Afghanistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. Out of a total population of almost 24 million, more than 11 million Afghans over age 15 cannot read or write. And in rural areas where three-fourths of all Afghans live, 90 percent of women and more than 60 percent of men are illiterate.
Eighteen-year-old Muzamil was once armed and recruited by local commanders as a fighter. After enrolling in an accelerated learning class with eight other students, he has traded his gun for a pen and a notebook.
"It is not time for fighting," said Muzamil, who's last name is withheld for privacy purposes. "It is time to study and build the country and help the people of Afghanistan." He thanked USAID for establishing the class and paving the way for education in his village.
Though the statistics are dismal now, literacy is getting attention from the highest levels in the Afghan government. In September, President Hamid Karzai, attending an event to mark progress on increasing literacy rates in his country, cried openly as he called on Afghans to "come to their senses" and move towards peace, or risk seeing the next generation flee abroad and lose their Afghan identity.
"Only through our efforts can our homeland be ours," he said.
The upshot is that the country's officials and education advocates believe literacy, numeracy, and work skills programs—many of them run by USAID— ultimately can translate into improved livelihoods for Afghan women and men.
The United States is a major contributor to literacy education in Afghanistan, providing technical and financial support to the Ministry of Education (MoE) and working closely with other international stakeholders to achieve national education goals. One of the goals is to ensure that by 2020, children throughout the country, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.
With USAID assistance, the Afghan government has made strides in its literacy push during the past five years. One example is USAID's Learning for Community Empowerment Program, a five-year joint USAID/MoE project that provides reading and work skills training to 250,000 illiterate youth and adults in rural and urban settings in 20 provinces of Afghanistan.
"Bringing the skills to read is one of the most important gifts we can bring to Afghans," said Education Minister Ghulam Farooq Wardak. "Our work with the international community to fight illiteracy is one of the single most important causes around which all Afghans can unite."
In additional to literacy, USAID's education program is helping the Afghan government improve education quality, while also aiming to meet the urgent need for textbooks, school buildings, and trained teachers. Programs are also expanding access to basic and higher education, literacy, and employment skills training.
"USAID, beginning in 2002, put substantial resources in the educational sector," said former Mission Director William Frej, who counts an exponential jump in school enrollment since that time as one of the Agency's major accomplishments in the country.
Since 2002, and in conjunction with the MoE, USAID has built or refurbished more than 680 schools throughout Afghanistan. As a result, nearly 7 million students—37 percent of them girls—are now enrolled in primary and secondary schools, compared with fewer than 900,000 boys and no girls enrolled in 2001 under the Taliban.
In an interview with FrontLines last summer, Frej described taking one of the last trips of his tenure to visit a small village in Bamyan province, around 10,000 feet up in the Hindu-Kush mountains and nearly a four- hour-long trip in a jeep from the city of Bamyan through an isolated valley. There he witnessed children of both sexes hard at work learning to read. It was a scene that would have never been possible during the six years of Taliban rule.
"I was struck at this completely isolated village, and there were both boys and girls in a classroom that had a trained teacher—learning math, learning reading skills, learning English," he said, adding that USAID and its implementing partner on the project were the only development groups who had ever visited that particular village.
To help get students up to speed who could not attend school when the Taliban was in power, USAID introduced Afghans to an accelerated learning project, which allowed 170,000 students to complete two years of study in one year.
USAID also supports the MoE's in-service teacher education program for more than 50,000 teachers in 11 provinces to improve teacher quality. To date, USAID projects have trained nearly 10,500 teachers in an accelerated learning program and more than 2,600 university professors on modern teaching methods.
The Agency is also building two large secondary schools in Kabul, six education facilities at Afghan universities to train secondary school teachers, and three provincial teacher training colleges around the country.
In remote areas where government schools are not yet established, USAID's community-based education project supports 43,800 students each year. Partners recruit volunteers from the community to be teachers. After receiving six weeks of training and some textbooks, the volunteer teachers begin teaching with coordination and monitoring by the MoE. Depending on the location, classes are often held behind mosques, in backyards of large homes and buildings, and even under trees.
The country's university system is working to regain its reputation from the 1970s as among the strongest in the region when there were several universities with an international perspective, strong faculty, and good reputation. USAID is working with the education ministry to improve pre-service secondary teacher education at 18 universities and medical education at five medical schools, and has helped more than 100 professors obtain master's degrees in agriculture, business administration, engineering, and computer science at U.S. universities. Afghans are developing their own master's degree programs in education, public policy and administration, and public health.
And vocational education hasn't been slighted. Through the Skills Training for Afghan Youth project, USAID funds the Afghanistan Technical Vocational Institute in Kabul, a coeducational vocational school that provides a two-year post-secondary program in fields needed to support Afghanistan's economic growth. Current enrollment is 2,300 students. Graduates go on to technical jobs in the construction trades, information and communication technology, and computer programming.
USAID's concerted effort, beginning in early 2002, to channel "substantial resources" into the country's education sector through diversity of education programs may just become the U.S. government's lasting legacy in Afghanistan, according to former Mission Director Frej and others.
"This has been a remarkable transformation in this country, which I think will have a long-term positive impact on Afghanistan by engaging women in a process that they had no opportunities [to engage in] before," said Frej.
USAID's education director, David Barth, called USAID's work getting children, particularly girls, into school "a virtual miracle," and an investment that will increase its value over time. "You're not going to have viable democracies unless you've got people who can read and understand, who will know how to distinguish between political parties, who are then capable of meaningful participation in civil society," he said.
The message seems to be getting through to local Afghans. When 24-year-old Wahida (her last name withheld for security reasons), wanted to become a teacher at a nearby high school for girls, her brother objected because "girls of this village only perform household chores and nothing else." However, the village elder convinced the brother that the opportunity would benefit Wahida and other women.
"People of our village do not understand that women and men have an equal right to study. It is the responsibility of people like you and me to take initiative and make girls' education available and eliminate illiteracy," explained the elder.
Last updated: October 14, 2014