Honors Tea Talk – “Afghanistan and the Path to Peace through Education” – Nov. 12, 2013
On Tuesday, November 12th, Anita McBride, Executive-in-Residence at the School of Public Affairs, was invited to moderate an Honors Tea Talk panel discussion at American University. The panel focused on 3 themes – the importance of education as a path to peace in Afghanistan; raising awareness about the progress made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban; and the challenges that lay ahead during this period of great transition in the country.
The participants included Dr. Hakim Asher, an AU Visiting Scholar and Former Executive Director of the Government Media and Information Center in the Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and Eileen O’Connor, the Public Diplomacy Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Central Asia, an Advisor the U.S. State Department, and who also served as a CNN Network Correspondent in Afghanistan. Also on the panel was Hassina Sherjan, a former SIS student who was born in Afghanistan, and who later founded Aid Afghanistan for Education, which she described as “dedicated to empowering Afghans and rehabilitating the education system in Afghanistan.” Their main goal”, she said, “is to provide primary and secondary education for marginalized Afghans, who were deprived of education during the years of war or do not have access to formal education.”
While in the Afghan government, Dr. Asher led a staff of more than 140 people, and developed trainings to teach them how to communicate public policy with the new media presence in the country. Dr. Asher said that a new government is the key to a new era for Afghanistan. He said “the Afghan people understand the need for political transformation”, and, are “invested in their future.” He emphasized that young Afghans without education can easily join the Taliban, and that Afghanistan still lacks skilled professionals and administrative systems essential for a stronger nation. “Education is especially critical in the hard to reach rural villages,” he said, as they that lack resources to teach job skills.
O’Connor talked about how educational programs support the U.S. foreign policy goal of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists again. There are 8 million children in school today, while before the fall of the Taliban there were only 900,000 children in school, almost exclusively boys. Today, 40% of children in schools in Afghanistan are girls. She also said that the United States is working to educate the population as a whole on how to participate in government – a freedom that they did not have before the fall of the Taliban. Today, twenty-five percent of the parliament members in Afghanistan are women. In 2001, there was only one television station and one radio station in Afghanistan, and now there are 75 television stations and 150 radio stations. This increase in media, along with freedom of speech and freedom of press, has drastically changed the lives of the Afghan people. Eileen said that cell phones in the country went from 10,000 in 2001 to 20 million today, and that cell phones are a vehicle for delivering objective information to the people of Afghanistan. “The U.S. is also working with the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan,” she said, “to increase the number of community colleges, providing technical skills to a population where 60% are under 26 years old, and in need of education and employment.”
Sherjan, whose family escaped Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion in 1979, has witnessed great change in her native country. While pleased that there are many more students in schools these days, sees the need for reform for the education system in Afghanistan. She emphasized that you cannot have a democracy without an educated population. Her organization, Aid Afghanistan for Education, has produced 1009 high school graduates, 10% of which have been admitted to universities, and 5% of which are employed. She said that many women are urged by their often-illiterate husbands to go to school. By the mothers going to school, one of the parents is able to help the children with homework, and it vastly improves family home life. She stressed that Americans and other nations should not throw away the investments that they have made so far, because they have done so much to help with progress for the Afghan people.
O’Connor agreed that education reform is necessary, and that teachers are currently being trained how to teach critical thinking rather than just theory and memorization. These critical thinking skills will help children and adults become freethinkers in a democratic society, especially if approached with extremist rhetoric.
Anita stressed that the conclusion that the connection between education and peace is fundamental to progress for the Afghan people and that we can build upon the foundation that has been laid in the years to come. She commented that we have seen how a country can be destroyed overnight, but it takes years, if not decades to rebuild. She said “the infrastructure of Afghanistan was decimated and impacted by 30 years of war, it will take much longer to rebuild, and the world must be patient as the nation regains its footing.”
The event was an incredible success! The panel members each had such highly informed viewpoints on the state of education, peace and security in Afghanistan. The Tea Talk paved the way for further discussion on these topics, and came on the eve of a high level event at Georgetown University on November 15th, with Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, and a number of organizations focused on supporting the Afghan people during this time of transition.