Weekly Insights and Analysis

From Afghanistan: Delivering Books to 34 Provinces

January 27, 2010

By Alma Freeman, Mohammad Bashir

At the foot of the Khyber Pass, Peshawar is on the front lines of Pakistan’s war against militants. In one recent month, 221 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded in bombings. Many more lives have been lost on the trek from Peshawar through the Pass to reach Afghanistan’s Jalalabad.

It is this route that containers of 15,000 books – sent from a warehouse in San Leandro, California – must take to reach Kabul, and finally to outlying areas throughout Afghanistan. The route is fraught with great travel obstacles – bureaucratic, logistical, and physical challenges abound – and perseverance is a necessity, as reaching Kabul can take from three to four months.

The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program re-started its book donation program in Afghanistan in 2002. Just two years later, it was nearly forced to shut down. Strict import restrictions and a grueling bureaucratic process to clear each shipment with authorities had nearly halted the deliveries. However, after many discussions with the Ministry of Information and Culture on the value of books for education, the officials worked to help improve the process. Certifying the books as “not against Islam and Afghan culture,”at the very beginning of the process, allowed the books to get to their final destinations in a more timely manner. The process, however, in a war-torn place like Afghanistan, is still far from efficient.

After a list of the book titles is circulated to ministry offices and customs authorities, a sampling of around 25 books is sent to the 12-member Department of Monitoring and Evaluation on the Import of Publications. The members, made up of ministry representatives, including the Ministry of Haj and Mosque/Religious Affairs and teachers, review the content. (Religious content is not allowed into Afghanistan; however, books on topics such as philosophy, evolution, and biology are in great demand.) Once cleared, the books are initially stored in Kabul and sorted for distribution to the many institutions that request them: universities, schools, ministries, public libraries, cultural organizations, and informal NGO-run schools. Books are also provided to recently-established, publicly-accessible reading rooms at Paktia University, Kandahar University, Afghan Women’s Lawyers Council, and the Legislative Department of the Ministry of Justice.

Getting books to Afghanistan’s 34 provinces is both an odyssey and an achievement. First, containers of books are broken down in Kabul where they are sorted, boxed, labeled, and depending on the distance and the mode of transportation, broken down into smaller boxes to fit in cramped luggage areas of long-distance passenger buses. Bus trips to places like Afghanistan’s northwestern province of Badghis are rarely direct, requiring a secondary, or even third, bus to switch out the boxes for another journey on to smaller towns and villages. This kind of logistical maneuver requires strong partnerships with the institutional authorities and school leaders, and it requires trust and an informal partnership with the bus drivers themselves, that they will see the books through to their safe and completed delivery.

Today, many Afghan families displaced by years of war who fled to Pakistan and Iran are – after nearly three decades – making the slow return back to Afghanistan. And, many of the children were taught English in schools. Although less than 30 percent of Afghanistan’s adult population is literate – a major hurdle to sustainable development there – the demand for English-language books remains high. Since 2002, Books for Asia has distributed over 300,000 English-language books, journals, and training CDs to institutions in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan.

With the slow return of Afghans displaced from war, the demand for English-language books is on the rise.

With the slow return of Afghans displaced from war, the demand for English-language books is on the rise.

Despite the increase in demand for books, some say the life-threatening reality of attending school in Afghanistan is worsening, especially for girls. Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) reported that between January 2006 and December 2008, 1,153 education-related attacks or threats took place in Afghanistan. In 2009, that number nearly tripled to 670. Forty percent of the attacks targeted schools for girls.

Still, some communities have reasons to be optimistic, as recent years have seen a rise in the number of schools, particularly NGO-funded, being constructed. In 2002, The Asia Foundation, in partnership with the National Geographic Society and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, helped rebuild 14 classrooms and established five science labs at Rabia-e Balkhi Girls’ High School in Kabul. The school was destroyed during the civil war and left in rubble until late 2001 after the Taliban fell and girls were allowed to return to school. Since then, a library and resource center have been built, and the teachers and school leaders are being trained to develop budget management skills so that they are able to manage their school’s finances to ensure the future education of the 3,500 girls at Rabia-e Balkhi.

Girls walk home from the Rabia-e Balkhi High School in Kabul.

Girls walk home from the Rabia-e Balkhi High School in Kabul.

But access and security, as well as a shortage of qualified teachers, remains a challenge. University-level qualified teachers, many of whom fled overseas during the war, are few.

Addressing insufficient training and low enrollment in higher education (only around 60,000 students are currently enrolled in Afghanistan’s government-run universities) are high priorities for The Asia Foundation there. Four years ago, the Foundation launched preparatory training courses in partnership with the Ministry of Education to train teachers to conduct courses that prepare grade 12 students for the national entrance exam required for acceptance into university. Through the course, conducted in Dari and Pashto, over 6,000 teachers are trained each year, reaching nearly 80,000 students.

Read more about The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia Program in Afghanistan.

Mohammad Bashir is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Program Officer for the Foundation’s Books for Asia program in Afghanistan and Alma Freeman works in the Foundation’s Communications office. They can be reached at and, respectively.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Books for Asia


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