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

Library of Congress

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.

Spotlight on Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization

As Afghanistan works to rebuild after decades of unrest, it will have many challenges to face in the future. Fortunately, the country has access to an invaluable resource that will help it meet those challenges head on: its youth.

In Afghanistan, people under the age of 25 comprise nearly two-thirds of the country’s total population, according to the United Nations Population Fund. And despite—or perhaps because of—the difficult circumstances into which they were born, these youth are proving to be some of the most resilient, resourceful, and determined people on the planet.

As an example of what Afghanistan’s youth can and do achieve when they decide to take their future into their own hands, we should look no further than Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization. One of many Afghan organizations launched and led by young people, this Kabul-based NGO has grown from a movement of young activists in a single province to a country-wide network of passionate young change agents. Read on to learn more about the organization and how it is working to make the world a better place for all Afghans.

What is Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization, and how does it work?

Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization

Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization (ANGO) is a grassroots network that works across Afghanistan to encourage and inspire young people to take an active role in building a better future for themselves and their country. Through long-lasting programs and initiatives that are specifically tailored to youth, ANGO strives to mobilize and empower young people, encourage tolerance and acceptance, and create an engaged and hopeful young generation that is prepared to lead Afghanistan toward a peaceful and prosperous future.

What are ANGO’s beliefs?

A set of core beliefs and principles underlie all of ANGO’s work and activities. They include the following:

Nurturing hope—One perpetual consequence of unrest is a sense of hopelessness among individuals and communities. A desire to revive this lost hope is at the heart of ANGO’s work.

Empowerment—Empowering Afghanistan’s young people is a critical step in creating a future that will inspire pride among all Afghans.

Inclusiveness—A just society is one that listens to and brings together all of its people from all circumstances and walks of life.

Critical awareness—Information and resources are essential tools for analyzing and resolving issues in a peaceful way.

Accountability—ANGO holds itself accountable to its partners and beneficiaries, striving to ensure that projects are carried out to the highest professional standards.

What are the focus areas of ANGO?

ANGO’s activities and programs fall into four key focus areas, each of which is an important reflection of the organization’s beliefs as described above. These focus areas include the following:

Civic engagement and advocacy—ANGO’s civic engagement and advocacy unit works to engage both youth and adults in civic and volunteer programs and events. Engagement in public discourse is a key element of this focus area. By speaking with and to others about the issues that matter to them, young people will learn how to take ownership of them and effect change in a more impactful way.

Citizen journalism—There are many untold stories in Afghanistan, and ANGO is tapping into the power of citizen journalism to shine a light on those hidden tales. ANGO seeks to provide Afghan youth with the media and communications tools and skills that they need to express themselves, share their views and grievances, and make important contributions to public discourse around future development and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Social inclusion—Afghanistan is home to many different groups of people. ANGO’s social inclusion initiatives help people of diverse backgrounds come together, find common ground, and develop a foundation for long-lasting tolerance and peace.

Capacity building—Many Afghan youth have a desire and drive to change things, but need help when it comes to developing the skills and knowledge required for the work. ANGO’s capacity-building activities help to address this gap, providing training in key areas such as leadership, media literacy, civil rights and responsibilities, and the use of information technology.

What kinds of projects does ANGO undertake?

Some examples of specific projects that ANGO undertakes include:

Society of Youth—ANGO maintains Afghanistan’s largest network of volunteers and young leaders, more than 170 people strong. These volunteers take on a wide range of civic engagement projects that include clothing drives, emergency aid support, and tree planting.

Afghan Voices—Established in 2010, Afghan Voices offers key media skills training to the country’s young people. Alumni from the Afghan Voices program have produced media work for organizations such as Global Fund and National Geographic, and have received national and international awards for media, such as documentary films.

60 Second Film Festival—Centered on the theme of peaceful coexistence, the 60 Second Film Festival offers an important platform through which aspiring filmmakers and engaged audiences can come together to share ideas and spark dialogue.