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Digging Deep for Education

Afghans donate millions to try to revive the country's ailing schools
By Mohammad Shafiq

The cash-strapped education ministry, struggling to get the country's schools back on their feet after years of neglect, has appealed to ordinary Afghans to bail it out.


In a sign of the high value people here place on education, Afghans from all walks of life have rallied to the cause, raising over five million US dollars - about six per cent of the government's total projected revenues for this year - over the last two weeks.


Deputy Minister of Education Moyeen Marastyal said his department was forced to ask the public for help because money provided by UN agencies and NGOs was not enough to address the debilitating problems faced by the country's schools. The initiative has been so successful that other ministries are looking into whether they could do the same.


Abdul Qayoom, president of the National Afghan Bank, said its offices in New York, Hamburg, Islamabad, Quetta and Peshawar have been accepting donations, mainly from Afghan expatriates.


There have been a number of high profile donations. Rajab Ali, the ambassador in Japan, gave 25,000 US dollars.


But many ordinary Afghans - not well off by any standards; earning on average no more than 200 dollars a year - have also contributed to the appeal. Fareba Ihsanzada, a worker at the ministry of information and culture, gave 12 dollars, her weekly salary.


"After the collapse of the former Soviet Union the most important trigger of war in our country has been illiteracy and ignorance. As an Afghan woman, I want my children to study and in this way to understand their responsibilities," she said.


"I know this amount cannot fulfill any need by itself, but if every compatriot helps this much, it will become a big amount."


Marastyal admits the appeal funds are little more than a drop in the ocean of Afghanistan's educational needs. The ministry has to repair or completely rebuild some 3,000 of the 4,300 schools in the country - accommodating around two and a half million primary and secondary students - and somehow provide for the extra one million children who've been registered for school since the fall of the Taleban.


A needs assessment carried out by the United Nations Development Programme in December last year estimated that 650 million dollars assistance would be needed over the next five years to help get the education system back on its feet.


The dire state of the education sector becomes clear as soon as you get outside the capital. At Narkh High School, 40 km west of Kabul, makeshift classrooms have been built out of woven straw. But they cannot house all the pupils and some sit outside on rocks in summer temperatures of 37 degrees centigrade, without shade or any readily available drinking water available.


Mohammad Ayan Mamozi, a teacher at the school, says there are 34 teachers for 2,000 pupils, a ratio of about 60 to 1. A Swedish NGO pays 18 dollars a month to 10 of the teachers but the others are currently working for free, in the hope that eventually the government will find the money to pay them. "We hope our school can get some of the assistance given by the public in this appeal," said Mamozi.


Down the road at the girls' school in the village of Karimlad, Amena, one of the teachers, is not so hopeful. "We are very much in favour of the education ministry's campaign, but we don't think we will get any assistance. There are so many needs this appeal will not even solve the problems of Kabul's schools," she said.


"We face extra problems because this is the first time in 20 years that girls from the region are going to school."


Mohammad Shafiq Haqbal is a freelance journalist


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