How Is UNESCO Helping Make Education in Afghanistan Better?

In 2015, all member states of the United Nations adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals consist of a series of 17 focus areas, actions, and objectives that aim to build a better world for people and the planet by 2030. Education makes the list at number 4, with the specific wording of the SDG calling for all nations to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning.”

Afghanistan has a large youth population (nearly two-thirds of Afghans are under the age of 25) as well as one of the world’s highest illiteracy rates. This means that the country takes the issue of education very seriously. However, decades of conflict and instability have left the nation’s education system in serious disarray. As a result, major improvements to education in Afghanistan is a complex and challenging undertaking.

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This is where partners like UNESCO come in. Since reopening its Kabul office in 2002, UNESCO has been working with the government of Afghanistan and many other organizations and institutions to help the country rebuild and enhance its education system.

UNESCO’s work focuses primarily on broad, large-scale initiatives in the areas of capacity building, sector wide policies, and strategic planning. Over the last few years in particular, UNESCO has been working closely with the Afghan Ministry of Education to support the country’s progress toward achieving SDG 4 by 2030. Some of the specific ways that UNESCO is supporting Afghanistan’s education system include:

1. Translation of SDG Documents

Simple as it may sound, the task of ensuring that materials related to SDG 4 are available in the first languages of the people who will be working with them is a very important one. UNESCO took responsibility for this by supporting the translation of the SDG 4 Framework of Action, also known as the Education 2030 document, from English into Dari and Pashto. Having this vital guiding document available in local languages allows this resource to be much more accessible to all Afghans working in the field of educational development.

2. Support for Technical and Vocational Training

Under the umbrella of its global Capacity Development for Education 2030 (CapED) program, UNESCO has targeted several specific focus areas regarding the enhancement and improvement of education in Afghanistan. One of these is Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET).

In Afghanistan, adults are also in need of educational and skills development opportunities—just as much as children and youth are. TVET-related initiatives help to fill this gap by providing adults, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed, with targeted training that can improve their prospects in the labor market.

Over the past decade, UNESCO has worked closely with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education and other entities. Their goal was to help build and improve the government’s capacity to develop comprehensive strategic plans, make and implement effective policies, and monitor and evaluate specific initiatives around TVET.

Specific projects that UNESCO has supported include the development and rollout of the National TVET Policy Strategy; the creation of a TVET management information system; and the establishment of a National TVET Research Center. It has also engaged with smaller-scale initiatives such as labor market research, the creation of new curricular materials, and the development of quality assurance measures.

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3. Support for Curricular Reform

Afghanistan’s general education curriculum has not been updated in many years as a result of the conflict and instability of recent decades. It is now in serious need of a major revision. In 2015, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education sought the support of UNESCO’s Kabul office for this task.

The government’s particular objective for the revision was to align the curriculum more closely to the country’s employment priorities in order to better prepare Afghan youth for work. To support this goal, UNESCO provided funding under its CapED budget to hold a series of National Curriculum Consultations. These sessions resulted in a sector-wide curriculum reform proposal and plan that was prepared and endorsed in 2016 as well as an updated framework for the existing general education curriculum.

Today, team members from UNESCO and the Ministry of Education are finalizing the curriculum competencies laid out in the new framework. They are also developing the necessary syllabi and related teaching and learning materials.

Most recently, the UNESCO office in Kabul organized an eight-day workshop for senior MoE officials working on the new curriculum details. During the workshop, which was held in April 2019 in New Delhi, India, subject specialists from UNESCO and other partners provided technical leadership and support to the breakout working groups focusing on different curriculum subjects.

Over the course of the workshop, syllabi were discussed and developed for a range of subjects including mathematics, science and technology, social studies, information technology, health and physical activity, and languages. With the support of the subject matter experts, working group participants reviewed and updated the scope and sequence of their particular subject’s curriculum. They also identified the major ideas and achievement objectives for each grade level.

Spotlight on the Afghanistan Project from the Library of Congress

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In 2016, the US Library of Congress celebrated the completion of one of its most significant recent initiatives: the Afghanistan Project. Unfolding over a period of three years, the Afghanistan Project undertook to digitize the library’s various collections relating to Afghanistan, which together comprised thousands of historical, cultural, and scholarly materials spanning more than six centuries. The result is a valuable digital archive that the whole world can enjoy and benefit from. Read on to learn more about this unique project.

Why was the Afghanistan Project launched?

The Library of Congress is home to a huge range of material from and about Afghanistan, including books, manuscripts, photographs, newspapers, maps, and other historically significant items. Much of this material can no longer be found in Afghanistan itself—wars and natural disasters have unfortunately destroyed many treasures from Afghanistan’s cultural heritage—and some unique items and documents don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

The Afghanistan Project was launched to ensure that contemporary Afghans would have access to these important materials that lie at the very heart of Afghan national identity. As one curator of the Afghanistan Project described in an article published by McClatchy DC, national identity is rooted in a country’s cultural history and stories, so when a country loses a record of its past, it also loses a sense of who it is. By restoring important digitized cultural material to Afghanistan—in a process that has become known as “virtual repatriation”—the Afghanistan Project attempts to help restore this vital sense of cultural identity and knowledge.

Image by Doctor Yuri | Flickr

What are some examples of materials from the Afghanistan Project?

A wide variety of material was digitized during the Afghanistan Project, including:

Lithographs—Born in 1780, the British artist and lithographer James Atkinson spent much of his life in India and several years exploring Afghanistan. His book Sketches in Afghanistan (digitized under the Afghanistan Project) is a series of 25 beautiful lithographs based on drawings that Atkinson made of Kabul’s cityscape, mountain scenery in Afghanistan’s remote regions, and significant events from the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Contemporary magazines—The Afghanistan Project digitized an extensive collection of issues of Zhvandūn (or “Life” in English), one of the most popular 20th century magazines in Afghanistan. Launched in May 1949, the progressive magazine published articles in Persian and Pashto on a wide variety of subjects, including literature, history, education, entertainment, and fashion. Publication of Zhvandūn stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s; today, these magazines provide a fascinating and important record of a vanished society.

Illuminated manuscripts—The digitized archive of the Afghanistan Project includes a beautifully preserved illuminated manuscript from the renowned calligrapher Mir Ali Heravi, who was active in the city of Herat in the 16th century. The manuscript features Persian verses praying for the patron’s well-being and prosperity, surrounded by a decorative motif of flowers and vines in blue and gold.

What will happen to the digitized materials?

The digitized collection of the Afghanistan Project, which contains more than 163,000 pages of documents on two hard drives, was presented to two Afghan officials—Minister of Information and Culture Abdul Bari Jahani, and the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University’s executive director Abdul Wahid Wafa—during a special ceremony in September 2016 at the Library of Congress. In total, 10 Afghan institutions received complete sets of the collection to use in their own digital libraries and online repositories: these institutions include the National Library of Afghanistan, the National Archive of Afghanistan, and a number of universities. In addition, the digitized material from the Afghanistan Project is now available to the public through the online World Digital Library, which is a huge digital archive of documents of cultural significance from all over the world.

Who’s behind the Afghanistan Project?

The Afghanistan Project was led by the Library of Congress and financed by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library. Located in Washington, DC, the library offers on-site and online access to the creative record of the United States, as well as to an extensive collection of international materials. The library is also the home of the US Copyright Office and serves as the main research arm of the US Congress.

Created by Andrew Carnegie in 1911, the Carnegie Corporation of New York promotes the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding. In particular, the corporation’s work focuses on issues that Andrew Carnegie deemed to be of vital importance, such as international peace, democracy, and the advancement of knowledge and education.

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What’s next for the Afghanistan Project?

As a result of its success, the Afghanistan Project could serve as a useful blueprint for how to help preserve the history and heritage of other nations whose cultural legacy is under threat from war and conflict. At present, for example, the international cultural heritage community is especially concerned about Syria and Iraq; adopting the Afghanistan Project model could help solve some of the challenges associated with cultural preservation in these countries.

5 Things You Need to Know about the Abu’l Fazl Shrine

If you walk through the bustling bazaar in the recently restored Kabul neighborhood of Murad Khani—whether in person or online via the amazing Preserving Afghan Heritage platform on Google Arts & Culture—you’ll soon spot a distinctive blue minaret rising above the other buildings. This is the Abu’l Fazl Shrine, a beloved Murad Khani landmark and an important place of worship for Shia Muslims. Read on for a look at five fascinating facts about this unique site.

1. The shrine is named for a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

The shrine takes its name from Abbas Abu’l Fazl, an important historical figure who was the son of Ali, the fourth Muslim caliph. A cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali became caliph in 656 and reigned until his assassination in 661. This period, one of the most tumultuous in Muslim history, eventually led to the splitting of Islam into two main sects: Sunnis and Shias. Shia Muslims, who were known as the “party of Ali” in early Islamic history, believed that Ali and his descendants were the rightful leaders of the Islamic community. However, after Ali’s assassination, his main rival, Muawiya, became caliph. When Muawiya’s son Yazid succeeded his father in 680, Ali’s sons, including Hussein, refused to accept the legitimacy of the new caliph, thus creating a division between the two factions.

2. The shrine commemorates a critical event in Muslim history.

The struggle between Ali’s sons and the supporters of Yazid over the question of who should hold leadership in the Islamic community eventually led to one of the most pivotal events in Muslim history: the massacre at Karbala, which took place in 680, the same year that Yazid became caliph. Stories about the event vary, but most accounts agree that Hussein, who was on his way to a city in what is now modern-day Iraq with a fairly small retinue, was set upon near the city of Karbala by Yazid’s much larger army. This army massacred Hussein’s entire party, including his half-brother Abu’l Fazl, and publicly executed Hussein—the shrine of Abu’l Fazl was built in commemoration of the brothers’ deaths. This devastating event permanently cemented the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims and gave rise to the longstanding feelings of betrayal and martyrdom that still persist in the Shia community. (Today, about 15 percent of the global Muslim population is comprised of Shia Muslims.)

3. Many pilgrims visit the shrine during the religious festival of Ashura.

While people worship at the Abu’l Fazl shrine all year round, the shrine sees the largest number of visiting pilgrims during the religious festival of Ashura. An important day for all Muslims, but especially for Shia Muslims, Ashura takes place on the 10th day of Muharram, which is the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

For Shia Muslims, Ashura is a commemoration of the massacre at Karbala, and of the martyrdom of Hussein, in particular. The day itself is marked by prayers, fasting, and many mourning rituals, processions, and passion plays that re-enact Hussein’s death. Some Shias emulate Hussein’s suffering through acts of self-flagellation or bloodletting, although this is increasingly discouraged by some contemporary Shia leaders, who instead urge worshippers to donate blood in recognition of Hussein’s sacrifice.

4. The shrine is important to the Murad Khani community for other reasons.

In addition to being the most sacred site of worship for Shia Muslims in Kabul, the Abu’l Fazl shrine plays an important role in the everyday lives of the residents of Murad Khani. Many people who live in the neighborhood believe that their residence there is intrinsically linked to the continuing health of the shrine and that their lives receive the blessing of the shrine’s power. On a more practical level, the shrine has given rise over the years to a thriving local economy—after the construction of the shrine, a sprawling bazaar sprang up to take advantage of the business brought to the area by the large numbers of visiting pilgrims.

5. The shrine was once saved from destruction by a dream.

The importance of the Abu’l Fazl shrine hasn’t always been recognized, however. According to a local anecdote as described in the 2015 book Religion and Urbanism: Reconceptualizing Sustainable Cities for South Asia, during the 1933-1973 reign of King Zahir Shah, urban planners wanted to destroy the shrine to accommodate a paved road directly through the Murad Khani neighborhood. Fortunately, the king changed his mind after a holy man visited him in his dreams and warned him not to demolish the shrine. The very next morning, the king visited the site and told workers to leave the shrine alone. Community elders often tell this story to illustrate the power the shrine is believed to have, as well the blessings it is said to bring to the neighborhood.