“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
-- Nelson Mandela --
Mr. Mandela was spot on, but how can you unleash that powerful weapon when you can’t even deliver it into the hearts, minds—or hands—of the future bearers of that change, the children, especially children in war-torn places mired in conflict and tradition such as Afghanistan, with its worst-case-scenario 62% illiteracy rate.
Millions of children across the world, a majority of them girls, can’t access basic education because of instability, tradition, or religious values. Afghanistan presents the direst case of this, but this lack of access is also a crisis in Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria. The already inherently difficult situation rings more dire when NGOs and government attempts to help educate these children backfire and these entities, seeking to protect themselves or gain footholds against their enemies, end up eradicating schools altogether.
As of last year, the Afghan government’s "control or influence" has decreased from 70.5 percent to 65.6 percent. One effect is that girls are not allowed to attend school in areas not controlled by the government, let alone find education, and if they do, they face extreme risk—imagine having acid thrown into your face, or being kidnapped or beaten as a punishment for exercising your basic right to learn. Similar horrors occur in other wracked parts of the world, leaving girls, as well as boys, bereft of education.
Just last week, 12 children returning home from school were killed when their vehicle was hit by a pressure-plate improvised explosive device (PPIED) placed on a main public road in Paktika province.
Another barrier to education in Afghanistan has been the lack of qualified teachers. Afghan rates of unqualified teachers are staggering, with an estimated nationwide rate of 80-89%, and an outer province rate—Kandahar, Uruzgan, Ghor, Daikundi, and Badghis—of 99%. Kabul has the least number of unqualified teachers at a hardly encouraging 40%. Not a sunny education picture.
Unfortunately, it gets darker.
U.S. government and other aid agencies have invested approximately $1 billion USD since 2001 in constructing schools, training teachers, and providing educational materials. Puzzlingly, according to Afghan’s Ministry of Education, last year saw 1,000 schools closure, a rising statistic due to the vise-and-hammer of continual instability, which has thwarted much of the progress of an educational push that had once materialized as more and more brick-and-mortar schools. When these schools are closed, the entire benevolent effort, along with U.S. taxpayers’ money, is wasted, as is the attempt to advance children’s education.
Human Rights Watch offered some insight with its report, “Military Use of Schools in Afghanistan’s Baghlan Province,” which interviewed twenty school principals, teachers, and administrators, finally proclaiming that “Afghan children’s education is at risk not just from the Taliban, but also from government forces that occupy their schools.” Sandwiching children and their schools between conspiring Taliban forces and occupying “friendly” Afghan forces using them as military bases not only places school children at risk, but also places their entire educational opportunity at risk.
One solution to this quandary might be: if you cannot send the children to their education, send the education to the children. If education is key to a nation’s prosperity, and if we, like Mandela, consider education a “world changing weapon,” governments-in-crisis should take a reality check and focus on alternative education delivery systems to provide its youth seamless access to education—out of the reach of conflict, beyond the brick-and-mortar, extra-infrastructural—and resolve to going mobile.
The idea is to use the same information being provided by the world’s relief entities, but to circumvent the conventional teacher-classroom system by deploying a technology platform to “mobilize” education by easing access to it.
One easing, alternative-route solution would be to provide low-cost, Kindle-like tablets pre-loaded with curricula and mass-delivered by NGOs or cooperating entities directly to children and their families. These devices could be “war proof,” able to operate off the grid, with a long battery life, a universal touch screen featuring a simple graphic interface, and enabled to go anywhere. The device would be interactive, always at hand, and ensure that girls and boys could access education without the risk of going to a traditionally conceived, constantly threatened structure. One can even imagine creating a new learning methodology via this interface, a Montessori for conflict zones.
This is achievable. Ample educational dollars are available, and mobile communication will certainly continue its global advance. In Afghanistan alone, there are over 18 million GSM mobile phone subscribers. In conflict or post-conflict areas, electrical and Wi-Fi access can be sporadic, but the positive implication of this GSM-subscriber volume is that Afghanistan’s people are able to charge their devices. What is vital is that the curriculum be securely implemented into the software and run on batteries.
Bringing mobilized learning into conflict zones to the children and educational infrastructures wouldn’t be simple, but the method would not be entirely new.
NGOs, government, or Afghan-interested companies, armed with these curriculum tablets, could work with Afghanistan’s ministries to engage local community members—imams, mullahs, elders, business leaders, and organizers—to publicize and distribute them as they would other necessities.
Getting educated in Afghanistan is fraught, but it doesn’t have to be. Today’s advances in mobile technology can provide the means to feed the hunger of young minds by delivering an entire educational apparatus anywhere, and along with it, the freedom to learn. In the best case, this “Afghan Model” of education-amid-crisis could then be applied to other regions.
Shakib Noori is a graduate student at Columbia University, School of International Public Affairs (SIPA) and Co-Founder of Freedom Learners (a technology education organization). He is a former economic counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington D.C. He has served as a senior policy adviser at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry of Afghanistan. He can be reached at [email protected].