If there were more places available, many more students would have been admitted.

Kabul University had some well-educated faculty before the Communist coup d’etat took place in 1978 and the country slipped into war.  The University lost many of its most experienced faculty to attrition, conflict, and emigration.

Afghan universities are resource poor.  They lack materials”books, journals, teaching aids, functioning laboratories, adequate facilities, and equipment.  In the short-term, there must be more written materials available in Dari and Pashtu. This will have to involve production of new materials, and translation of key educational materials into these two languages.  This will be a difficult and huge task.  Without such materials, however, it is incredibly difficult to have high-quality, university-level education.  Providing students with a few pages of “notes” that have been put together by teachers and professors, and giving students a list of books they may or may not be able to find, are not adequate.  At some point language training for students and faculty may reach a point where materials in English and other languages can be utilized effectively on a large scale. But that will take a long time. There is a desperate need to launch more staff development programs for both senior and junior staff.  This should involve both degree and non-degree programs.  Hundreds of opportunities must be created and funded for masters and doctoral programs for university faculty.  The selection processes should be merit-based, and the requisite language training must be provided to ensure that the faculty chosen have the tools to succeed.  These programs should take place both inside and outside Afghanistan.  The process has started, but the programs need to be scaled up, well designed, properly administered, and long-term.

Why is all of this important? Every area of development in Afghanistan is crying out for additional bright, well-trained Afghan professionals.  The twenty-five Afghan ministries are greatly in need of young Afghans with planning, management, writing, and evaluation skills.  The school system is expanding to meet the demand for education, but a large percentage of the teachers have completed only elementary or secondary education.  A key to success for Afghanistan is economic development, and this requires more people with expertise in business, management, law, and economics.  The legal system needs quality, trained people in several areas.  There are many opportunities for people with skills in information technology, and vocational and technical skills.

The challenges to build the Afghan education system seem daunting, but it is useful to think about other countries in Asia that have emerged from colonial struggles, conflict, and/or devastating war.  The list is long, but just think about Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and India.  Look back to where Korea was at the end of the Korean War and the condition of Malaysia, Singapore, and India at the time of their independence not long after the Second World War.  At the heart of their success is an educated population”both men and women.  The leaders of these countries and their people understood that education was critical, and they were obsessed with it.  These countries produced an educated workforce”from the most basic to the most sophisticated levels.

Afghans are hungry for education, and they will make sacrifices to get it. Young professionals in offices across Kabul hold down full-time jobs, and still take courses at universities, frequently arriving home late at night and working through weekends.  There are special programs at Kabul University and two private universities for working professionals that enable them to enhance their skills.

The leaders of Afghanistan and the broader international community understand the needs. There is currently a mix of multi-million dollar and smaller commitments by international donors, working in conjunction with the Ministry of Higher Education, Afghan universities, and institutions of higher education.  But much more must be done.

Now it is time for all individual stakeholders, both Afghan and international, to come together and launch what amounts to a “Marshall Plan” for higher education. Such a plan should be comprehensive, long-term, sustainable, and relevant to the country’s culture and traditions. The results from such investments over time will have a profound impact on the people, development, and stability in Afghanistan.

Jon Summers has been The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Afghanistan since February 2002.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions
Related topics: Education, International Development


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