Revitalizing education, the key to Afghanistan's futureAccording to education authorities in Afghanistan, some one and a half million school-age children cannot attend classes because there are not enough schools or teachers for them. This situation poses a direct threat to the country's fragile peace process and reconstruction, warned members of the Afghan High Commission on Education at the close of their week-long inaugural meeting at UNESCO's Paris Headquarters on Saturday (Dec. 21).
The High Commission, set up on the initiative of the President of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, Hamid Kharzai, and supported by UNESCO, is made up of 23 members, including education authorities from Afghanistan, and leading Afghan education experts who live abroad. They're responsible for preparing a blueprint for the long-term reconstruction of the country's education system, which is considered critical for Afghanistan's future development and prosperity.
Congratulating President Kharzai for establishing the Commission, UNESCO Director-General, Koïchiro Matsuura, stressed that "what is now needed is a basic vision of where Afghan education goes from here. In particular, what kind of education is needed for what kind of Afghanistan? The answer to this question [... ] rests in the hands of the Afghans themselves."
Over the next six months, the Commission will identify the country's immediate needs and problems in this domain; formulate proposals for education objectives, policy and development strategies for the revival of education in Afghanistan and how these should be enshrined in the new Constitution; suggest ways and means of achieving these goals; and offer guidance on immediate and long-term funding. The Commission will present its work to the Afghan authorities in Kabul next May.
Their task is an urgent one, said Mohammad Younus Qanooni, the Minister of Education of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, at the start of the meeting. "Demand for education is exploding - at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. We cannot risk disappointing or leaving these children of the war generation out of the system. They're already vulnerable and traumatised. Yet from their ranks will come tomorrow's leaders," the Minister said.
Despite a massive effort to kick-start education, and remarkable progress in a very short period, the school system is in tatters, Mr Qanooni told the Commission, adding that more than 70 percent of the country's educational infrastructure has been destroyed. Of the 5,063 existing school buildings, some 3,525 need major repairs. Many schools have no drinking water, electricity or sanitation. Classes are held on footpaths, in tents and under trees, but with the onset of winter even these spaces become unusable. Over the past year, three million children have been attending schools. The Minister estimates that another one million will seek enrollment when the 2003 school year starts next March.
At the tertiary level, 24,000 students were enrolled this year, but this figure could rise to 40,000 following university entrance examinations to be conducted within the next few weeks. But, said Mohammad Sharif Fayez, the Minister for Higher Education, "there is no capacity to absorb them." He warned that this could lead to an explosive situation. "These young people have grown up seeing guns and bombs used as solutions. We must show them that there is another way and provide them with the opportunities to build another future. In this regard, revitalizing higher education is key to what will happen in and to Afghanistan," he said.
While stressing that infrastructure was an "absolute priority", Mr Fayez also pointed to the vital need to build up the skills and expertise needed at all levels of education, from managers to trainers of teachers, which is the focus of much of UNESCO's effort in Afghanistan.
Professional debate and exchange between Afghan intellectuals and experts living abroad and the national authorities was the best way of identifying and seeking solutions to the issues facing the Afghan nation, President Karzai said in a message to the Commission.
For its part, UNESCO will finance the Commission's secretariat in Kabul until the completion of its work next May. Mr Matsuura called on the international community to provide the financial, technical and material support needed to rebuild and expand education in Afghanistan. "An educated nation will always have a future" he said.