Insights and Analysis

To Advance Afghanistan’s Regional Role, Diplomats Need Language of International Relations

February 8, 2017

By Claire Anderson

In December, delegates from nearly 40 countries attended the sixth annual Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference in Amritsar, India, to discuss peace, cooperation, and economic development in Afghanistan. Five such events have taken place since the first conference was held in Istanbul in 2011, and serve as a platform for regional cooperation by placing Afghanistan at its center.

Addressing the key challenges facing Afghanistan, particularly the need for economic growth, job creation, and improving security, will require more effective and nuanced engagement beyond Afghanistan’s borders. To do this successfully, a diplomatic service that can effectively engage in regional negotiations and discussions is essential.

However, Afghanistan’s diplomatic service suffered major setbacks under Soviet rule, and after decades of brain drain the government was left with few well-trained and experienced staff to run its ministries and to represent the country at regional conferences and forums such as the Heart of Asia conference. While enormous improvements have been made in recent years, both in terms of staff capacity and access to training and resources, Afghanistan’s diplomats still face obstacles, and chief among them is fluency in English, now widely considered the language of international relations.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, English was increasingly seen as the key to reopening the country’s doors to engage once again with the global community—even though the nearest English-speaking nation is thousands of miles away. Hundreds of private English-language schools popped up seemingly overnight in Afghanistan. Today, English penetrates nearly all parts of Afghan society, while the once critical language—Russian—has fallen largely into disuse. English words have crept into daily speech for most Afghans in the cities, and even official government websites are now available in Dari, Pashto, and English. The eagerness Afghans have to learn English so they can participate more fully in international communication, relationships, education, and commerce on behalf of their country, and themselves, has not diminished.

In 2012, former President Hamid Karzai stated that courses at engineering and medicine faculties at Afghan universities should be taught in English to facilitate economic development and give Afghanistan a competitive edge. Current President Ashraf Ghani reaffirmed this when he recently mandated that all Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) staff must be proficient in English in order to be posted abroad.

To support these efforts, The Asia Foundation began an English-Language Training Program (ELTP) under the European Union-funded Promoting Regional Cooperation Capacity in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (PRCC-MoFA) project. The project supported strengthening the institutional capacity of the Regional Cooperation Directorate (RCD) within MoFA and enabled it to become a more effective and efficient institution in leading MoFA’s efforts in promoting regional cooperation. Under the ELTP, 120 diplomats (men and women) from across MoFA, including RCD staff members, have been trained to improve their English language and communication skills. The program trained MoFA diplomats in five different class levels: basic, pre-intermediate, intermediate, advanced, and TOEFL preparation. The classes, which took place daily for two hours each, were held entirely in English.

Afghan Diplomat

Mohammad Naser Joya, an accountant for the MoFA, at an English-language class at the Institute of Diplomacy.

I attended one of the intermediate classes held at the Institute of Diplomacy at the MoFA. Seventeen students, all roughly middle-aged and all employees of the MoFA, listened attentively as their teacher taught a lesson on the conditional clause in English.

The successes of the ELTP were immediately apparent; students confidently and freely answered teachers in English in classes, assessments of the courses were positive all around, and the director general of the Institute of Diplomacy, Moheb Spinghar, praised the rapid increase in English language skills among the participants.

Mohammad Naser Joya, an accountant for the MoFA, has participated in the ELTP since it began. Initially he was placed in the beginner class and was unable to form sentences. However, he worked his way up to the intermediate class and became one of the most talkative and willing to participate. As Joya said, “English is a necessity. I wanted to communicate better, and now I can. The teachers are excellent and I’m improving my skills to better represent MoFA at conferences and seminars internationally.” Joya wishes the classes, which ran from November 2015 through September 2016, could have been extended for another year. As he puts it, “I want to be a good translator, and with these English classes, I know I could be.”

Historically, Afghanistan’s diplomatic services have been a source of pride. Now more than ever it is critical for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to have a strong, multi-skilled team to represent Afghanistan to advance regional cooperation, economic development, and a more secure future for the country.

Claire Anderson is the communication and program development specialist for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.


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