Education has been one of the barometers of development and recovery in Afghanistan. Besides being economically necessary, greater enrollment in all levels of education indicates a degree of societal stability absent from the region for more than a decade. The education sector has been a prime target for aid and also criticism.
According to UNICEF, 40 percent of Afghanistan’s children are not in school. Globally, of the estimated 109.2 million children (between 6 and 15 years old) living in conflict areas nearly 24 million are out of school.
UNICEF Chief of Education Jo Bourne said in a press release that “Children living in countries affected by conflict have lost their homes, family members, friends, safety, and routine. Now, unable to learn even the basic reading and writing skills, they are at risk of losing their futures and missing out on the opportunity to contribute to their economies and societies when they reach adulthood.”
There are countries with higher rates of out of school children (51 percent in South Sudan, 47 in Niger, and 41 percent in Sudan) but none in which the United States has spent nearly as many billions in aid. Although UNICEF says education is one of the least funded sectors in humanitarian aid, in Afghanistan considerable sums have been spent on education initiatives (through these pale in comparison to the costs of the war).
Education has been touted by aid agencies as an area of grand accomplishment in Afghanistan. USAID’s website notes that in 2002, there were an estimated 900,000 boys in school–girls and women largely excluded. “Today, more than 8 million students are enrolled in school, including more than 2.5 million girls.”
While those numbers indicate a massive accomplishment, last summer the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) cast doubts on the accuracy of USAID’s data. In May, SIGAR John Sopko delivered a speech on the difficulties of assessing data and the importance of parsing fact from fantasy with regard to U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. I wrote then:
In another area, schools and education, Sopko says that we don’t really know what’s going on–how many students there are or even what they are being taught. USAID has spent over $750 million on education programs in the country but the Afghan Ministry of Education keeps questionable records. “For one thing, they are not independently verified.” Their data is also oddly calculated. The ministry reported in 2014 that 8.35 million students were enrolled, 6.6 million were “present” and 1.55 million “absent.” However, “the ministry counts absent students as ‘enrolled’ for up to three years before dropping them from the rolls.”
“That’s right: a student who has not attended school in nearly three years is still considered as ‘enrolled.’ That’s like saying a spouse who packed up and left three years ago is still committed to you.”
A few months later, SIGAR released a report aiming a skeptical eye on the $769 million that has been spent on Afghanistan’s education sector by USAID. Warren Ryan, a spokesperson for SIGAR, told VICE News that there was no clear way to figure out how much of those millions went to legitimate programs and how much went to “ghost schools.” With poverty and insecurity rampant, there are significant and varied barriers to Afghan children obtaining a fully education.
Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world, with an estimated 41 percent under the age of 14, nearly 64 percent under the age of 24 (according to the CIA World Factbook). That means there are over 13 million children under the age of 14 in Afghanistan. It’s understandable to both celebrate any achievement in the education sector while also scrutinizing the data and following the money.