By Lauryn Oates
21 June 2013
Last year, I worked with the Afghan government's Central Statistics Organization and Unicef, writing up the results of an ambitious national survey, routinely conducted by the UN in developing countries every few years: the multiple indicator cluster surveys. These are intended to monitor progress on the millennium development goals and focus on the situation of women and children.
In Afghanistan, the survey data was collected in 2010-11. It managed to cover every single province of the country, including insecure provinces. It included more than 13,000 households, 22,000 women, and nearly 15,000 children under the age of five, gathering information for more than 80 indicators, including literacy and education, child protection, water and sanitation, health, nutrition and more.
As I pored over the findings and looked at the background characteristics of respondents, I noticed something remarkable: the single greatest predictor for nearly every single indicator was the mother's education level. It was such a glaringly evident pattern; you could set your watch by it.
The more educated a mother is, the more likely she is to give birth with a skilled attendant present, and therefore more likely to survive childbirth. She's more likely to register the births of her children, to marry later and give birth later, to have children who are attending school, who are vaccinated, who are well nourished, and who survive infancy and then childhood. Her children are less likely to be involved in child labour and to be abused, and they have more books in their homes. Their access to water and adequate sanitation facilities is better, and they live in wealthier households. It's a pattern found all over the world. Multilateral agencies, NGOs and governments are increasingly recognising that human development hinges upon the status of women.
But this has not been reflected in the way that donor governments fund international aid and development. In recent years, two-thirds of education aid globally came from just six donors: the European Commission, the World Bank, the US, the UK, Norway, and the Netherlands.
One of the reasons has to do with the lag time between donors' investment and the return on it, a point made by John Richards , a Canadian social policy scholar. Richards points out that funding the high quality delivery of education is demanding on expertise, planning and resources, and there may be a decade or longer between investments made and demonstrable results. But as Richards also shows, few countries have been able to escape poverty (defined as per capita GDP of $2500 or lower) unless they achieve an 80% literacy rate.
In Afghanistan, billions are being spent every year on development and humanitarian assistance. Education is just one of many priorities, but it shouldn't be. It should get special status because, while female literacy is one of the slowest areas of progress over the past decade, it has the most to offer.
Still, education remains a tough sell to donors. Governments are under pressure to show tangible and quick results for money spent. Reforming curriculums, revising textbooks and changing teacher certification systems just aren't as romantic as a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new brick schoolhouse.
Such opportunities for "Kodak moments" have sometimes distracted from the tough slog of reforming education, which demands dedicated long-term planning, significant technical assistance and a willingness to engage in some trial and error. It requires donors and implementers to keep knowledgeable staff on the ground for years at a time, and not in one-year rotations as so many aid agencies and embassies do. It demands airtight accountability measures and flexibility in delivery mechanisms in order to re-evaluate methods when things aren't working. Most importantly, the focus must always be on people-level outcomes.
I've been around Afghanistan long enough to see many of the new schools featured prominently in donor reporting to the taxpayers back home crumble a few years after they were built, or wind up empty because there was no planning beyond the building of the school: problems caused by failure to figure out where the teachers would come from, how the school would be kept safe from insurgents and how it would be supplied with desks, books and other materials. Further, a lack of contextual expertise often results in school building that is not environmentally sustainable, not suitable to the local climate or exceedingly overpriced.
Meanwhile, the school day in Afghanistan remains barely three hours long, the quality of content in textbooks is notoriously bad, few schools have even rudimentary science lab supplies, and the ministry of education struggles with basic tasks such as getting accurate statistics on its schools and teachers. There are districts without a single qualified female teacher. Only 20% of women aged 15-24 are literate more than a decade after the Taliban were ousted from power, and that number is three times lower in rural areas. The Afghanistan cluster surveys found that only 30% of adult women with some primary education are literate, which means that the education system is failing too many girls.
A quality basic education system that serves girls and boys equitably represents Afghanistan's best chance of steering its way out of the storm that has raged there for more than three decades. Schools that have the tools they need to nurture critical thinking, exposure to big ideas and the creativity to generate new big ideas will yield young minds capable of transforming the future of their country.
But it will take a lot of money, a lot of time, and a serious commitment that can outlast the current uncertainty over the prospects for peace. So we need to start talking about results in terms of human capital and the social rate of return, rather than in metrics such as the number of buildings built. We need to learn how to communicate the impacts of investing in education that may be less visible, such as the importance of good textbooks or good governance in education ministries. And we need to get unashamedly to the heart of the matter: the education of women and girls.
Lauryn Oates is project director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.