I stared at a shell of a building. An Afghan flag, hung from a wooden pool, flapped in the breeze. The wind kicked up dust that settled in the bit of my hair left uncovered by my headscarf.
We’d spent the last hour travelling out to an isolated village in an already isolated district of Bamyan province – to visit a school. Hamid walked us past the unfinished building, to the school’s administration office. A grumpy looking teenager sat on a chair out under the hot sun, and scribbled down our names as we went inside.
“Salaam. Khoob hastid? Chetor hastid?” went the round of welcomes as Hamid shook hands with the six or seven men on the school’s staff. Remembering Kamity village, I kept my hands stuffed firmly in my pockets as I greeted the men. Hamid pulled out a letter of introduction from the school we’d visited just before – explaining that we were here to interview the staff.
The principal of the school looked over the letter and then directed us to his office. There were no chairs anywhere, nor were there the thin pillows that usually lined the sides of the walls. A yellow and green patterned sheet was draped across the bottoms of the walls, so that guests wouldn’t have to lean directly up against the dried mud plaster. Several UNICEF school-in-a-box kits were stacked in the corner.
As we sat cross-legged on the floor, Hamid embarked upon the now routine process of introductions, “This is Elizabeth, she is with New Zealand Aid, this is Afreen – she is a graduate student.”
Elizabeth began her interviews with the staff about teacher-training programs, and I eyed the half-built school through the office’s window. Through the gaping holes that were intended for doors and windows, I saw children sitting on the floor.
“Your school,” Elizabeth said pointing out the window, “When did you begin construction on it?”
“2 years ago,” a teacher replied.
“2 years ago the government gave us 50% of the money we needed to build the school. We’ve been asking them for the second ½ for the past 2 years, and we haven’t received anything.”
“How many students are in your school?” I asked.
“We have 325 students, grades 1 – 9,” the principal responded. That didn’t seem possible, I thought. That school had four rooms, at best. But then I remembered that schools in Afghanistan oftentimes run on shifts. For example, girls would attend in the morning, boys in the afternoon. Or, in this case, grades 5 – 9 mostly likely occurred in the morning, and 1 – 4 in the afternoon.
“How much money did you receive for your first grant?” Elizabeth inquired.
“800,000 Afghanis ($16,000).”
“Well that’s surprising,” Elizabeth whispered to me, “800,000 Afghanis is the full amount they should have received from the Ministry of Education. But some of it usually gets pocketed along the way.”
We asked to see the school, and so the principal led us across the yard. I walked through a hole where a door should have been, into a classroom. The roof was among the unfinished parts of the school – the villagers used leafy branches and plywood to blot out the sun.
We left that classroom, and peeked into another. A dusty red carpet was laid out on the gravel floor. 10 students sat facing a small chalkboard attached to the rough stone wall. The teacher – who looked about 14 – held a book in his hand and wrote the phrase “He plays his flut every day” across the board in chalk.
“This is the problem with EQUIP,” Elizabeth told me, “there are at least 30 schools like that throughout the province. They’ve gone unfinished for years. And it’s because there’s no facilitating partner – no body overseeing the way the Ministry of Education is handing out grants for infrastructure projects.”
EQUIP (Educational Quality Improvement Program), is a comprehensive project to improve education in Afghanistan. It addresses issues such as improving girls’ access to education, human resources development, developing the capacity of the Ministry of Education and provincial education departments, and school construction. Communities apply for funds that are channeled through the Ministry of Education. For infrastructure development grants, EQUIP pays community members to build their community’s school, and a professional engineer oversees the process. Weak financial management by the Ministry, a shortage of staff to construct the schools, and inaccurate budgeting oftentimes prevent these projects from being completed successfully – or within a reasonable time period. Examples such as this unfinished school highlight the fundamental challenge: in attempting to promote governmental autonomy – we risk the loss of public faith in nascent state institutions.
Well it’s impressive nonetheless, I thought as we climbed into our van. These children walked long distances to sit on an uncomfortable gravel floor, in a half-built, roofless building, with teachers that were almost their same age. Deficiencies of government dispensation of aid aside — that kind of commitment to learning was, without question, progress.