Context & Culture

Education in times of waseta: the example of Badakhshan

It is common wisdom that teachers are among the most important sections of Afghan society, as far as reconstructing the country goes. Also, almost everybody agrees that they are among the most underpaid and unempowered classes in Afghanistan. On the occasion of World Teachers’ Day, celebrated today in Afghanistan, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini, who has just visited Badakhshan, takes a look at the present state of education in this province which, against all odds, has managed to keep up good standards and where students at least have continued studying throughout decades of turmoil.

‘The real battlefield for Afghanistan? It is inside schools. If somebody toils and sweats over books and exams for twenty years, you can bet your bottom dollar, he won’t be blowing himself up!’ This is the clear vision of a young graduate from Darwaz, the province’s northern-most district, frustrated in his search for a job but still optimistic about the overall value of education. The attitude of Badakhshi residents towards education reflects, on a small scale, the country’s norm: Afghans may be socially and religiously conservative, poor, often living in isolated mountain communities, but they send their kids to school with a vengeance and a hope for a better future. Moving around Faizabad, the massive presence of students is immediately apparent.

If in Kabul one has to carefully consider rush hours to decide when to move around the city by car, in Faizabad, on a pedestrian scale, it is class hours that rule movements, at least on the narrow path that runs along the water canal parallel to the river Kokcha and that connects the old city with Shahr-e Naw. This way is used by many people – women in particular – who want to avoid crossing through the endless bazaar or going up and down hills, but at certain times of day, passage is made even more complicated by the scores of students flocking compactly in one direction or the other. Actually, they are ubiquitously present all day on the cliffs and lawns by the adjacent riverside, where they study, rest, chat or pray, contending for the area with the fishermen and a few drug addicts who search for the shelter of a cave to smoke opium in privacy.

And, if it is of course mainly boys who indulge in such open-air activities, girls constitute a fair percentage of the total number of school-kids, and this for longer than in most Afghan provinces. Although in Badakhshan, too, their percentage dwindles with age, there, up to the sixth or seventh grade, they manage to be the majority.(1) Indeed, early in the post-2001 years Badakhshan used to have the second highest female literacy rate in the country, ranking only after Kabul, and in 2008, according to the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (NRVA – a summary is available here), it has since been overtaken only by Herat and Balkh, ranking now fourth countrywide. This is remarkable in a province that is largely rural, a logistical nightmare and – with noteworthy exceptions – inhabited by communities with a rather conservative view on social and religious issues.

Badakhshan’s commitment to education was sorely tested during the moqawamat(resistance against the Taleban) of the second half of the ‘1990s, when the province remained the last significant bastion of the Northern Alliance(2), alongside Panjshir. The government of Rabbani was pressed hard by the Taleban, who advanced into Takhar province to eventually capture Taloqan and threaten Badakhshan itself. As almost all locals proudly recall, however, that ‘the doors of our schools did not close for a single day.’ This may be slightly exaggerated, but it is still a remarkable feat that teachers kept teaching for years without getting paid a single Afghani by the government.

Most of the teachers came from Shughnan, am Ismaili-inhabited district on the border with Tajikistan where the inhabitants, due to the lack of agricultural land and a strong inclination for learning, motivated by the proximity to the Tajik city of Khorog and by the early opening of a higher education facility, have since long specialised in working as teachers all across Badakhshan – and actually northern Afghanistan – in order to make a living.(3) The bitter irony of history had it that it was the Shughnis, who, as the staunchest supporters of either the PDPA government or of a dissident leftist group, SAZA (Sazman-e Enqelabi-ye Zahmatkashan-e Afghanistan – Revolutionary Organizations of the Toilers of Afghanistan), were the major losers of the jihad period, became the educational pillar of the Rabbani government.

So, if they did not join the war effort against the Taleban (anyway, even Badakhshi commanders had a late start at that, being too busy butchering each other for the control of land and drug trade routes – late Ahmad Shah Massud managed to enlist them massively on the Takhar frontline only around the year 2000), they did volunteer – men and women – for seven years behind the lines, teaching all over Badakhshan for free at a time when prices of even staple food items were sky-rocketing because of drought, crops failure, and war in Takhar – the neighbouring province usually provides part of Badakhshan’s requirements.

The Rabbani government was too busy surviving and, apart from occasional arrangements with the families of their pupils, the teachers only received some support by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan – which however could provide help only to a small fraction of the provinces’ schools -, and, from the late ‘1990s, by the Agha Khan network, which through Focus (a humanitarian assistance agency affiliated to the Agha Khan Development Network) started helping the teachers of the border regions with distribution of food and basic necessity items.

The number of teachers has however greatly increased throughout the province in recent years. In the 1990s, the impossibility of travelling to Kabul to complete one’s education spurred the development of the Dar al-Mo’allemin (Teacher Training Centre – TTC) in Shughnan. Residents of this district, who according to some private estimates amount still to some sixty percent of all teachers in the province, find now increasing competition by people from other districts. While back in the ‘1990s, there was another TTC only in Faizabad, nowadays eight state-run district TTCs have been opened in Darwaz, Baharak, Keshm, Argu, Jorm, Yaftal, Shohada and Khash. Percentages of female trainees are high: they constitute at least 48 percent of all would-be teachers. This is true even for some conservative Sunni districts like Shohada – with its sizeable Salafi population – were there are 160 female teacher trainees against 100 male. However, only a small percentage of the women who attend the TTC will be able to work as teachers, as due to social conservatism they are prevented from taking up positions outside their home villages. So only those from Faizabad have serious chances of getting a job. In many districts it is still only Shughni female teachers who are willing and able to go and teach.

Indeed, social conservatism is putting some restraint on higher education for girls, although in a form lighter than many Afghan provinces. While visiting the TTC in Faizabad, located in a rather remote area outside the city close to Dasht-e Shohada (4), I was at first stunned by the appearance of a building with a striking, fluttering blue façade, before realising on coming closer that it was the chadoris (burqa) of the female trainees all hung outside the class’ windows. Morning time, I learnt, had been selected for girls, while boys would come to class in the afternoon. This has been enforced this year – before, co-education was in place – after pressure from local communities.

The major concern at TTCs however is improving the quality of the teaching. Considering its remoteness and poverty, it has been a miracle that people in Badakhshan have managed to get an education at all. Now, if they want to avoid ‘falling in the charts’ compared to more favourably located provinces in post-2001 Afghanistan, it has become vital to train and send good teachers to the knowledge-hungry rural population. Problems are plenty, a foreign advisor (GIZ supports the TTCs in Badakhshan, except that in Shughnan which is helped by the Agha Khan Foundation) identified the lack of a clear lesson planning strategy, and a structural weakness in scientific subjects due to old curricula and the lack of laboratories as the major challenges. Students and graduates, meanwhile, complained about the lack of proficient English teachers and facilities for the study of computer science or internet.(5) Reportedly, even the TTC in Shughnan is seeing its former excellence challenged compared to other educational institution countrywide.

Also, the system of limited admission to university makes it difficult for many people to pursue the career they want, and forces them to study subjects they often resent or do not believe will help them find a job, just in order to achieve a superior education. The relative accessibility of TTCs as compared to other types of higher education then leads to the presence of unmotivated students, who just want to achieve a superior grade of education (the fourteenth class), but who are not interested in actual teaching. The hardships that being a teacher in Afghanistan still involve, are not a strong incentive either. Even after 2001, in fact, money for teachers has been all but forthcoming. Salaries were at first abysmally low (some 3500 Afs or 70$ until 2008) and were always hugely delayed. They were successively raised to the still far-from-impressive sum of 5000 Afs (100$) and now reach in some cases 8000 Afs (160 $), but this does not represent a great economic incentive.

Still, there is a large flow of money regarding the teachers’ salaries. The Ministry of Education in Badakhshan is the major beneficiary of operating allotments from Kabul among all line ministries; the nearly 888,000,000 Afs that it received for year 1389 (2010-2011), for example, constituted almost half of the total operating funds sent to the province by the central government (Provincial Financial Overview of Badakhshan province, available online here). As 95 per cent of its budget expenditure consists of salaries, the possibilities and margins for the unfortunately frequent ‘salary scam’ are plenty. For example, a Badakhshi MP denounced the recent practice of appointing one or two night guards to all of Badakhshan’s schools, justified by the general insecurity. While the guardians rarely exist except on paper, their salaries are duly budgeted and, although not reaching up to 5000 Afs (100$), when collected for the hundreds of schools in the province, they constitute a lot of money.

Funding is problematic also in terms of sustainability. Not only is the salary flow still uncertain: among both locals and foreigners there are worries that when international funding drops considerably, Kabul will not divert enough of the educational budget to this remote province to overcome high logistic and maintenance costs. (read about similar problems reported from Helmand)

To top this problems, education does not seem to be a sufficient solution for the big unemployment problem that Badakhshan shares with many other rural and mountainous Afghan provinces. Almost every freshly graduated person I met had a story about how this or that waseta (connection), or better the lack of it in front of better endowed rivals, had frustrated his attempts at finding a job which should have been his, according to his recently gained qualification. Be it the mayor of Faizabad or some lesser political patron, Badakhshan is still fully commanders’ land, and there is usually no law or appeal possible against injustice, except a stronger waseta.

Indeed, if education in Badakhshan risks lagging behind other, more central provinces in modern subjects such as English or computer science, and at the same time the local graduate job market is closed, that is, dependant on connections only and not merit, the once rosy picture of a province where, despite huge odds, education was making steady progress, may change. There is enough to be worried that enthusiasm in schooling could cool down even among Badakhshis as they discover that education alone will not help them turn their lives for the better. For most Badakhshi households, their love-story with education is not a platonic infatuation, but something tied to the hope for improved economic conditions. It would be sad, and dangerous, to tarnish the value of education in the mind of the population with the failure to fulfil reasonable hopes of employment and social advancement.

(1) Overall, according to different sources, there are more than 600 schools active in the province for over 300,000 students. Compared to a population estimated at around 900,000 inhabitants, this makes a ratio of school enrolment above the Afghan average.

(2) Officially, but less known as ‘United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan’ or, in short, ‘United Front’.

(3) Lycee Rahmat was the first high school that was opened in Shughnan (as early as 1940!), and it was also one of the few to be inaugurated outside provincial centres – moreover of a remote province – during that epoch.

(4) Roughly on the same end of town, on a part of the premises formerly occupied by the German PRT – which will be completely handed over in a few weeks – and which already hosts the Police Academy, a new university funded by the Agha Khan Foundation will soon be started.

(5) The perceived low quality of the provincial educational institutions prompted many families to send a son in Pakistan for study purposes, and this more often in the field of religious education, something which has recently been the object of concerns for Badakhshi MPs who raised this problem in the Wolesi Jirga.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture, Economy & Development, Tajikstan