My experience in Afghanistan
I worked on a UNESCO project for four months in Afghanistan in 1977 to build an educational radio system. However, the President of Afghanistan at the time wanted a news television station instead, which was built by Japanese loan money, so the educational radio network never got built. Within days of the TV station opening, the Soviet Union invaded and they took over the TV network.
There are several lessons I learned from my experience in Afghanistan about developing distance education programs in developing countries:
- we got caught up in the realpolitik of a President trying to stay alive in an increasingly challenging political environment (he was assassinated in a communist coup several weeks after I left Afghanistan – I had nothing to do with the coup!) The President saw the TV station as a way to talk directly to the people, but it came too late. Although the country wanted international aid, the educational radio project was almost irrelevant given the difficult political context at the time (which of course still continues);
- educational radio made sense educationally – it was the cheapest way to reach a large sector of the population – but the people didn’t trust radio, because it was run by the government;
- you have to use the technology used by the people you are trying to reach. The Kuchis above are nomads who used to travel across Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. We interviewed the Kuchi family above, through a translator. They had ‘boom boxes’ and played commercial Afghan music on audio cassettes through their boom boxes. We were negotiating with Afghanistan’s most popular singer at the time to put short health education messages between the songs, because this way we could better reach the target audience. Again this collapsed when the project was cancelled following the revolution. Obviously this strategy would not have worked during the Taliban reign – but then what would?;
- corruption is endemic and a fact of life in many developing countries. The Japanese financed the TV studio through a loan, and the Minister of Communications the next day had a new Mercedes. No-one in Afghanistan at the time had a television set. The TV sets would have to be bought, mainly from Japanese suppliers. However, there is maybe justice after all, because the Soviets impounded the TV station and the Japanese loan was never repaid;
- you shouldn’t go into a country with a predetermined solution for distance education (or e-learning, for that matter). In the end, the client has to not only decide what’s best for the country, but indeed whether what you are offering is a solution at all at the time. Timing is critical. Too often donor agencies go in too early, when a country does not have the political stability or the infrastructure needed for a project to work, or too late, when all the critical decisions have already been made.
A lot has happened in Afghanistan over the 34 years since I was last there, most of it not for the best.
Afghans are an amazing set of peoples and constantly and continuously under-estimated, in terms of their determination to be independent against all the odds. If an Afghan is your friend, he will literally die to protect you if necessary. But if he is your enemy, beware. My Afghan friends did things to help me when I was in Afghanistan that I would never have expected, in some cases doing more than anyone in Canada would ever do. But I left with no illusions: if I crossed the wrong person at the wrong time, I would get my throat cut on the spot.
A major problem for Afghanistan today is that most of the educated middle class have left the country: doctors, teachers, nurses. Distance education can help, but it needs educated teachers, or it needs to find ways to train new teachers. Schools are an even more urgent priority. And education, especially for girls, is anathema to the Taliban. So, without security, it is impossible to rebuild the country without it reverting to a medieval, tribal society. (It should be remembered that the Taliban did provide a security of a kind).
UNESCO eventually did manage to establish an educational radio and TV station in Afghanistan. The ERTV project, which is funded by the Italian Government, started in 2003. UNESCO supported a range of reconstruction and training activities to help the Ministry of Education achieve its goal of providing education to Afghans in all parts of the country. Given the mountainous landscape and the difficulties many people face in getting education, distance education via radio and TV programmes is seen as a key vehicle to improve literacy and provide access to information. Therefore, distance education is a key part of the Ministry’s Five Year Strategy.
In July 2007, UNESCO provided US$271,000 in equipment to furnish a new TV studio for ERTV. The equipment was granted under a US$2.5 million project, funded by Italy, aimed at developing educational broadcasting in Afghanistan. The first broadcast was in 2008 and consisted of a third grade Dari language class, on the topic “Honesty and Lying”. The lesson was taught by a female teacher to a class of girls in a Kabul school. The video lasted about 15 minutes and showed the scenes from the actual classroom lesson.
Canada has contributed $60 million over four years (2007-2010) to EQUIP, the Education Quality Improvement Project, which is managed by the World Bank, placing a special emphasis on the promotion of education for girls. Canada’s investment to EQUIP is the largest investment made by any donor in the world at that time to that World Bank project.
Canada also committed $8 million in 2007 to improving Afghanistan’s education system through the Foundation’s Girls’ Education Support Program (GESP), managed by the Aga Khan Foundation. The contribution will directly benefit more than 100,000 girls and 4,600 teachers. This includes a distance education component.
And in April, 2010, CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency) put out to commercial tender a contract for $1 million to design a program to help the Afghan government set up a federal department for teacher education, designing a curriculum and accrediting teacher training schools and faculty members. The winning firm will also look into how feasible it would be to set up a distance-education program. Such a program would allow students to take lessons from instructors who are in different parts of the country or the world. [Does anyone know who got that contract?]
Will distance education work today in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is still, to this day, a medieval, tribal country, made up of very different ethnic groups, with different languages, with little trust between them. You have to work with each of these groups differently – it’s hard to find general solutions that satisfy everyone, and the risk of doing things at a distance in a country such as Afghanistan is that you miss the nuances and differences within the country. This is true for many developing countries (as well as some developed countries, even parts of Canada), and is an important lesson for any educational projects.
Second, the most important lesson I’ve learned working in developing countries is that for distance education to work, there must be minimal infrastructure already in place: schools (so students can access technology and local learner support), some teachers (because you need Afghans to develop curriculum and assess students, even or especially at a distance), some form of local government effectively linked to the centre (because you need channels of communication), electricity, water, and security. Distance education then is a second order phase of development that needs to build on existing infrastructure. I’m not in a position to assess whether that minimum infrastructure is now in place across Afghanistan – probably in many areas, but not all. What will NOT work is importing distance programs from abroad; the Afghans resist cultural dominance as much as military dominance. This means Afghans developing and delivering distance education programs to Afghans.
Depending on the outcome of the current war, in terms of security, distance education is one possible solution. However, my efforts would be on hiring and training Afghans in distance education, operating it on a regional/ethnic basis, and making sure that distance education is not seen or sold as an alternative to decent schools and local schoolteachers, but as a supplement to a regular education system.
I’m not going to go into the political aspects of the war in Afghanistan, over which I am deeply conflicted. However, as in every developing country, development must in the end come from the Afghans themselves: from their desire, from their control over their own resources, and from their own vision. I do wish them though every success, because the last 30 years have been a nightmare, and many good people, mainly Afghans but also foreigners, have suffered and died alike as a result.
Lastly, I’d really like to hear from any Afghans, exiled or otherwise, who can provide their own perspective on this