These 5 Organizations Want to Boost Literacy in Afghanistan

Development organizations all over the world point to literacy as one of the leading factors in helping individuals and societies build a better future. Improved literacy rates in emerging economies are linked to a broad range of other positive outcomes, including improved health, better earnings or economic progress, and increased political and civil society participation. Indeed, literacy is so important in the modern world that UNESCO has declared it to be a fundamental human right.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for nations to prioritize literacy in the face of significant obstacles. In Afghanistan, for example, decades of civil conflict have left the country with one of the world’s lowest literacy rates. According to current estimates, fewer than one in three adult Afghans (over the age of 15) can read and write.

In response to this, many organizations and individuals have launched initiatives, both large and small, aimed at boosting literacy rates in Afghanistan. Read on to learn about five of these projects.

  1. UNESCO – Enhancement of Literacy Afghanistan

UNESCO logoUNESCO is by far the largest organization focused on literacy in Afghanistan. Through its flagship literacy program, known as Enhancement of Literacy Afghanistan (ELA), UNESCO has partnered with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education to implement large-scale literacy, numeracy, and vocational skills development programs across all 34 Afghan provinces. ELA was first launched in 2008, and it has received financial support from a number of international sources including the Government of Japan, the Swedish International Cooperation Agency, and the Government of Finland.

To date, ELA has been implemented in three different phases. The first, which took place between 2008 and 2010, was a pilot program that was initiated in Bamiayan province’s capital city and then expanded to nine additional provinces. The second phase (2011-2013) included nine more provinces and added targeted market-demanded vocational skills training. The third phase (2014-2016) expanded the program’s offerings to reach a total of 600,000 individuals across Afghanistan.

  1. UNESCO – Literacy for Empowerment of Afghan Police (LEAP)

In addition to the large-scale ELA literacy program described above, UNESCO operates a number of targeted literacy initiatives. Among these is the Literacy for Empowerment of Afghan Police (LEAP) program. The LEAP program was launched in 2011 with the goal of using literacy training to help boost the quality of policing in Afghanistan.

The first phase of the program focused on developing and delivering literacy training materials for 500 police literacy facilitators. The second phase expanded the training to reach additional Afghan police officers. The LEAP program has also been working with the Ministry of the Interior’s Literacy Department to build long-term institutional capacity for creating, supporting, and enhancing police literacy through initiatives like training workshops and special literacy publications geared towards newly-literate members of the police force.

  1. Mercy Corps – Literacy and Math Education Program

mercycorpslogoLiteracy initiatives don’t always have to be big to be effective. The international humanitarian and development organization Mercy Corps has been working in Afghanistan since 1986, supporting projects in areas ranging from agricultural development to renewable energy.

In 2002, the organization made a new commitment: to provide literacy and math instruction to members of its own staff in northern Afghanistan. As senior program manager Joerg Denker explained at the time, in its ongoing mission to support Afghan citizens, it was important for Mercy Corps not to forget about its own employees.

The literacy and math classes proved tremendously successful, reaching dozens of Mercy Corps employees. The organization had plans to expand the program to include more people from the local community and to offer English classes in addition to the other subjects.

  1. The Institute for Cross-Cultural Exchange – Share Literacy Afghanistan

ICCElogoThe basis of literacy education is having appropriate materials for students to read. However, access to books can be a challenge in remote or rural Afghanistan. That’s where the Institute for Cross-Cultural Exchange (ICE) comes in. A Canadian charity dedicated to fostering learning and understanding among different cultures, ICE works with a number of groups in Afghanistan to distribute books to schools, orphanages, and libraries around the country.

The group doesn’t provide just any books: one of ICE’s partners is Hoopoe Books for Children. This is the educational non-profit publisher of (among many other titles) beautifully illustrated traditional Afghan children’s stories assembled by Afghan author Idries Shah. Through a special arrangement with Hoopoe Books, ICE is able to offer copies in the Dari and Pashto languages to children all over Afghanistan. For the vast majority of these young readers, this will be the first book they have ever owned.

  1. Captain Edward Zellem – Book of Afghan Proverbs

Like the Institute for Cross-Cultural Exchange, US Navy Captain Edward Zellem is also hoping that simple and relevant material will help give many Afghans their first taste of literacy. Zellem is the author of “Zarbul Masalha: 151 Dari Proverbs,” a collection of proverbs that he collected as a personal hobby during his deployment in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011.

After compiling the proverbs, Zellem approached art students from a high school in Kabul to illustrate them. The volume was later published by Karwan Press in Kabul through a grant from the US State Department. Today, the books are distributed to rural communities and high schools as part of several programs that aim to preserve and promote Afghan culture.

Spotlight on the Role of Music in Afghan Culture

Positioned at the crossroads between the Indian subcontinent, central Asia, and Iran, Afghanistan has always been something of a meeting and mingling place for different cultures. Almost every aspect of Afghanistan’s own cultural heritage, from the country’s cuisine to its architecture, reflects this long-standing influence of different traditions, and its music is no exception. Read on to learn more about the role of music in Afghanistan, including a history of the country’s musical development and a look at some traditional Afghan instruments.

What role does music play in Afghan culture?

Afghan music

Image by World Bank | Flickr

The meaning of music in Afghan culture is more narrowly defined than it is in the Western musical tradition. In Afghanistan, traditional music is always secular rather than religious; it is primarily an instrumental form with only some use of the voice; and while it is sometimes performed by amateur musicians, the main performers of traditional music are professional musicians.s

It’s important to note here that what differentiates a professional from an amateur musician is not professionalism or skill, but the birthright and level of musical education that come from being born into a family of musicians. In this sense, being a professional musician is a hereditary concept in traditional Afghan culture. What this means is that many things that would be considered music by a Western audience, such as lullabies for children or folk songs, are not thought of as formal music by many Afghans.

This is not to say that folk songs and regional melodies are unimportant in Afghan culture. On the contrary, Afghanistan’s diverse regions have a rich history of folk music that has been profoundly influenced by the musical styles, genres, and instruments of their neighbors, including Iran, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. For example, the folk music of western Afghanistan is very closely related to Iran’s folk traditions, while many of the folk songs in northern Afghanistan are sung in Tajiki, Uzbek, or a mixture of the two languages.

Music in Afghanistan’s recent history

Afghanistan’s long-standing musical history covers a wide spectrum from simple folk songs on one side to court musicians playing in the classical music tradition of Kabul on the other. This changed, however, in the mid-20th century. Young students who were exposed to Western music began bringing some of those instruments and styles to an Afghan audience. The period from the 1950s to the 1970s has become known as a “Golden Age” of music in Afghanistan, when a unique style mixing classical Afghan and regional folk instruments with Western instruments was developed by musicians playing for the national orchestra on Radio Afghanistan, the government radio station that served as the unifying voice of the nation during this period.

During Afghanistan’s conflict years, which began with the Soviet invasion in 1979, many musicians fled the country, and music was widely banned. Recently, however, Afghanistan has been experiencing what many are calling an “International Age” of music. Afghan artists and the general public alike now have access to international music through the Internet, satellite radio, and television. At same time, they are rediscovering their musical heritage and reviving traditions that date back to the Golden Age of music and beyond. A wonderful example of this new musical tradition is the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), a school specializing in music training in both Afghan and Western traditions, led by an international faculty.

An inventory of traditional Afghan musical instruments

Part of ANIM’s mission has been to revive the use of and appreciation for traditional Afghan musical instruments. These include:

The rabab or rubab—The national instrument of Afghanistan, the rabab or rubab is a type of double-chambered lute carved from a single piece of wood. A membrane covers the hollow bowl of the sound-chamber, and there are over 20 strings, including melody strings, drone strings, and sympathetic strings. Traditionally, the rabab is made from mulberry or rosewood, the membrane is of goat skin, and the strings are gut strings, although nylon is now more commonly used. The origins of the rabab can be traced back to the 7th century in central Afghanistan; the instrument is featured in many folk songs and classical melodies, and is often referred to as the “lion of instruments.”

The ghichak—This two-stringed fiddle has a body made from a large metal tin, giving the instrument a distinctive sound. Played with a horsehair bow called a kaman, the ghichak is popular in Afghanistan’s central and northern regions.

The tula—This wooden flute is one of the simplest instruments in Afghanistan’s musical tradition. Its frontal plane features six finger holes, while a single thumbhole is located on the dorsal plane.

The tabla—The principal percussion instrument in traditional Afghan music as well as in classical music from northern India, the tabla are a pair of hand-played wooden drums that can be tuned to different precise pitches.

Afghans Need Better Eye Care – These 3 Charities Can Help

When weighed against Afghanistan’s many other priorities – like rebuilding critical infrastructure, improving education and literacy, and ensuring adequate nutrition for all citizens, to name just a few – the question of eye care and vision health might not seem to be a particularly pressing issue. And yet, the numbers tell another story.

WHOlogoAccording to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 400,000 Afghans are blind, and an additional 1.5 million have some degree of visual impairment. But what’s truly shocking is the following statistic: WHO estimates that 80 percent of these cases of blindness would be avoidable if proper eye care facilities could be established and maintained.

In this respect, Afghanistan’s story is typical of the state of vision care in many developing nations. With limited facilities and few trained professionals, even conditions that are easily treatable can result in permanent vision damage and eventual blindness.

For example, in Afghanistan, the majority of instances of blindness (60 percent) is caused by cataracts (a clouding of the eye’s natural lens). Cataracts can be corrected by a very simple outpatient procedure. However, at present, Afghanistan only has the capacity to perform about 15,000 cataract surgeries per year. This leaves a backlog of approximately 200,000 cataract patients, many of whom live in rural areas.

Fortunately, a number of charitable organizations have made it a priority to improve the state of vision care in Afghanistan. Read on to learn more about three of them.

  1. The Fred Hollows Foundation

What it is:

FredHollowsFoundationThe Fred Hollows Foundation is an Australia-based, international development organization dedicated to eliminating avoidable blindness. It was founded by Fred Hollows, an ophthalmologist who passed away in 1993, and his wife.

The Fred Hollows Foundation now works in more than 25 different countries, pursuing Fred’s vision of a world in which no one is needlessly blind and everyone has access to quality and affordable eye care. To date, the Foundation has restored sight to more than 2 million people.

What it does in Afghanistan:

The Fred Hollows Foundation has been working in Afghanistan since 2006. At present, the Foundation has two major projects in the country. The first is the University Eye Hospital Project. Conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Higher Education, the Kabul Medical University, and the Kabul University Eye Hospital, it is aimed at increasing the number of skilled and trained eye care professionals in Afghanistan and building the public health system’s capacity to address eye health issues.

The second is the Afghanistan School Eye Screening Project. It aims to reduce high rates of childhood blindness in some of Afghanistan’s rural regions through education and awareness-building initiatives about childhood eye disease. In the future, the Fred Hollows Foundation hopes to work with the government of Afghanistan to coordinate, plan, and implement a national plan of action for improving the country’s eye health sector.

  1. CharityVision

What it is:

CharityVisionLogoA US-based non-profit organization, CharityVision’s mission is to restore vision to people in developing nations. Founded in 1986, the organization has provided more than 375,000 charitable surgeries over the years to prevent cases of needless blindness. Today, CharityVision operates worldwide, performing about 36,000 sight-related procedures every year, and working with local networks in more than 25 countries.

What it does in Afghanistan:

In Afghanistan and the other countries in which it operates, CharityVision uses a charitable model that is all about empowering local physicians and health practitioners. The organization partners with local doctors and care professionals, providing them with surgical equipment, supplies, and other resources and support free of charge.

In turn, the physicians provide their talent and time for such procedures as screenings or sight-restoring surgeries at no cost to the patients. This leads to a stronger local medical community and a robust network of health service systems that ensures that all patients in need can receive charitable surgeries free of charge.

  1. The International Assistance Mission (IAM)

What it is:

IAMlogoFounded in 1966 (the organization’s original name was the International Afghan Mission), IAM is one of the longest continually-serving NGOs in Afghanistan. Although IAM’s present focus areas include development, education, and general health initiatives, the majority of its work over the years has concentrated on eye care and vision health (at the request of the Afghan government).

What it does in Afghanistan:

The NOOR program – National Organization for Ophthalmic Rehabilitation – is IAM’s longest-running initiative. It was launched, along with the organization itself, in 1966 in partnership with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health. At present, the NOOR eye care program is the main provider of eye care in the country.

The program operates three referral hospitals: the NOOR Eye Care Training Center in Kabul, the Mazar Ophthalmic Center, and the Kandahar NOOR Eye Hospital. These are key hubs for the provision of affordable vision care. With the additional goal of building Afghanistan’s internal capacity for treating vision problems, NOOR also provides logistical support and financial oversight to two other hospitals, the Ministry of Public Health’s Central Polyclinic in Kabul, and the Ophthalmic Center in Herat.